Santiago Lastra and Mark Zuckerberg don’t have a lot in common on the surface. But when you dig a little deeper, you realise Facebook changed both of their lives in dramatic ways.
The Mexican chef was cooking in Moscow back in 2016 when Rosio Sanchez – Scandinavia’s queen of Mexican food – sent him a message out of the blue on Facebook asking if he was still in Denmark.
He wasn’t, but he didn’t reveal that small detail to Sanchez. Instead, he organised a meeting at her famous taqueria, Hija de Sanchez, for the next day and quit his job on the spot. Then he booked the first flight to the Danish capital for the following morning.
Lastra had his hands full in Russia at the time. He was designing bespoke Mexican menus for 18 different restaurants, training 20 different chefs and helping each restaurant churn out 1500 courses across a weekend.
But when Sanchez, who is widely regarded as the best taco chef on earth, reaches out you drop everything and come running, even if you are more than a five-hour flight away.
Lastra wasn’t promised anything in that Facebook exchange, but he knew why Sanchez was getting in touch. Rumours had been swirling around the food scene for months. Noma was looking to host a third international pop-up after game-changing events in Sydney and Tokyo, and Mexico was on the cards.
The lure of Noma – a restaurant that has been named the best restaurant on the planet by The World’s 50 Best four times and finished top three on four other occasions – was the reason why Lastra had moved from Pamplona to Copenhagen a few years earlier with a week of accommodation in a hostel paid for and only 30 Euro in his pocket. He idolised Rene Redzepi – the man almost universally regarded as the most influential chef in the world in the past decade – and wanted to work for him.
Since leaving the warmth of northern Spain for the cold of southern Denmark, he had honed his skills at the Nordic Food Lab before bouncing all over the globe as a nomadic chef, hosting Mexican feasts in 27 different countries.
But now Lastra was on Noma’s radar. And more specifically, he was now on Redzepi’s radar. He knew it was monumental, but he didn’t realise it was about to put him on a path towards opening the most anticipated restaurant in London in years last month. But more on that later.
“Rosio messaged me on Facebook when I was living in Russia. I had met her a few times before at events and said a few things to her like, ‘Hey, I’m Santiago, I’m a big fan’ that kind of annoying stuff. Yes, I was that guy. I probably sent her some messages on Facebook like, ‘I admire you’. Not probably, I did,” Lastra laughs as we sit opposite each other inside his brand new Marylebone restaurant Kol.
“I knew they were making Noma Mexico because there were rumours. They had already done Japan and Australia, so the word was Mexico was next. In my head I was like, man that’s the dream: Noma in Mexico. We had a meeting and she told me that three or four people from different countries spoke very highly about me for some reason. They were thinking about me and another Mexican chef. As soon as Rosio sent me that first message I knew it was something really important. I didn’t know that it was as important, but I knew they wanted something from me.”
When Lastra met Sanchez at her taqueria in the meatpacking district of Copenhagen the following day, the meeting went well. She told him to go and freshen up and return a few hours later to sit down for more El Pastor tacos with Redzepi.
He had met Redzepi in passing before, once at New York City’s most celebrated Mexican haunt, Cosme – one of the restaurants by Enrique Olvera, who is also behind Mexico City institution, Pujol – and twice at symposiums in Spain and Denmark. Each time he had tried to make an impression on his hero but had frozen when in his periphery.
Much to Lastra’s amazement, Redzepi remembered all three occasions like they had happened the previous week with a childhood friend, not years ago with a stranger. And then he got down to business.
“He told me that he wanted me to be the project manager of Noma Mexico and wanted me to organise the research trips, source the ingredients and basically train the staff and the management team in a way they could learn about Mexican culture and also to make connections with producers and suppliers,” Lastra recalls ahead of the final service before London’s current lockdown.
“It was a job I had no idea how to do; I didn’t know how to deal with suppliers or how to organise a research trip; I had literally no idea. I told them maybe I am the wrong person. I had been out of Mexico for five years at that time.
“He was like, actually if you want to take this job, we can discover it together. He believed in me and it was just amazing. He said: I’m going to write the contract myself and I am going to take a couple of days, I want you to read it and tell me you can do this job. It was a really long title, like project manager of research ingredients and something else. It was really long and had lots of responsibilities.”
Lastra accepted the position. I mean, would anyone knock back the New York Yankees or Real Madrid? But as soon as he said yes, he endured an overwhelming amount of pressure to perform for the best chef in the world. It started immediately and didn’t stop until the night the pop-up ended more than ten months later.
“I remember the pressure, like you can’t really hear it is like being underneath water. And I felt that from the day I said yes until the very last day. So much pressure,” he said.
“Every time we were in a market in Mexico or in a restaurant during research periods, they would ask me what something was and in my head I’d be like I have no idea. I would have to figure out what it was, make sure they could get it and that it would be in season and all the logistics.
“I remember the first course was a fruit dish and it had ten different fruits from ten different states in Mexico. Some fruits needed to be unripe; some needed to be ripe; we had to hire three or four people to pick them exactly how they wanted it in the middle of nowhere in the mountain, put them in a box then the box would be taken to the city then it would take two planes to get there to Cancun. Then we would have to drive two hours to the airport and two hours back just for one fruit. It was insane.”
Diamonds are formed under intense pressure. The more pressure they endure, the better they become. As it turns out, Lastra is a diamond in the rough. If Noma’s success in Tulum is anything to go by, it’s not hard to see why the man affectionately known as ‘Santi’ is considered one of the most exciting young chefs on earth right now.
Despite costing an eye-popping US$600 per head – and that’s before you include flights to Cancun and accommodation – every seat of the seven-week pop-up sold out in just over 100 minutes. Forget a golden ticket into Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, spots in the Yucatan jungle were the most sought-after of 2017. It’s not hard to see why The Washington Post hailed it ‘the meal of the decade’ and why Esquire preached the entire journey was ‘worth every penny’.
“It was a career-changing experience,” he recalls. “I think one of the most important things was just learning to understand what quality really means. It was difficult for me to understand what is really good. I’ve been cooking for myself for the past five years and I know how to stay away from what is bad, but it is hard to know how to find what is really, really good. Working at Noma made me understand this.
“There is a commerce of quality and appreciating things that aren’t overly luxurious and that sense of respecting craft. That’s what makes them so good. They craft every single detail. Every dish is perfect. It doesn’t have something that it doesn’t need. That’s applied to farmers to craft makers to ingredients and to the overall experience. There is a devotion to discovery and a respect to nature that is really inspiring. They aren’t the only ones that do it, but they really embrace it.”
When Lastra first moved from Spain to Copenhagen he dreamt about standing shoulder to shoulder with Redzepi in his kitchen. It was why he didn’t care about sleeping on a pile of clothes on the floor in the basement of an unfurnished flat near the airport when he first arrived. He used to have to skateboard for 55 minutes each way to get into the centre of the city, usually in the rain, often in clothes he had worn the day before. But it was all part of the masterplan.
That masterplan didn’t quite have step by step instructions, but he knew he wanted to take Mexican food to corners of the globe that only knew of Taco Bell or Old El Paso. After executing that wildly successful pop-up for the most famous chef in the world, Lastra’s star was on the rise. He went back to hosting events all over Europe and Asia. One event would lead to the next event to the next. And it all stemmed from another social media platform Zuckerberg owns – Instagram.
“I didn’t have a website or a manager. I only had a normal Hotmail; it was all through Instagram; it was just like magic. I would wait by my phone for a message from someone in the world to invite me to cook there. Sometimes I’d wait one week or two weeks or a month until someone magically invited me to come cook for them. And that happened every single time. The more that happened the more that I could make more events,” he said.
“I just wanted to travel the world making these events to understand the relationship with food and culture. I didn’t have a home. I didn’t pay rent anywhere for a year and a half. It was such a good way to travel. I would do two days or a whole week as a takeover in the restaurant. Sometimes I was in three countries in three different restaurants in the same week. The next week I would have another three and then another three. Sometimes I was having ten flights a week. It was mental. It was crazy. I went to 27 countries repeating during that time. I never had any shampoo I never bought shampoo because I would just use the one in the hotel.”
Lastra cooked in almost every major city in Europe, often returning a few months later to do it all again. But one restaurant – Carousel in Marleybone – and one city – London – changed his flight plan again. He wanted to settle in one spot and open something of his own to share his culture with a wider community.
“The people in London have been the most receptive and excited about the food we do and that was one of the main reasons why I chose London to open Kol,” he said.
“I wanted to make a lab after working at the Nordic food lab, but after working at Noma I realised it was just amazing to have a restaurant and have a team. If you want to really make an impact faster, it is better to have a restaurant than a lab.”
Lastra has had to travel further and wider to be in the position he is in right now. Before he left Russia to return to Denmark, he had left Mexico for Spain not long after he turned 18 with a big dream but the odds stacked against him.
He didn’t grow up in a family interested in food. His early memories of cooking were eating at friends’ houses after school. It wasn’t until a tragic period when his father, grandfather and grandmother all passed away in the same month that he actually started cooking.
But from the moment he discovered a recipe on the back of a packet of Ritz biscuits he bought from a supermarket in Cuernavaca – a small town 90 minutes south of Mexico City where crime and violence are prevalent – Lastra was hooked.
“I didn’t really have any idea or interest in cooking until I was 15. I went to the supermarket one day and I bought these Ritz crackers and then there was a recipe on the back and then I just bought the ingredients to make it took it home. Everyone loved it. And I was like, oh my God, I love this. I went back to the supermarket and bought this small little Italian cookbook and I cooked all the recipes,” he said.
“I wanted to be a mathematician but then my father, grandfather and my grandmother all passed away in the same month. Then I was not going to school and I started going to work in a restaurant to get away from the sadness. When you’re a kid all the other kids don’t know what to say to you; I didn’t know what to say or how to react, so I decided to go to the restaurant.
“I always had the idea that when you’re 18 you leave your home. When I was 18, I went to work in a fusion restaurant in Mexico City for a little bit and then I had this opportunity to go to Spain. I was making 200 pounds a month in Mexico City, so I had to save for like six months to pay for a flight to Spain.
“Then I was there and no one knew I was coming. I was there with a suitcase at the airport and my family thought I’d made it because I had got a job in Spain. I got to the restaurant and they were like, ‘Who are you? We don’t know who you are, no one told us you were coming. Do you have any permission to work in Spain? Did you study at culinary school? Do you have any experience working with classic northern Spain cuisine? Do you have a place to live? All my answers were no. They were like, why do you think we are going to give you a job? It is impossible’.”
But nothing is impossible for Lastra. Just as he was preparing to turn around with his tail between his legs and head back onto the street in the centre of Pamplona, the executive chef, Pilar Idoate, walked out of the kitchen to find out what all the fuss was about in the dining room.
The pint-sized, blonde chef had earned and maintained a Michelin Star at Europa since 1993 cooking traditional Basque dishes in a town known best for the Running of the Bulls. For some reason, Idoate told Lastra to sit down and eat a meal she would cook for him. If he liked it, she would find a way to squeeze him into her kitchen. She couldn’t pay him to start with, but she could teach him. He stayed there for three years and still views Idoate as a second mum who set him on a course towards opening his own restaurant.
And that’s why we are sitting where we are, tucked up the back of Kol, a restaurant that has been years in the making and overcome a few setbacks – most notably COVID-19 – before finally opening two weeks before the United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a national lockdown at the end of October.
With 56 seats in an upstairs dining room shaped around an open kitchen in the middle that makes you feel like you are in someone’s house, and a private chef’s table and mezcaleria downstairs, Kol caters for any and every occasion. But make no mistake, this isn’t a white table cloth type of place. This is Mexican soul with British ingredients. Something you’ve never even considered before.
Now that you know Lastra’s journey to this point, it is not hard to see why he is not despondent when many in the gastronomy world are pulling their hair out. He is disappointed by the interruption but just like a Jurgen Klopp or Pep Guardiola, he is using the time away from the game to fine-tune his own game.
“It is just another speedbump. The silver lining of this is it gives us another opportunity to reset and it is like a football match where it half-time; we are going to gather, we are going make different tactics, like you go back to defence,” he said.
“We are going to use this time to really make sure we are really ready to go and to work smarter and more efficient when we reopen. We can use this time to make our lives easier when we reopen. I want to make a couple more dishes so I will keep improving what we do here at Kol. We can always improve and that’s what we will do.”
Lastra doesn’t have the reach of Zuckerberg – no one does – but he has a unique link to Facebook that the co-founder can relate to. It changed his life. Now he is ready to change the way Londoners eat Mexican cuisine.