Chef’s Table: Thomasina Miers

Thomasina Miers
Image: Country & Town House

Have you ever wondered what a chef cooks at home or if their kids behave any better than yours in a fine dining restaurant? We grill some of Britain’s best chefs for the lowdown. This week, Thomasina Miers.

Who does the cooking at home?

Mainly me, although I was presenting the BBC Radio 4 food program last week and met an amazing woman – Jo Ingleby, Chef in residence at Redcliffe Children’s Centre in Bristol. She was talking about why kids should learn to cook veg, not cakes. Her approach is hands-off, no interfering: the children get plastic knives and they get on with it. I might take this approach with my husband as well. I tend to chip in with suggestions and it drives him crazy. He went on a Richard Bertinet bread-making course though, and is the one in charge of making bread at home.

Your daughters are too young to wield a chef’s knife just yet, but do you get them involved with the cooking?

Yes, I try to – my approach might change having met Jo. We grow vegetables in our garden in Kensal Rise. We only have a small town house but we put raised beds in pretty soon after we moved in. The other day we had friends over and the children were running around the garden eating mustard leaves and sorrel, they love it. I try not to push it too much and put them off. If I have broad beans or peas they love doing the fiddly jobs. They take leaves off the stems – like all children, they just enjoy being like the grown-ups.

Do you manage to get them to eat their 5 a day?

For me, 5 a day was just plucked out of thin air by someone who wanted to encourage more fruit and veg consumption. The whole thing is a massive marketing gimmick. What my daughters, Tatiana (3) and Ottilie (2) do eat is a lot of fresh, home-prepared food.

I’m obsessive about green veg and they love eating what is growing outside. They have enormous appetites, so when they ask for a third bowl of porridge, I’ll try and give them fruit. They eat healthily, but whether that’s fresh fish from Queen’s Park Farmers’ Market or homegrown veg, is less relevant.

You are known for introducing Mexican food to UK families through your Wahaca restaurants. What are your daughters’ favourite Mexican dishes?

Tati can demolish a whole bowl of Guacamole – we go to Wahaca a lot – she’s pretty keen on tortilla and refried beans too.

Are your girls picky eaters?

No, but I’m not evangelical – food is just about preference, like anything else in life. It’s fun that they eat mostly what we do, basically we share the same food and though we often eat at separate times (as they are still little), we have their leftovers and they have ours.

I think it’s really interesting that plenty of people who love good food will spend a lot of money and time preparing it for themselves, and then make their own children chicken and chips. I’m really non-prescriptive about what people do in their lives, but why shouldn’t kids get the good food?

You wrote a whole book about cooking with chilli. Have you managed to sneak spice past your girls yet?

Tati is having a backlash against chilli at the moment. I was travelling around Mexico pregnant with her and breastfeeding for about 10 months and didn’t change my diet. For a while Virgin Mary was “the most delicious thing ever”, but I think I slightly over-did the chilli on her, poor thing.

When I was pregnant with Ottilie and Tati was 18 months old we went to Bangkok and ordered a load of sharing plates. She was eating all of them. She did get really cross when she tried jungle curry though, she looked at me like I was a traitor.

Do you have a favourite home cookbook, or do you just wing it?

I have hundreds and hundreds of cookbooks. I read them in bed (my husband found that weird when we first met), and on trains. I might get ideas, or look at three recipes around an idea that I’m trying to create.

With pastry, if I’m trying something for the first time I might slavishly follow a recipe and then next time wing it. My current obsession is the Tartine by Chad Robertson: he experiments with flours quite a lot. It’s a cool book. Claire Ptak has an amazing new pastry book, The Violet Bakery Cookbook: it’s really wonderful.

I love books on vegetables: from Jane Grigson to Ottolenghi. Cooking with vegetables is one of the most creative things you can do.

Thomasina Miers

© Tara Fisher

Wahaca is famously family-friendly. Was that an important consideration when you started out?

Definitely. The whole thing was born out of the Mexican approach to food. What’s so joyful about eating in Mexico is that it’s for everyone – regardless of budget. People are proud to eat well and cook from scratch. In the West people think they can’t eat well because they don’t have much money, but if you make from scratch, you can cook incredibly well on not very much.

I cooked in expensive restaurants before and so I wanted this to be for everyone. There was no Mexican food in the UK so it was important that everyone was able to experience it and have access.

Do you think fine-dining restaurants should be childfree?

I do think having masses of kids tearing around and knocking over chairs is probably not what you expect when you’re running a fine dining restaurant full of expensive glassware. It depends how well behaved the kids are, and that depends on the attitude of the parents.

In France, the expectation is that kids can sit nicely for two hours. If you bring your kids out, I think you’d have to be considerate of everyone else around you. Who cares if the person at the next table is a foot and a half tall, as long as they are behaving?

What do you think of Britain’s chicken nugget/fish finger kids menu culture?

It sucks. It’s really difficult. British food was a desert 20 years ago compared to now, so historically children have been brought up eating very plain food. Hopefully that’s changing. But even my chefs say, ‘if we put that on, they’ll send it back”, and that’s a nightmare for the kitchen.

When Tati was weaning we spent four weeks in Mexico, every restaurant we went to would make her a fresh puree: chicken, coriander and root veg perhaps, all in season.

We didn’t have a kids’ menu when we started because I thought, “surely the kids eat what the adults eat because we do little plates”. Its true, kids do like our food, but then I had children and I understood it better. We now serve multi-coloured bowls with lids: little piles of food so they can make their own taco. They love it. It’s entertaining. It must be really frustrating being young, being told what to eat and how, so giving them an element of choice is always good.

With my kids, I quite often don’t order from the kids’ menu but get them a starter. But there are some very picky kids out there, thrown by things that look different.

Top place to eat out with your children?

Georgio Locatelli has just reopened his restaurant, Locanda Locatelli. Apparently once the kids have eaten they are taken to the kitchen and help to make ice cream and hang out with the chefs. Not popular with his chefs but great for parents!

We don’t eat out that much because I cook a lot, but the girls love coming to Queens Park Farmers’ Market: they wander around eating from all the stalls.

Thomasina Miers won BBC’s MasterChef in 2005, before working with Skye Gyngell at Petersham Nurseries in Richmond and then bringing authentic Mexican food to the UK with street food restaurant, Wahaca. She has written a number of cookbooks, the latest of which is Chilli Notes. Thomasina writes the ‘Weekend Cook’ recipe column in the Saturday Guardian magazine. Follow her on Twitter @thomasinamiers