With great food comes great responsibility, says chef and food writer Thomasina Miers
Happily, the idea of linking the food we grow and eat to our climate is no longer seen as the “stuff of crazy fanatical left-wing hippies”, Tommi Miers tells Volta.
Wahaca co-founder and Masterchef winner Thomasina Miers has her fingers in several different pies these days, but they all contain the same basic ingredients.
Whether she’s developing a new vegan taco idea for Wahaca’s Mexican street food menu, working to improve food education through the charity Chefs in Schools, being an ambassador for the Soil Association or writing her latest Guardian column or cookbook, they circle back to the same fundamental principle – that for the health of the population and the planet, we must value our food and the people who produce it.
“It’s all tied up. It can be quite hard to pin it down, but essentially looking at food as nutrition – both in terms of physical human health and planetary health is a really neat way of looking at it,” she says. “Our current food system neither values food as nutritionally beneficial nor environmentally beneficial.”
You can feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem or you can be excited by how quickly you can have an impact by putting a few more vegetables in your shopping basket, eating a bit less meat, making sure your meat is bought from the right place.– Thomasina Miers on the impact of food on the climate
You’d expect someone in Miers’ line of work to think about food pretty much all the time, but for her it goes beyond creating tasty plates for appreciative diners. Although she’s adamant that ultimately life should be about “fun and eating delicious food and dancing and being with people you love”, there’s the serious stuff too. From society being conditioned to expect cheap food such as environmentally-destructive soy-fed chickens, to the “propping up” of the processed food sector, to the lack of attention paid to the scale of diet-related illnesses, to the dearth of support for farmers who look after the soil, for Miers, food is about almost everything. It’s public health, politics, economics, and power. It’s fairness, sustainability and the survival of the planet.
Successfully combining the fun and pleasure of food with the serious and, frankly, scary is what she endeavours to achieve with her various pursuits. But how did she get here?
From early childhood Miers, whom most call Tommi, was imbued with a respect for food as she cooked alongside her mother, learning how to extract maximum enjoyment from the most simple ingredients like an onion slowly sweated in butter.
“Food was always prioritised, but my parents were quite poor so food was valued.”
It’s one reason why she has been so drawn to the food culture and “extraordinary biodiversity” of Mexico, a country she first visited at 18 and returned to in her 20s to run a cocktail bar in the capital.
“There are many things that grabbed me about Mexico, including that whole ethos around food. I grew up in a household where we didn’t have very much but what we ate, and how we ate it round the table together, was always really important, and you get that to the nth degree in Mexico. You can arrive in any city and within a few minutes be speaking to the taxi driver about the dishes their grandmother used to cook, the regionality of the food where they come from. The fact that food is the backdrop to their entire culture, the thread that weaves them together, is an inspiration.”
While the Mexican diet has gone backwards because “multinational food companies have successfully peddled nutritionally-empty foods like fizzy drinks and white sugar-filled bread”, says Miers, many chefs are again championing local produce and traditional cooking methods. “The very essence of the indigenous Mexican diet is truly sustainable and quite low in meat,” she says.
These issues are mirrored in many modern societies, including the UK, she adds:
“A lot of this is about an inherent food knowledge that we have lost over generations and it’s something we do need to get back.”
After trying different jobs in her teens and early 20s, including modelling, by the time Miers returned to Mexico for the second time she had – thanks to a chance encounter with the late TV chef Clarissa Dickson Wright – started to follow her love of cooking with a course at Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland.
“It’s more than a cooking school,” she says. “It’s a way of living and sustainability runs through everything they teach.”
Back in the UK again, in 2005 she entered the newly re-vamped Masterchef, bagged the trophy and followed it up by learning alongside acclaimed chef Skye Gygnall at Petersham Nurseries in London, which is renowned for its sustainable ethos.
So when she and her Wahaca co-founder Mark Selby launched their own restaurant in 2007, it felt like a no-brainer to design it with the lightest environmental tread possible.
That includes recycling their food waste, minimising water waste with flow controllers, using the heat generated by fridges and freezers to warm their water, sourcing ethical British meat and fish, and building on their vegetarian and vegan offerings, which now account for around 50% of the menu. In 2016 Wahaca was the first UK restaurant group to be certified carbon neutral in accordance with the Carbon Neutral Protocol.
“This is where we started from, it’s not like we’re playing catch up and trying to suddenly get ahead and shout about our sustainability,” says Miers. At the same time she says she has been somewhat reluctant over the years to “ram it down people’s throats or be too holier than thou”.
“I feel like you have to take people on a journey and it’s got to be about food and deliciousness first. Rather than bashing them over the head and going ‘thou must eat less meat’, you can say ‘how good is this incredible roast carrot taco with green pipian (pumpkin seed) sauce’?
“It’s not about criticising other people. It’s about going ‘come on, let’s go on this journey together’.”
The fact that people have come to expect food to be cheap has made it “politically sensitive”, she says, but adds: “The consumer might demand cheap food but it’s not cheap; it comes at a massive cost and that is soil degradation and killing species that we rely on for the future growth of our food.”
“The fact that food is the backdrop to [the Mexicans’] entire culture, the thread that weaves them together, is an inspiration.”
– Thomasina Miers
While she expresses frustration at how slow governments are to react to the health and environmental crisis we are “sleepwalking” into, she says she sees public attitudes evolving.
“Increasingly what’s lovely to see is that the idea of linking the food we grow and eat to climate is no longer seen as the stuff of crazy fanatical left-wing hippies, because the science is there.
I think many people will look to how we lived pre-Covid and the level of excess, the throwaway consumer culture. I feel this is a new way of life that we want to embrace while still carrying on dancing and drinking cocktails. But just with a slightly different focus
“You can feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem or you can be excited by how quickly you can have an impact by putting a few more vegetables in your shopping basket, eating a bit less meat, making sure your meat is bought from the right place. If you’re worrying about the rainforest, don’t buy chicken that’s really cheap because all that chicken is fed soy that’s grown in the Amazon basin. It’s becoming easier to do the right thing.
“I think many people will look to how we lived pre-Covid and the level of excess, the throwaway consumer culture. I feel this is a new way of life that we want to embrace while still carrying on dancing and drinking cocktails. But just with a slightly different focus.”