Published 14 January 2022
30 under 30 alumni
In the lead up to this year’s list, we look back at CODE’s 30 under 30 alumni
For those avid followers of Noma, Santiago Lastra’s name may have cropped up on the radar back when he worked with Rene Redzepi as project manager for Noma Mexico in 2017. The role was vividly captured in Jeff Gordinier’s travelogue Hungry: here was a chef with tenacity and an unparalleled understanding of his country’s produce.
It was fortunate, then, that London was the chosen home for Lastra’s own first restaurant, and British produce the new focus of his dedication. But starting out with very little meant the dream would be a few years in the making. After many research trips, pop ups and quietly triumphant residencies, Lastra was recognised in the CODE 30 under 30 class of 2019. He went onto open KOL to universal acclaim, despite the many knockbacks from COVID. Here he looks back on how he did it.
Everything started when I was on the beach after working at Noma putting together their pop up in Tulum. I experienced a lot of exciting things. It was a moment of my life where there were no distractions, when I felt I could do whatever I dreamed of. I helped to organise one of the most exciting projects to ever happen in the world of food, and I got to meet some of the best chefs in the world. I learnt more about my culture than I could ever have imagined by travelling around Mexico visiting restaurants and markets, making deals, collaborating with indigenous communities and spending time in the jungle and in nature. Overall, that time made me understand what quality means and how lucky I was to be Mexican, and how many amazing things we have to draw inspiration from and to share with the world and discover.
So I decided to move to a place that would tick all the boxes of a perfect destination to open a restaurant, where I could promote the meaning of quality of Mexican culture and where I could express myself. I also wanted to have something close to a normal life, and to stop travelling so much for a while. I was sure I wanted to make impact and help build a community by working with all sorts of people collaboratively.
The idea was simple – to open a restaurant in London where I could have a great team that would become my family and all together work towards representing the meaning of quality of Mexican culture and Mexican food. And to operate a restaurant where the staff and guests are treated with equal importance, to create an amazing workplace. Not to mention the produce – I wanted to use the best ingredients available alongside amazing wines and drinks.
So I moved to London with little money and hardly any contacts, but the only thing I had was a dream. I was staying with friend who kindly rented me a room in south east London. I was sleeping in a tiny bed with only room for a suitcase, and I walked the streets dreaming about the restaurant, about the name, the location, the layout, the menu, the people. I just dreamt for a year, meeting people for coffee making connections, walking around and imagining dishes.
I didn’t have enough money to buy ingredients so I would just put a spoon in my mouth and imagine the flavours for hours. Then I start working on events, meeting more people – there would be some that wanted to invest in the restaurant. More often than not however I just didn’t feel I connected with them, or that we shared a similar vision for the way I want the restaurant to operate, so I waited some more.
I then started to get involved in more important events internationally, and I was also spending my time travelling around the UK visiting farmers and understanding a bit more about the essence of Britain. It was important that I got a strong understanding of what people might want, what was the best way to make the people here happy.
Then I met my business partners Jake Kasumov and Marco Mendes (of MJMK Restaurants) through a common friend and I felt a connection straight away. They saw through my words and realised the potential of my dream and literally told me that they would be willing to do whatever it took to make it reality. I cooked for them the following week and we decided to become partners, and from there it was an adventure.
We did a week-long research trip to Scotland where we went fishing, diving, hunting, foraging and cooking, travelling from Skye to Inverness, Galloway, Islay, Perth and Edinburgh.
We travelled together to Copenhagen and for a month to Mexico visiting a total of 10 states where we made dinners on the beach and jungle, visited indigenous communities, restaurants, markets and artisans and ate as many dishes and ingredients as we could.
After that we created a test kitchen in east London that became my home and where we would make tastings for my business partners, friends and family. Over six months we developed 120 dishes and we managed to cook for journalists, chefs and all sorts of industry people. The concept was set, the menu was ready and after a year of negotiations we got the restaurant venue confirmed. We found our management team and we brought them to Mexico for nine days, to help them further understand the roots of the KOL concept. We came back to London full of inspiration and excitement and then Covid happened.
It’s in times of crisis when you know how people really are and I can confirm that my whole team and particularly my business partners Jake and Marco are incredible, the way that they continued to believe in me and the concept has been remarkable. With a lot of struggles we kept the project running and with the management team on furlough, we could get back to building the restaurant. Against all odds and like a shot in the dark we hired 35 staff members, trained them for two weeks and then opened the restaurant in the middle of the pandemic.
It has been really difficult to believe in this project at times. The last three years has been an up and down journey of uncertainty. I thought it was tough enough to move to a new country without knowing almost anyone and with very little knowledge of the culture or language or money. I thought it was challenging enough to move to a country that was just about to face the enormous uncertainty in terms of Brexit. It’s been hard to keep the faith sometimes that I could achieve this. The secret was to wake up every day and keep trying and to be incredibly patient. When we saw the Marylebone site the very first time I pasted the plans on my wall next to my bed, and I visualised myself there every single day. It took us years in the end, and it took me a lifetime to even get to where we were at the beginning of this year. When we added Covid to the mix I felt devastated for months, but then you just try to face the idea that if you want to wait for the whole world to be perfect without problems, challenges or uncertainties you will never do anything.
It’s been a long process for me to understand that opening this restaurant in these times is not the end of my life or the world, but it is the beginning of a new one, an opportunity to look at things with a renewed sense of gratitude, without pride or selfishness. One of the main things I learnt during the first few months of this operation is that my priority is my team. They are my family and for them and for all of us to have a job where we do what we love, is paramount. We want our guests to have a great time, my staff to be happy and proud of what they do and to create a community of people that works for us outside of the restaurant. And we’ve done that. From potters to architects, artists, farmers and wine makers to corn and chocolate farmers, cheese makers, fishermen and more, there are around 200 or so individuals – from the UK, to Mexico and across Europe, involved in the project in some shape or form.
This is a family that has fun representing culture and happiness. Maintaining this is more important to me than any award or accolade. And no matter what happens to this world it’s important to keep dreaming. At the end of the day, no one can do that for us – we are the generation of the future and that is our responsibility.