At the age of 15 (now 28), Santiago Lastra, not knowing what to expect from his future life, bought his first cookbook. Since then, his life has been entirely connected with culinary art. Santiago has traveled all over the world; he graduated from the Basque Culinary Center in Spain, and interned with iconic Danish, Spanish and French chefs. Today, Santiago leads the NOMA Mexico project, popularizing Mexican gastronomic traditions in London, and explores the question of nixtamalization in the Scandinavian food laboratory. He is a big fan of seasonality and local products. PostEat sat down with Santiago Lastra during Chef Congress Fontegro Ukraine 2018, and we are happy to share the highlights of our interview below.
First steps as a cook
At the beginning of my career, I used to experiment with food, mix unmixable things, and not thinking of such obvious things as local products. It stands to mention, though, that all these tryouts were by no means successful. Nowadays, I have decided to change my approach completely: I simply create very delicious seasonal food, based for the most part on vegetables, like pot with rice, pasta, and risotto.
About goals and awards
Stars, or any other awards, are definitely not among my goals. Having one star is good for the team of a restaurant, because it means that their work has been and is being recognized. So the team is empowered and proud. For me, the highest and most important award is that of happy and proud people who work with me. At the end of the day, my goal is to make a successful business, where everyone is happy.
On a global scale, I aspire to change the world community’s current perception of the Mexican cuisine. Nowadays, people view traditional Mexican food as something cheap and junky, with nothing else but burritos or tacos to offer. This is devastating, because today there are so many creative individuals in Mexico — incredible craft makers, making our culture one of the richest and most diverse in the world. Therefore, I am trying to do my best in making a showcase out of their potential. The more I can highlight this, the happier I am – or, will be.
Additionally, I want to focus on developing my own projects and restaurants. I want to find the best way to fuse British and Mexican gastronomy and, for sure, I also hope to upscale my skills, develop a deeply personal style of cooking, and improve the taste of food I cook. That is the objective for the moment.
About work with Rene Redzepi
During the whole history of humanity, people have searched for new tastes and unique ingredients. The British, for instance, used the spices imported from India in their traditional foods. However, what Rene and NOMA have done is that they have changed the way we perceive locally available foods, enhancing our respect for what surrounds us. They taught us to value and understand the quality of local produce.
From my personal experience, it is incredible to come back to my homeland and take a new look at its culinary traditions. I am from Mexico. I have been living out of my country for six years, and have actually never thought to return. Moreover, I really did not think there is anything interesting there. It was Rene, who has showed me the way to re-discover my own food culture, not only the food I value tremendously. I honestly got obsessed with discovering Mexico’s culinary traditions, trying to dig deeper, to find better produce, to meet the people cultivating some great local ingredients.
For example, people all over the world today talk about avocados. Everybody loves them. Avocado is a key ingredient in the Mexican cuisine. So when I see an avocado, I get excited, because I am able to rediscover my country from an international perspective. It is something very important.
About his life in the UK
I currently live in the United Kingdom, where I continue to discover new ingredients and combinations. Although the UK is very rich and stable country in terms of its history, heritage and food, it is very much influenced by the ingredients from different countries and the culinary traditions from all over the world. What we can see today is an increasing cultural diversity in Britain; people dilute traditional culture, and do not take into account what they have around them. It is worthwhile noticing, however, that many chefs today have started to rediscover the local culinary heritage, and some companies have gone back to the roots and to nature as their starting point. There is an enormous potential in England; every day I get more excited about this place, because it will definitely evolve further. Moreover, I adore British seasonality! The use of seasonal ingredients is a great opportunity for me to evolve and develop my cooking techniques.
Speaking of culinary trends, I would say that local culture is “a big one” today; but, you cannot improve traditions without innovation. What I mean by “innovation”, though, is not inventing new technology. “Innovation” in terms of food practices, is understanding what “food” is all about and developing your own cultural personality towards and from it.
I think in Ukraine “local produce” is also a buzzword. I wish I would have had more time to spend in this country. I have only visited Stolichniy market, the Chefs’ Congress Fontegro Ukraine 2018, and a few restaurants, which were incredible. I wish I would have had more time for understanding the local culinary traditions. Moreover, I find the people in Ukraine very kind, open and friendly. The quality of food is high, and the ingredients are very good and rich in taste. That is a proud nation, which is bound to open its very own Gastrolaboratory here.
The funny part of the work
Our work is full of droll situation. Some time ago, I have worked in a restaurant in Cancun. Once we have ordered eight kilos of French blue cheese for a dressing. One of the team members threw the cheese away, though, because he thought it was “moldy”. Can you imagine, eight kilos of good-quality French blue cheese being tossed away? That was funny; but, probably not for the man in question.
by Yaroslava Honchar, editor: Ziva Kokolj
Photo by lliya Volkov
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