This article was publish in the Sunday Business Post
Words: Alex Meehan
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 a TV cooking competition and turn that into a successful food career. The owner of four Mexican-themed restaurants under the Wahaca brand, she’s published books, fronted programmes for Channel Four and is currently organising a chilli festival to be held in the east end of London called Chilli Chilli Bang Bang. But Miers is very clear about what shows like Masterchef bring, and what they don’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 she 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,” she says. “Gregg Wallace and John Torode saw that this was not just a TV show for me. I had food pulsing through my blood. I think if you are already at that stage then Masterchef can really push you and give you confidence, but the food world is really tough — it is long hours for not much money. It’s physically very demanding.”
Before her stint on Masterchef, Miers had already graduated from the Ballymaloe Cookery School in Cork; studying there had a big impact on her food philosophy. “My real start in food came from meeting [the recently-deceased food writer and TV presenter] Clarissa Dickson Wright when I was 26 and was really kind of struggling to know whato 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. 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 so 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 a city farm during the summer, and then last November we served 5,000 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 Brisain, many of whom are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet because of legal restrictions in place since the foot and mouth crisis of 2001. Restrictions on the kinds of waste food that can be fed to pigs are leaving farmers having to rely on soy and other vegetable feeds, which are more expensive and mostly have to be imported.
The big idea behind 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,” Miers says.
Miers’ extracurricular energies are currently focused on her upcoming Chilli Chilli Bang Bang festival, scheduled for May 9 and 10 in Dalston, east London. Celebrating all things fiery hot, the event involves chef demos, chili-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 chillin it as well as demos from chefs like Giorgio Locatelli, Sam Clark from Moro, Gizzi Erskine and Atul Kochhar,” she says. “I also have a new book due out - Chilli Notes - which focuses on chilli recipe from around the world.”
Chillis 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 chillis in a class of its own as an ingredient. “They are pretty magical fruit,” she says. “They are an analgesic, 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.
“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.
“There are more than 200 varieties of chillies and they all have different kind of flavours. 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 chillin 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 pan.
In the meantime, she will be attending the Kerrygold Ballymaloe Literary Festival in May, and intends to make the most of the opportunity to visit a country she says is genuinely one of her favourites.
“When I lived in Ireland, I got pretty stuck in and really loved it,” she says. “I am absolutely passionate about Ireland and its food culture, so I try to go back as often as I can, at least once a year.”
Thomasina Miers will be appearing at the Kerrygold Ballymaloe Lit-Fest of Food & Wine in May 2014, her event "Tommi's Chilli Notes" will take you on a chilli journey explaining how they season food, with heat and flavour and what they do to your body.There will be tastings of chillies over the talk.