“Would you like some mezcal?”
This is how Mexican chef Santiago Lastra greets me as I enter a cramped kitchen in North West London. I squeeze in next to a stainless steel table, while sous chefs buzz around me, preparing duck hearts, pistachio mole, and blue corn bowls for a small dinner Lastra is holding tonight, ahead of his five-course Day of the Dead feast in a few days time. Lastra, amid this chaos, carefully pours two small wine glasses (um, OK) of the booze. I accept the offer, enthusiastically.
This cold October day in London may have begun in a stereotypically Mexican fashion, but Lastra’s cooking is far from archetypal. His upcoming Day of the Dead dinner, taking place on Halloween, mixes traditional Mexican dishes with British produce. Think tamales with pumpkin and tortillas made using wheat from Scotland.
“I have been cooking since I was 15,” Lastra tells me as we sip our mezcal. “I got into cooking because I saw this packet with a recipe on it, and I was like, ‘OK I'm going to make that.’ Then it became an obsession.”
“But then,” he adds, “it's kind of a sad story. My father, grandmother, and grandfather passed away in the same month when I was 15, and I was like, ‘I'm not going to school.’”
Understandably, the Day of the Dead, or Día de Muertos, holds special relevance for Lastra. Celebrated in Mexico every year at the end of October, the ancient festival honours deceased loved ones.
“But then I decided to go to a restaurant that I had started working at a month before,” Lastra continues. “I was bringing food home, and my mother and my brother were super happy, and I just thought: ‘I'm gonna do this.’”
From this moment, Lastra knew he had to become a chef.
“I just wanted to make people happy, so I just wanted to be the best in the world—the best that you can be, you know?” he explains. “I worked while I was going to school. You have a lot of energy if you don't have a girlfriend!”
Jokes aside, Lastra has always been serious about his culinary ambitions. After working at a restaurant in his small hometown an hour outside Mexico City, he moved to Spain to cook at the Michelin-starred Mugaritz in San Sebastian. From there, he gained a scholarship to the prestigious Basque Culinary school, before moving to Copenhagen to cook at Bror.
But then, after ten years, Lastra became tired of cooking other people’s recipes.
“I worked for ten years without making my food, just working for someone else,” he tells me, recounting stories of demanding chefs who would shout at him if their recipes weren’t executed perfectly. “After that, something happened. I went to Sweden with a friend, and we cooked a meal for 20 people that was our food.”
“The idea was to make Mexican food, but we didn't have any Mexican ingredients. So, on the train, we were like, ‘OK, we don't have any Mexican ingredients, so let's just use the local things, and make it taste Mexican.' We made this menu and it was super successful.”
So successful, that Lastra would go on to run Noma’s seven-week pop-up restaurant in Tulum with René Redzepi.
Making Mexican dishes with ingredients native to the country he is cooking in has come to define Lastra’s food. The chef has now hosted dinners everywhere from Taiwan and Russia to Italy, Spain, and France.
The London Day of the Dead feast is no different. On the menu is a crab and mezcal chilpachole: a traditional Mexican seafood broth that Lastra makes with British crabs, and serves alongside a blue corn toast, pistachio mole (instead of guacamole), and more crab meat. There’s also a “tostada” in the shape of a skull, served with black pudding, lentils, Jerusalem artichokes, pickled rosehip flowers, and er, duck hearts (the most goth dish by far).
“The courses are not 100-percent Day of the Dead food, because that would be food that the dead like to eat,” Lastra explains. “But we are using some Mexican concepts, like making tamales for the dessert made with pumpkin, and using some of the amazing seasonal ingredients in the UK with Mexican flavours.”
Lastra’s amalgamation of Mexican cuisine and what he describes as “underrated” British food is one of the reasons he has decided to open his first restaurant in London. It must also help, from a business perspective at least, that the capital has a dearth of Mexican-run restaurants. Why does Lastra think this is?
“There is a lack of Mexicans and Mexican communities of cooks in the world in general,” he says. “The immigrants, they're mostly concentrated in the States, because to go to Europe is really expensive, and also most of the Mexicans in other countries have senior jobs. They come with a visa.”
There’s also the issue of sourcing Mexican produce outside of the country.
“Because we have so many amazing ingredients in Mexico, the very good chefs stay in Mexico,” Lastra says. “I think there's a market for that because people really like Mexican food here. It's amazing! The door is open.”
Lastra’s Day of the Dead dinner gives a small insight into the kind of dishes he hopes to introduce British diners to. Plus, a dark October night seems perfect for celebrating the deceased with duck hearts, blood, (and tostadas).
“Hospitality is the most important thing for us,” Lastra concludes. “[The dinner] is about hospitality that goes to the other world.”