Thomasina Miers on dinner party tips, aphrodisiacs and following your heart
I’m sitting across the table from Thomasina Miers in Charlotte Street Wahaca – one of 18 incredibly popular restaurants in her growing empire.
24 years ago we sat at a different table - a school chemistry bench. It’s hard suppress my awe at what she has achieved. Since winning Masterchef in 2005 Tommi has become a TV chef superstar with a regular newspaper columns and 5 books - her first, Soup kitchen raised nearing £100k for homeless charities.
Streetwise and business-wise – Tommi puts ethics at the heart of what she does, supporting local food produce and food waste initiatives. On top of it all she is very involved mum of 2 gorgeous girls. Her latest project is an edible garden at their school..
Amid work and the family whirl, Tommi still loves to cook for friends at home. Last week she had 10 friends over for an informal supper (recipes shared below) which all ended in dancing around the table to Pete Tong.
It’s lovely to catch up again with her down-to-earth stories and I can’t wait to share her entertaining secrets….
And for all you budding cooks, we have 3 signed Wahaca cookbooks to give away - simply sign up to The Dinner Set for free during September and enter promo code "WAHACA" to enter the prize draw. The lucky winners will be notified in the first week of October.
Photograph: Tara Fisher
We all have our secret ingredients we can’t entertain without – from a certain English gin to Siracha chilli sauce. What’s yours?
TOMMI: “Sea salt. These days you’re not allowed sea salt. Extra virgin olive oil. Chillies I love. Fresh herbs from the garden. I have a lovely herb garden with wild flowers which is as close as I get to living in the country! Basic building blocks to create great flavour. Lemons - you can never buy too many lemons.”
SOPHIE: “I’ve heard chefs call it the third seasoning agent….”
TOMMI: “Yeah – well it’s the acidity - vinegar and citrus – so important for food."
What did you cook for your friends last week? And can we have the recipe?!
TOMMI: “I did gazpacho with strawberries, tomatoes and basil then I marinated a butterflied lamb which I cooked on the barbecue, I made a kind of spring summery fattoush salad with tomatoes and radish and rice. I had some salted caramel rice crispy cakes that I’d made for my daughter’s tea party that we had with some whipped double cream and I made some tea from fennel in the garden. And we had Mescal - of course. And then we danced….”
(My concentration drifts as I conjure up visions of Mescal-fuelled dancing to Pete Tong…..)
TOMMI: "The gazpacho and lamb recipes have just been published in my Guardian column. I love the Guardian column, it makes me cook.”
What are you cooking tonight?
TOMMI: "Tonight we're having grilled mackerel with preserved lemon and salad. I’m off to buy the fish after this!”
My husband has a real thing about table manners. He goes mad when people don’t hold their knife and fork right! What are your “dinner date” hates?
TOMMI: "I think table manners are really important. I sat next to a pop singer in Brooklyn, she's been in London for a year and says she cannot find a nice English boy who has good table manners! She says it puts her off marrying men when they have table manners like pigs! My pet hates are phones - put your phone away. And saying you don't like it before you've tried it. Try everything!”
The Dinner Set is launching a new area of our site where people can share their dinner disasters. What's been your worst dinner disaster?
TOMMI: "It's not like everything I cook is perfect but generally it’s OK.... it's more a time thing. So…. it can be really chaotic! I’ll be slicing up salami from the market so people don’t actually die of starvation before they sit down. I am quite relaxed about having people round, I do it all the time. I mull over what I’m going to feed them for a few days before dinner and slowly piece it together, based on whatever is in my larder, my fridge, what I’ve bought from the market. I think my next book is going to be about that – helping people with a toolkit for how to handle dinner parties”.
Can you share 3 pearls of wisdom for our readers going for dinner party glory?
TOMMI: “It’s the little touches that make a dinner party really special. It’s not about spending 8 hours on one dish. If you’re throwing some lamb on a barbeque, it’s about those few spices that will bring that marinade alive and then the homemade jar of quince jam in the fridge that you can bring out, or the home made mint sauce. It’s about thinking about what people might actually want to eat. Rather than slaving over a dessert, it’s about having a few mejool dates or great chocolates or cheese you can pass around. When you have some relax time, spend a bit of time making that chipotle adobo or a chilli sauce or tomato chilli jam that you can keep in your fridge and just pull out. An emergency toolbox.”
Imagine you’re cooking this one-off dinner party and you can invite any 3 people to dinner, from the past, current or fictional, who would it be and why?
TOMMI: “I’d have my grandmother back - she was really cool.”
SOPHIE: “Did she cook?”
TOMMI: “Yeah she did and she was really fun. Maybe Humphrey Bogart. He had a bit of a thing for her. And maybe Mandela, I reckon he could dance quite well.”
So – chillies. You wrote your Chilli Notes book last year. I just read this research released in February from the University of Wyoming suggesting chillies could prevent weight gain in higher fat diets. Could chillies be the secret weapon in the fight obesity?
TOMMI: “Yeah – chillies are a superfood they are full of vitamins and minerals. They are anti-diabetic, anti-carcinogenic and they speed up your metabolism. They’re incredible.”
SOPHIE: "How many chillies do you eat a day?"
TOMMI: ”I don’t eat whole chillies! I use them to season food and to flavour it. I don’t just eat them, they’d blow my head off!”
Photograph: Tara Fisher
What’s your favourite chilli?
TOMMI: “Arbol is pretty good. Pasilla de Oaxaca’s quite good. That’s a smokey one from Mexico.”
SOPHIE: “Can you buy them in supermarkets?”
TOMMI: “No but chilli de Arbol you can. Turkish dried chilli flakes are amazing too. Go to Middle Eastern shops. They’re amazing – they’re slightly roasted and their not too hot and they’ve got all that rounded flavour of dried chillies that you’d want for food. Try them on some greens, a fried egg, on a salad.”
I also read about capsaicin – the active compound in chilli. It’s a stimulant known for multiple health properties, from fighting cancer to protecting the liver. Apparently it gets the heart pumping and releases endorphins into your body to give you a type of ‘high’.
TOMMI: “Yeah, the Aztecs used it all the time.”
SOPHIE: “They say it’s an aphrodisiac too! - Which chillies will really spice things up?”
TOMMI: “Yeah. Well the more capsaicin the more of the effect. The hotter it is, the more capsaicin and the more antioxidants. The Aztecs thought the chilli was a natural aphrodisiac. That’s why the Mexican diet is so good. They also named the avocado “the testicle” because they’re so packed with goodness. Men would eat them to feel manly. So go with a spicy guacamole – that’s the ultimate!”
So our readers have raised the temperature… what drinks should they serve with spicy food? I see you’ve got new beer cocktails on the menu at Wahaca!
TOMMI “That's our amazing summer special – Tequila, tabasco, elderflower and beer. I really like elderflower.”
Have chillies ever had an uninvited effect on one of your guests?
TOMMI: “Yeah – I once had a guest helping me deseed the chillies and then went to the loo. Not fun!”
You’ve won Masterchef, you have a hugely successful chain of restaurants and TV chef career – what advice would you give to budding chefs aspiring to achieve what you have?
TOMMI: “Follow your heart. If it’s not authentic, it won’t work. You have to love what you’re doing. You’ve got to believe what you’re doing. It’s a tough world out there.”