Absolutely meets Thomasina Miers to talk about kitchen management, Mrs Beeton and Bake Off
Words pendle harte
Thomasina Miers – Masterchef winner, founder of Wahaca, food columnist and mother of three – is not too busy to have written a new book. Well, actually she is – in fact she turned the project down four times – but being pregnant with her third and unable to sleep created a new window of nocturnal opportunity, which she saw as a chance to write. The resulting book, Home Cook, is focused on family life and the domestic kitchen, so it’s fitting that I have come to her actual home to discuss it.
There’s an appealingly chaotic feel to Tommi Miers’ Kensal Rise house. Toys strewn, children chattering, walls crowded with pictures and a lively, busy kitchen. Not for her the ubiquitous minimalist white surfaces; hers is a kitchen where things happen.
The new book is about sharing the wisdom that she’s gathered. How to make a kitchen work even when you’re pressed for time. How to make healthy dishes for whoever’s around without feeling stressed, and how to shop properly to enable all this. ‘It’s old-fashioned really. It definitely goes back to Mrs Beeton but I felt there was a gap in the market for a common sense approach,’ she tells me. ‘I feel that people really get their knickers in a twist about food a lot. I used to too – about eating and what to eat. But all the faddism is crazy; it’s a lot easier to feed people than you’d think. It’s just not that difficult to cook affordable, fun, healthy food, and it doesn’t take forever.’
She doesn’t look quite as relaxed as she says she is and no wonder. Because who can run a large business, write a column, cope with three tiny children and publicise a new book? And all while planning a dinner on the table for 12 unexpected guests without so much as a tiny trip to Tesco? She also has an ongoing project she has launched with her local primary school. She is devising and fundraising for a vegetable garden and an outdoor classroom.
“It’s just not that difficult to cook fun, healthy food”
She concedes that her husband thinks she does too much. But she is clearly on a mission, or a variety of missions. ‘We worry about obesity – yet we feed our children chicken nuggets and chips! And just look at the children’s yogurts in the supermarket! We have none of that. But then if we’re baking we do use sugar and butter because it should be about pleasure. If you’re mainly eating fibre and wholegrains and vegetables, then it’s fine.’
Miers complains that there’s too much neurosis around, and yet she will only buy farmers’ market milk, which she agrees sounds a bit inconsistent. ‘As a mother you do think about nutrition and our soil nutrition has plummeted. But I’m very suspicious of fads.’
As well as representing her cooking present, the book harks back to Miers’ cooking past, which is home-taught and family-oriented. ‘I grew up cooking by my mother’s side and I’ve returned to the kind of cooking we did at home.’ Her mother would buy cheap ingredients – ‘like marrow’ – because money was tight, and Tommi, who wasn’t interested in toys, or in playing with her siblings, would hang around the kitchen, developing an interest in cooking.
‘I started asking, can I cook? Because I wanted to do something more interesting with what we had, and I found it so boring eating the same things over and over again.’ At 26 she went to Ballymaloe (the Irish cookery school whose alumni includes Stevie Parle) and at 29 she won Masterchef, and after that she was slightly surprised to find herself actually in a career as a chef.
‘For a few years I felt like I should have spent years in the kitchen as an apprentice, so my food got more cheffy as I tried to prove myself.’ It’s not cheffy now, she insists – it’s simple, practical and healthy. ‘I spend money on ingredients – the kitchen is about management. I’ve always got livers for chicken liver pate and cods roe for taramasalata, and those things are cheap as chips. If I come home shattered there’s always something I can make. I’ve always got the basics.’
“For me food is the gel that binds us all together, it’s a common love that people bond over”
What would she suggest for an easy dinner party? ‘Roast chicken definitely,’ she says. ‘With lots of tarragon, butter, garlic and lemon. It’s just delicious. With boiled new potatoes – and if you have time, smash them, cover them in thyme, garlic and olive oil and roast them. There’s so much anxiety about whether it’s pretty enough, exotic enough and whether there’s too much fat, but for me food is the gel that binds us all together, it’s a common love that people bond over. The way I see my friends is around this kitchen table. I am very social and I love people.’
Running Wacaha is a three days a week job, something Miers built into her contract from the start to give her space to write. She manages it all with the help of two PAs (one at home, one at work).
The day before we meet, the Standard has suggested that she might be the next Bake Off presenter – is it true? I ask? ‘Not true! They came to my book launch and I’d had a few mezcals, so when they asked me about it I said yes, great idea, and of course it all got printed word for word.’ She would, however love to do Strictly, she says, if she had time. And with that, it’s time for the school pick up, and she’s got to go.