Table Talk: Santiago Lastra
The chef-owner of KOL in Marylebone on how cooking can spark joy in dark moments; his admiration for Noma’s René Redzepi, and the inspiration behind his langoustine tacos.
Describe your earliest food memory…
My father used to sell Ibérico ham and I remember going to my grandparents house with 100g packets of it. My dad used to give them to me with such pride, which made me appreciate high quality products.
Did you always dream of becoming a chef or did you fall into it?
I wanted to travel the world, I actually wanted to be a mathematician, and then a painter, but then, at 15, I went to an Italian restaurant to see if I could cook and if I enjoyed it, and that experience changed my life. From that very moment, I knew I wanted to be a chef. I felt like I belonged in that kitchen, I loved the pressure, the heat and the passion.
When I was 15, my father, grandmother and grandfather died and I went back home with wine to cook for my mother and brother and this made them happy in a moment of great sadness. Bringing them joy in such a sad moment with food made me realise I wanted to chase that feeling for the rest of my life.
What is it about the catering industry that has kept you hooked?
I love every single part of cooking, from the very first moment I was in the kitchen I felt I belonged there and didn’t want to leave. I was working for free until one in the morning. I’ve been cooking for sixteen years and I still enjoy watching and smelling the different dishes being prepared. It’s the joy of being surrounded by food that ignites something in me to do it every single day.
What is a dish that you have created that you are most proud of?
I’m not particularly proud of one dish over another, I think of them all as my kids – this is what I say to the guests at Kol when they ask for my favourite dish on the menu. One that summarises the concept of what we do and gave me the opportunity to have this restaurant is the langoustine tacos.
It’s a dish that has been with me for a long time. In Armenia, I used to make a shrimp taco with a local bread called Levash made fresh for me. When I moved to the UK, I swapped shrimp for langoustines and dressed them with local ingredients like sauerkraut, sea buckthorn and sourdough. All of the tacos are focused and inspired by Baja California and the North West of Mexico.
One of my most memorable food experiences is eating pork fat fried lobster in freshly made flour tortillas with wine and friends by the beach in California. It was such a wonderful moment, so recreating the dish in Scotland with ingredients like freshly foraged berries, really made me feel joy. The langoustine tacos have been recreated at Kol with sourdough tortillas, a reduction of berries with the roasted heads on the side.
What is the weirdest thing you have eaten while on your travels?
Something that I’ll never forget is the taste of turtles. Don’t worry, not wild turtles, they were certified farm turtles. In Mexico, we have certified farms that specifically rear turtles for biodiversity. The turtle is boiled and then you literally carve it out of its shell, and then they chop it up and serve it with a pumpkin seed and herb sauce – it’s a really interesting texture. The meat tastes like game and the skin is gelatinous with a fish-like taste. It was quite a shock. They also eat the eggs, definitely one of the weirdest things I’ve ever eaten.
Who is your culinary hero/heroine and why?
I really admire René Redzepi. Working with him gave me the opportunity to really understand quality. I love Noma – it’s my favourite restaurant in the world and I’ve been there several times. I love what they do and their approach to nature. Had it not been for René, I would not have had the opportunity to rediscover my country, I really admire him.
My heroines would be indigenous female Mexican cooks, spending time with these women was an honour. Learning and experiencing how people used to live, cook and eat is something that has stayed with me and I feel a responsibility to these women who preserve, retain, create and keep Mexican culture and gastronomy alive.
What is the biggest blunder you’ve made while on the job?
Once when I was working in a kitchen, I overcooked the lentils for the staff meal and my head chef wasn’t impressed. I was mortified!
What is your favourite season for food?
It’s a toss up between spring and autumn. Autumn because of the richness, flavours, excitement and variety. You have all the ingredients from late summer available and then you also have the things that are finally available, like mushrooms you’ve been waiting all year to get out of the ground, the berries and meat – just to be able to cook all of these things again is really exciting.
I love all aspects of autumn, from the leaves changing colour to the depth of the season. You no longer need that summer freshness, you need warm, rich dishes. In autumn quince is available, new mushrooms are available, the truffles, the game and different types of coldwater fish and, of course, langoustines are back which is great. In Mexico, we don’t really experience spring so to experience a UK winter where nothing is really growing and then to come to March and finally see some growth from flowers makes me feel thankful.
What single ingredient do you rely on the most in the kitchen?
It sounds mainstream but it’s got to be garlic. Chillies too, dry chillies are a must. We use quite a lot of kombucha and fermented gooseberries. Without garlic, fermented gooseberries, kombucha and dried chillies I would be in trouble.
What is the best bottle of wine you have ever drank and why?
Any time I’m drinking Slobodne wine, which is the house wine at KOL – especially when in Slovakia. I’m friends with the family who run the vineyard and try to visit every year. On a trip a couple of years back I cooked a lamb on the bone over an open fire for friends on the land surrounding the winery at sunset.
What is guilty pleasure food and why?
Tacos in any shape or form, especially offal tacos, like tongue, or brain, or cheeks. All the good stuff.
If you had to eat one country’s cuisine for the rest of your life, which one would it be?
Obviously Mexican food, but if I can’t say Mexican, I would say Japanese food because it’s healthy, it gives you energy, and it’s rich and light. It’s also full of amazing high quality ingredients. I love all Japanese food.