Santiago Lastra – the artisan turned artist!

Words: Junior Lodge
Photographs: Heiko Prigge

Six weeks have elapsed since dining at KOL and my thoughts on the experience remain disjointed and unclear. The cold facts of having lunch at the Michelin-star Mexican restaurant in London are easy to summon. I imbibed the fashionable restaurant’s eight-course tasting menu and devoured it with a divine mezcal-laced cocktail. Santiago Lastra – the restaurant’s chef, curates a cluster of dishes obviously aimed at pleasing the palate. But the charming food cognoscenti offers food that defies normal convention. The names of the dishes all bear homage to food deeply steeped in Mexican traditions – Jericalla (traditional Mexican custard); Rapsado (shaved ice); Tamal (steamed corn cake); Pipian; Oblea; and the generous servings of tortilla.
Those basic information on KOL’s tasting menu ignores a simple truth. Lastra’s artfully crafted food challenges traditional tastes and theatrically delivers the unexpected. For example, Jericalla is subverted with a panoply of custard, morita chili, pink fir potato and topped with caviar. Raspado couples scallops, sesame and almond mole, beach rose with shaved ice to deliver a deceptively cool look (pun intended). The crowd favourite oblea mixes Cornish crab with fermented gooseberries and topped with a notable hint of scotch bonnet. The pipian offers a rock sapphire in kombucha and mezcal broth. Even the tortillas – that most decorated Mexican culinary accessory – are decked in a host of inviting flavours – purple carrot, coloradito and fermented blackcurrent. Lunch ended with a reprise of Apple’s infamous “one more thing” in the form of a cocoa butter paste based dessert laced with a shot of chili reduction.
After the meal, Lastra politely ushered me into one of the calmer rooms in the basement on London-based KOL restaurant. We are due to discuss Michelin-starred chef’s culinary journey and creative approach. But before commencing the chat, I wanted to overcome a bout of discombobulation and regain my composure. I needed to stymie the sensory jolt caused by consuming Lastra’s layered, complex and yet ultimately beautifully crafted food. Part of my challenge was understanding what had transpired – was my stomach pleasurably assailed by KOL’s sumptuous food or were my senses seduced, nay suspended?
The conversation with Lastra should instil intellectual clarity and aid my recovery from a case of gastronomic intemperance. It is easy to talk with the telegenic, tall and lean Mexican chef as he oozes full command of culinary techniques – far beyond the reach of his Mexican homeland. This is unsurprising as Lastra has worked with a clutch of high-powered, high-class establishments including managing NOMA’s pop up restaurant in Mexico. But there is also something professorial about the KOL chef reflective of his advanced theoretical studies and research, most notably at the Basque Culinary Centre, University of Copenhagen and Nordic Food Lab. At the later outpost, Lastra researched nixtamalization – the technique of cooking corn with calcium using Nordic grains. What a triumph for a kid that wanted to be a mathematician and participated at the Maths Olympic!
The Mexican has an interesting journey into becoming an elite chef. Lastra states that his food relationship to cooking galvanised by purchasing a box of Ritz crackers that came adorned with a crab dip recipe as a 15 year-old. “I was amazed that everyone enjoyed the dish and found this joy powerful. I always make sure that the crab dip was in the fridge along with the crackers. Then I just really enjoyed making something and seeing others relish it was just as fulfilling. That first day being in the kitchen preparing the crab recipe remains life-changing!”
Lastra continues “I have no idea of how I end up doing this because I don’t have a perfect chef environment. My parents did now own a farm or a restaurant and cooking was not done in a real manner at home. But then I remember loving to eat and becoming curious about food. In a one-month stretch, Lastra lost his father, grandfather, and grandmother. In seeking to cope with this intense loss, the Michelin star chef began cooking at home and instantly registered the joy brought to his beloved mother and brother. Lastra instantly saw the emotive power of food and sensed the desire to spread culinary joy to the world.
In this pursuit the young Santiago committed to learning from the best and becoming the finest at his craft. Like most other top chefs, Lastra started his professional journey working in kitchen as a chef de partie without giving any thought to creating his own recipes. But after ten years of being the artisan in the kitchen, Lastra realised a seminal moment had arrived when ideas started to flood his fertile brain. Travelling fed Lastra’s ideas by cementing his realisation that connecting food with people coupled with the insight that personalities and culture of the people get reflected into flavours. “It is interesting to see that in different parts of the world and see different patterns. Then suddenly working with great chefs helps you as well to have your own view of quality.”
The best lesson learnt from his main mentor – Rene Redzepi was the ability to identify good food. Working with the Danish chef on NOMA Mexico allowed Lastra to first crystalise his own culinary identity but also deepen a desire to create memories for people. Unsurprisingly, the initial dream was to launch a research and development centre in Mexico to test plants and techniques, develop new ingredients and relay knowledge to interested communities.
The restaurant takes its name from the Judeo-Spanish word for cabbage – a nod to Lastra’s goal of elevating high quality yet mundane ingredients. KOL’s tagline is “our memories of Mexico, re-imagined with British produce.” I prodded Lastra about whether the thrust on local ingredients was an attempt to avert supply concerns or rather to project a manifesto? His response was as delectable as the tasting menu he oversees at KOL. “London was chosen as a location due to the cosmopolis’ vastly different weather relative to Mexico. In wanting to develop something truly unique, this also extends to the ingredients. Besides the contrast with traditional British ingredients makes the dining experience that more powerful. Our approach is based on adaptation by using Mexican inspiration like a memory target in terms of flavours and a guideline, but the canvas and the paint remains quintessentially British.”
KOL’s arresting cuisine combines a strict food-making method with an unguarded attempt to seduce. “The direction is certainly to seduce people, to give people a journey of heat and a journey of presenting the season and concepts, and the value of food. But in a way that is really just delicious and straightforward for them to just enjoy it, even if you have no idea what is going on, you still like it. With sequencing assuming such importance in a tasting menu, customer feedback has allowed the restaurant team to sharpen its focus and techniques. The mellowing of KOL’s approach is a process fully aided by R&D team with its own dedicated kitchen.” Another sign of the power of details is the existence of KOL’s own tortilla factory that churns each day out hundreds of the Mexican staple.
Lastra proudly explains the important role played by his colleagues – the sommelier, our general manager, head chef and bartenders. “Everyone samples the dishes and comment to feed the emergence of improved dishes, better recipes, and ultimately, vastly improved alignment of the fully creative process. Having a team like this allows us to forge collective growth and advance the original idea of building a community.”
The enterprising chef savours KOL’s award of a prized Michelin star and I quizzed him about this grand form of professional affirmation. Lastra’s response was both swift and unambiguous – “we opened and then immediately came the pandemic with its grave commercial impact. The Michelin star represents a form of validation for the restaurant staff and the consistent quality of our offering. But the award also allows me to reassure them of the merits of our own culinary path.”
Our conversation ends on Lastra’s interpretation of fine dining where his restaurant lacks tables decked out in stiffened white lines on table. “We view fine dining as a performance or an exhibition around the guests‘ personal experience. We seek to create a special experience and thereby establish a memory. The great thing about the restaurant is that this memory can be shared with others. At the moment that you are sharing this special memory at KOL, my staff is working hard to make sure you have the best time. The people, the service, the connection with the people that is serving you, and the way that they understand things that they can learn things about you to make you feel even happier. We seek to share our passion for food through hospitality and thereby establish a connection with the people that you love. That is what the service is with, that is what we try to do with service as well. KOL offers an exhibition, a sharing of flavours, and a performance with human connection where you can have an experience of memory.”
After much reflection, I have finally formed a coherent view on the KOL dining experience. The tasting menu blends food that finely knits innovation with tradition. There is also a mix of ingredients that seemingly are at odds with each other yet ultimately harmonise to release spasms of culinary joy. KOL deliberately avoids typical Mexican ingredients – avocado and limes are nowhere to be seen on the menu! Such a deliberate choice allows Lastra to develop a menu that not only enhances sustainability but showcases the finest British ingredients. The dining experience is further enhanced by the near theatrical twists – shots of Scotch pepper with cocoa paste or a custard that is not billed as a dessert! The exquisite food would remain a cold offer without the warm generosity of KOL’s personnel. Of course, this starts with the dashing Lastra whose relaxed demeanour oozes calm. But each staff member approached the table with warmth, nuggets of information looks and left with a hint of their own personality. No wonder I left the restaurant giddy with consummate pleasure.