Santiago Lastra Rodriguez just arrived to London to share his passion for cooking through a 3 days long stunt at the Tate from 28-30 July. This young Mexican chef, who left Mexico to learn from the world’s best chefs, returned to Mexico last winter exploring it again with different eyes together with Rene Redzepi during his Mexican adventure for Noma Mexico. Today is Santiago sharing the first part of his story – his beginnings. Next week he will talk about his Mexican experience with Rene Redzepi.
How and where did you start cooking?
I was born in Mexico City, but I’m actually from a small place 1 hour from there called Cuernavaca.
My mother didn’t cook because she was always super busy working, taking care of my father and trying to create a better life for my brother and me … My only contact with traditional home cooking was at friend’s homes which I visited after school. My friends’ mothers and grandmothers created amazing meals – it was fascinating for me seeing and tasting the differences of cooking between my friends’ families…
But it wasn’t until I was 15 that I got an idea for a cooking recipe of a crab dip that was in the back of a box of Ritz cookies. That’s how I got my first cooking experience. I still lively remember that moment: I was in a supermarket and I though: “Why not?” I bought all the ingredients and it took me ages to chop everything and serve it but at the end it was great ! Everybody liked it, so I took care that we always had that dip in the fridge. My next step was buying a small Italian recipe book and later I started working in a small Italian restaurant swiping floors and making salads. I worked there to see if I liked it. 15 is an age when you start making your life choices – I always thought I would study maths – I was taking part in competitions etc. But as soon as I got into that kitchen and had my first task I knew I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay in the kitchen forever and become the best I can ..
Why and when did you leave Mexico?
After a couple of years at that Italian restaurant and 1 year swapping between here and there in Cuernavaca, I finally turned 18 and finished high school. All I wanted is to go to a culinary school; but I didn’t have money for that, so I moved to Mexico City to work as a Chef the partie in a restaurant headed by a very good Mexican chef Josefina Santacruz. Through her I met Chef Juantxo Sanchez who offered me a job in a restaurant in Pamplona, Spain. His restaurant Europa (1 Michelin star) was specialised in very traditional northern Spanish food. It was the place where I learnt a lot and managed to save money for my university. My dream has always been to travel the world. My grandfather was Spanish and for me having a chance to go there was such an honour. After this valuable experience I returned to Mexico to study. After finishing my studies I left again with a desire to work with the best chefs on Earth … Now I’m here in Europe with another dream: I want to share my culture …
I always had different reasons for being abroad – these reasons keep changing and developing based on my growth, experiences and knowledge. I love Mexico and I’m very proud to be Mexican. I love sharing a bit of that passion with people around the world trough food, Mezcal or just a smile.
What did you learn while cooking abroad?
I discovered that the idea of Mexico and Mexican food is really confused around the world; and this makes it underrated. There are several factors causing this – one of the reasons are massive all inclusive resorts in the Mexican Caribbean beaches where the food served is not authentic, so guests don’t really get to taste the real Mexico (even though that’s changing slowly nowadays).
To really understand the Mexican food you need to immerse yourself deep into our culture and the small villages. My experience is that people these days want something different, something authentic and they love Mexico when they get to know it better. I don’t cook the traditional Mexican food outside my country, what I’m doing is travelling with the soul and memories of it. This way you develop a different approach to the ingredients that people usually eat in a specific way – I am using the ingredients which are local in the country of my travel, but my approach to them is Mexican. … The most important thing is always doing things that make sense to you and put your whole self into it, dressing it with good ingredients and respect. This way it will taste good and it gives you a chance to share a bit of your culture around the world. I really enjoy that!