I met Santiago for the first time in 2015 when he was working at Nordic Food Lab. Since then, I've been meeting him several times all around the world: in London, Milan, Tbilisi, Rimini, Moscow... our friendship has been growing up and up and getting stronger, sharing that kind of "nomad life" that he chose as a chef and I dealt with as a journalist.
Santiago is only 28 years old, but he has already made his long way. He left from a small village nearby Mexico City - “A holiday town where people come only in the weekend to party and drink”, as he describes it - without any money and any knowledge of English language, and now he's considered one of the most promising young chefs in the world. It's not a casualty that two years ago he was chosen by Rene Redzepi to lead the Noma Mexico's team.
But now his "nomad life" is going to change: Santiago is going to open his first restaurant, Kol, in London in March 2019. Fine Dining Lovers had the chance to have a long and confidential chat with him.
How did the relationship between you and the cuisine start?
My mother didn’t cook and I’ve only a few memories of my grandmother cooking. My childhood memories, when it comes to food, are about visiting my friends' houses and eating traditional food made by their mothers. I loved that feeling, but I didn’t have a proper "relationship with food". Then one day, when I was 15, I went to a supermarket, I bought these Ritz cookies, I saw a recipe of this crab dip on the packaging and I was like ‘Why not try this out?’. My mother liked it, my father liked it, everyone got really excited about it. So, I came back to the supermarket, bought a can of ragù and followed a random recipe to make this sort of spaghetti with meatballs. Once again everyone liked it. Then again, I bought this Italian recipe book and started making all the recipes. I asked for a job in an Italian restaurant but I had so many other things - hobbies, sport, studying - in my mind at the time.
Which was the turning point?
My grandparents and my father died, they all passed away in the same month. My family almost got destroyed: all of a sudden it was just me, my brother and my mother. I kept on working at the restaurant and bringing home everything I cooked. Thanks to these shared meals we all started to get rid of the sadness, very slowly and enjoying food again. So I thought "This is what I wanna do for the rest of my life". And I decided that, if I wanted to be a chef, I would have been the best one.
That's why you moved away from Mexico?
I moved to Pamplona to work in a Michelin starred restaurant. I saved a six months salary to buy my plane ticket. I had no experience whatsoever and I didn't speak a word of English. I remember friends and family waving goodbye with that look in their face like "He made it". Well, it wasn’t that easy… but I studied, I worked hard and I was lucky enough to find people willing to help me. I studied at the Basque Culinary Center and worked nine months in Mugaritz. This is where I learned that creativity has no borders. Then I went to Nordic Food Lab.
But at that point, you weren’t cooking Mexican at all. Isn't it?
I’ve always wanted to chase new things, to be part of the future of food. But as soon as you get aknowledged with innovation, it’s already over: you’ve to make it by yourself. So in Copenaghen, everyone started telling me "The new face in gastronomy is in South America". In Nordic Food Lab I made a tortilla with local grains: this was the beginning. I started travelling and cooking Mexican food all around the world. I remember I spent two weeks in an Air B'n'b in Milano eating only risotto for two weeks and waiting for someone to call me. You have to grow organically: I never asked for favors, always waited for opportunities. Once I slept for days on a friends sofa - if you sleep you’re less hungry. Another time I got one way ticket to Russia and I left with no money. Then things started being more professional: I was called by people not only to make dinners but also conferences, serious events.
And now you’re going to open your own place. Tell us about Kol.
The name of the restaurant means "cabbage" in Spanish (col). An average ingredient can be incredible; an average person, like myself, can make a change. Everyone can have on opportunity to be incredible. Natural wines and a Mezcal bar, Mexican concept with ingredients with all the country, casual scene. We want to be multicultural in the design and the crafts, blend up the idea of a Mexican flavor. In Mexico we always have the idea that food has to give you pleasure: we want to offer the real Mexico, not the cheap one.
Why did you decide to use only local ingredients?
When I decided to work in London I took some time to discover local ingredients. The United Kingdom is really underrated, but now a new community of chefs is growing. Wild food is more interesting, it has more flavor and more nutrients. I’ve learned a lot from Tobyn Excell and Miles Irving. Now many chefs are becoming too picky with their foraging: it’s a hard job but it’s a responsibility for a chef to connect with his landscape. This is why ingredients at Kol will come from all the parts of the United Kingdom.
Opening a restaurant wasn’t your initial plan.
The initial plan was: 5 years without going back home, saving money and then moving back to Mexico. Then I was offered the opportunity of being the project manager of Noma Mexico. I had to lead the team, find the best ingredients in the country… and I had less than three weeks to prepare myself! That’s when I realized I wanted to keep promoting Mexico outside.
Do you miss your country?
You have to give your whole soul to this profession. I’ve never felt that I was "born for this". When I feel that people believe in me it's like having a pair of wings on my back, and I’m so looking forward to hosting them in my restaurant. Family in Mexican culture is the most important thing and, of course, I always miss my family, but you can’t have everything. I’m Mexican: we make friends very easily. Nomad life is all about the little moments. I’ve never had a real routine.
If you should explain to someone what’s so special about Mexican cuisine, what would you say?
It’s one of the few cuisines in the world where you can actually feel the soul of the people. The happiness of enjoying food is what makes Mexican cuisine special.
Give us an example of a dish that we will taste in your restaurant.Clay Baked Swede , smoked chili and peanut butter cream, pickled pumpkin and kombucha. Serve with roasted Monkfish liver in Pine butter. Meanwhile, seeds and sauces will change according to the season.