By Alex Meehan. First published in The Sunday Business Post, April 20th, 2014.
Former Masterchef UK winner Thomasina Miers is very far from typical of her peers.
Nine years after her 2005 win she’s one of a very small number of people to actually win the competition and then turn that into a successful food career.
The owner of four Mexican-themed restaurants under the Wahaca brand, she’s published books, fronted TV series for Channel Four and is currently organising a chilli festival to be held in the east end of London called Chilli Chilli Bang Bang.
To say the day job fell by the wayside would be an understatement, but Miers is very clear about what Masterchef brings and what it doesn’t.
“Masterchef really helps if you are already on your mission and know what you want,” she says. “But a win doesn’t guarantee you anything.”
By the time Miers was on the show, she says she knew exactly what she wanted out of it and wasn’t starting from scratch.
“I had already spent a year living in Mexico researching Mexican food and was writing my first book, Soup Kitchen. I knew that I wanted to work in food and I was fully on that path.”
“Gregg Wallace and John Torode saw that this was not just a TV show for me. I had food pulsing through my blood. So I think if you are already at that stage then Masterchef can really push you and give you confidence,” she says.
But she says, winning is no guarantee of anything, and the reality is that anyone hoping to turn a win into a career in food still has all their work ahead of them when the show ends.
“The food world is really tough, it is long hours for not much money. It’s physically very demanding,” she says.
Before her stint on Masterchef, Miers had already graduated from the Ballymaloe Cookery School and she credits the experience of studying with the Allens for a large part of her philosophy on food.
“My real start in food came from meeting Clarissa Dickson Wright when I was 26 and was really kind of struggling to know what to do. She found out that I was totally passionate about food and said ‘well that is what you should be working in then if that is where your passion lies’,” says Miers.
“And she said ‘the first place you need to go is Ballymaloe’.”
Dickson Wright was a friend of Darina Allen’s and made the necessary introductions for Miers. She attended for a three month stint and describes the experience as an epiphany.
“I have cooked since I was six but there I learned more than just recipes. They teach a total philosophy about food, about the importance of food ingredients, about the footprint food has on the Earth, about how things are grown and sourced and how food can be eaten in ways that are completely sustainable and holistic,” she says.
“At Ballymaloe all their food waste goes to their chickens, they compost and there is a complete cycle and really that has informed my whole philosophy and that has stayed with me to today.”
According to Miers, all of her Wahaca restaurants recycle their food waste and have done since the first outlet opened in August 2007. She feels so strongly about this approach to handling food waste that late last year she was involved in organising a one-off food event in London – The Pig Idea – to draw attention to a ban on feeding food waste to pigs, a practice as old as porcine domestication.
“We raised eight pigs on Stepney City Farm over last summer and then last November we served five thousand portions of pulled pork, cassoulet and other porky treats in Trafalgar Square with the proceeds from the pigs,” she says.
Behind the event was the urge to do something to help small pig farmers in the UK, many of whom are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet because of legal restrictions in place since the foot and mouth crisis.
Restrictions on the kinds of waste food that can be feed to pigs is leaving farmers having to rely on soy and other vegetable feeds that are more expensive and mostly have to be imported.
The Pig Idea was to let restaurants and supermarkets sell their food waste to processing plants to be heat-treated in large volumes. This could then be safely, cheaply and sustainably fed to pigs.
“Ballymaloe were one of the backers of that initiative, so I’ve stayed in touch with them all the way through,” she says.
Miers’ extracurricular energies are currently focused on her upcoming Chilli Chilli Bang Bang festival, scheduled for May 9th and 10th in Dalston.
Celebrating all things fiery hot, this event involves chef demos, chilli-based street food from around the world, a spice market, a hot sauce deli and chilli tequila cocktails.
“We’re expecting around 5,000 people and we’ll have food from around the world with chilli in it as well as demos from chefs like Giorgio Locatelli, Sam Clark from Moro, Gizzi Erskine, Atul Kochhar – lots of people actually,” she says.
“I also have a new book due out– Chilli Notes – which focuses on chilli recipe from around the world.”
Chilli is an unusual food in that it’s hard to think of another ingredient, with the possible exception of truffles, that gets so fetishised. People can and do spend years developing the perfect chilli recipe and chilli competitions are common in the US.
Miers isn’t surprised by this, insisting that the humble chilli is in a class of its own as an ingredient.
“Well, they are pretty magical fruit. They are an analgesic and anti-diuretic and anti-carcinogenic and of course a good chilli hit releases lots of endorphins so they make you feel good. You get a kind of mini-high,” she says.
“But not only do they make you feel good they are good for you in other ways. If you eat a lot of chillies your metabolism speeds up and generally will work faster and I know some people who advocate them for helping to lose weight,” she says.
“There are over 200 varieties of chillies and they all have different kind of flavours and you can use them either dried or fresh. They are incredibly versatile and in my cooking I like to use them to season food. A bit like black pepper, you can just put a touch of chilli in lots of dishes and it just heightens all the flavours.”
Miers says she would like to open a Wahaca branch in Ireland, but it’s still only a theoretical plan. In the meantime, she will be attending the Ballymaloe Literary Festival in May and intends to make the most of the opportunity to visit a country she says is genuinely amongst her favourite.
“When I lived in Ireland I got pretty stuck in and really loved it. I am absolutely passionate about it and the food culture there, so I try to go back as often as I can, at least once a year.”