For chefs who aspire to fine dining, training usually begins at culinary school – an experience many say is still very French. Santiago Lastra, chef and co-owner of Kol, studied in his native Mexico. “They didn’t bring any Mexican cuisine into it, it was something you had to study on the side,” he recalls.
After cooking at top restaurants in Spain and Denmark, countries where traditional French cuisine has long been tinkered with, he returned to Mexico. “It made me realize our indigenous cuisine has so much to offer,” says Lastra. “There are so many cuisines in the world, it’s hard to say only one should be the basis of all cuisines.”
Lastra explains that Mexico, with thousands of years of culinary tradition and wide-ranging influences from places like Turkey, China, France and Spain, has myriad techniques and preparations that are as complex as anything Escoffier would have scoffed.
There are countless Mexican moles, intricate and ancient sauces made with scores of ingredients over long periods of time, with the likes of smoked chillies, fruits, chocolate, herbs, spices and nuts building layer upon layer of flavour. Understanding these, or the endless preparations with corn, is as important as knowing how to make a soufflé or béarnaise, something Lastra wanted to showcase at Kol. The restaurant has so far been a hit.
Rafael Cagali opened Da Terra in east London in 2019. After working for esteemed (and now three-Michelin-starred) chef Simon Rogan and at fine-dining establishments in Italy, Cagali initially shied away from inputting his Brazilian background into the restaurant. Over time he began to find his identity and Brazilian influence, most notably in a fine-dining take on a seafood curry called moqueca. It helped the restaurant achieve a second Michelin star in 2021.
Brazil has a rich culinary tradition. Immigration from all over Europe, Japan, China, the Middle East and, most significantly, millions of arrivals from Africa due to the slave trade, has resulted in a unique cuisine. “I’ve never worked in Brazil, but I became curious about it,” says Cagali. “That’s why I started to bring more of a twist, which for me is rediscovering it, basically.”