I didn’t tell anyone I’d applied for the show. I was far too embarrassed; Loyd Grossman was a bit of a joke when I was growing up and the format was very staid. When I turned up at the studios after getting through the auditions, I started mucking around and doing handstands in the waiting room. I didn’t take it seriously. Then they asked everyone to come in for the first challenge and make mashed potato. They rolled out these huge cameras and my hands started to shake. I was absolutely terrified. My mashed potato was lumpy but I knew it had flavour. I said to John [Torode], ‘Ignore the lumps, just taste it!’ Winning the show in 2005 when I was 28 was amazing. Up until that point, my life had been a catalogue of failures: I’d screwed up my A-levels; I didn’t get into Oxford University; I’d been sacked, I’d been made redundant. I’d spent my 20s being miserable. For the first time, this was someone saying: ‘You’re ok. You’re on the right path. You can do it.’ I still feel choked up talking about it.
On co-founding Wahaca:
One of the biggest things I’ve learned in life is to go out, say yes, and turn up to things. A mutual friend introduced me to my business partner Mark [Selby] and I feel so lucky to have met him. It’s been brilliant to share the fun moments – and the dark times. I’m not the kind of person that needs all the limelight or to always be in charge. By sheer chance, our skill sets work well together; he’s not very good in the kitchen, I’m not very good on detail. Together, we’re a great team.
On getting it off the ground:
Before staring Wahaca, I’d spent six months working in restaurant kitchens. But opening and running your own kitchen is an entirely different ball game. We had to learn on our feet. I think our combined passion got us through. People didn’t really know about Mexican food back then so we had this almost evangelical drive to show that it wasn’t about cheap shots and greasy tortilla chips; it’s fresh, delicious and healthy. We had this crazily inexperienced team when we started out – I think the average age was 24 – and we were buoyed on by the energy. Mark and I lost so much weight when we opened the first restaurant because we didn’t stop working. We joked that we should have strung up a hamper in the restaurant so we could sleep there.
I was never confronted with sexism in the industry. But once I had children, I did feel separate from the other sex. Alongside doing your job, suddenly you have a whole family to run – and that definitely still falls on the woman. That won’t change until we start addressing things like the outrageous cost of childcare. Businesses are losing talented women and there’s such a brain drain. That’s why we’re seeing so many brilliant female entrepreneurs: if you’re your own boss, you can manage your own time instead of working for someone else who doesn’t care if you’re not back in time to pick the kids up.
On staying sane:
I cycle around London a lot – it's important to me to stay fit and have time to process my thoughts. I’m not very good at switching off, though. My husband jokes that if I spend a week trying to do nothing, I’ll end up figuring out a whole new project. Part of that comes from feeling like I wasted a whole decade of my life, aged 18-28, drifting and not knowing what to do. I’ve got to make up for lost time. The other part is knowing there’s so much to do around food education. As a food writer, I want to try and persuade people to pick up a wooden spoon more often and to eat more healthily. That doesn’t mean cutting out whole food groups, or trying to give up things like chocolate, cream or olive oil – yum! It’s about eating more vegetables and cooking at home. In the UK, we eat more processed food than any other country in Europe. I get so much joy out of stirring a pot of slow-cooked onions waiting for them to turn silky, sweet and golden, and sitting around the dinner table with friends and family. For me, that's pure pleasure.
Thomasina Miers was a guest speaker at Wandsworth Enterprise Week in March.