As the cold winter nights draw in, we talk sunshine, spices, sustainability and South American street food with the tonic that is Thomasina Miers…

You “tried out” various careers before settling on the food industry. What did cheffing offer that other careers didn’t? Interest! I just couldn’t get excited about anything else I tried. In order to work hard at something I have to be passionate about it – when I work really hard but without that initial passion I am lost!

Why did you choose to specialise in Mexican street food when you set up Wahaca? I travelled there when I was 18 and fell head over heels with the food. When I got back to the UK I realised there was no Mexican food to speak of – masses of Tex Mex, but no real Mexican. Ten years later I went back to live and work in Mexico City. I never looked back.

Did you ever imagine that the street food “craze” would take off in the way it did? Yes! About five years before we did Wahaca I wanted to take over all the hot dog stands in central London and serve really delicious street food instead. So many cultures have incredible street food – it seemed only a matter of time before we woke up to it. It was a given for us that Wahaca would be all about the food on the streets of Mexico.

How important is foreign travel to a chef and why? Travelling opens up your eyes to new cultures, new ingredients, new cooking techniques. Whenever I feel tired or ‘stale’ I try to find time to go somewhere a little different to give me a blast of inspiration. What other cuisine(s), apart from Mexican, excite and inspire you? I adore Indian food, Middle-Eastern food, modern Australian, Californian, Italian, South-East Asian… those for a start! And obviously modern British is one of the most exciting places to be right now.

What or who prompted you to enter MasterChef? Did winning (in 2005) change your life? I had come back from working in Mexico and was extremely broke, wanting to work in food but with no idea what to do next. I saw the article about it just at the right time. I was without a job and searching for the next step. John and Gregg were amazingly supportive and encouraging to us all. They really wanted us all to excel. Their encouragement was crucial to giving me the confidence to get into a kitchen.

What is the most important piece of career advice you have been given? Follow your heart. If you are not passionate about what you are doing, find something that does make you passionate – in or outside your work.

Social media – friend or foe? Totally amaze-balls! You’re passionate about sustainability. How does this translate in a practical sense? The world we live in supports and feeds us. Wildlife and nature gives us energy and hope. The planet is in a scary place right now. The ice in the North Pole is melting at rates that even the most knowledgeable scientists weren’t predicting. I think it is just a given that we have to weave sustainability into everything that we do, looking after the planet and all its inhabitants, human or otherwise! I think it is just being sensitive to what is going on around us.

We’re intrigued to find out more about your Wahaca presents Day of the Dead fiesta at Tobacco Docks on November 7… I am not surprised! It is going to be the wildest party with fascinating talks hosted by English PEN, incredible food from Wahaca and a supper club with Enrique Olvera (whose restaurant Pujol is ranked in the top 20 in the world), eye-opening art in partnership with the Saatchi Gallery and Mexico’s Rodrigo Peñafiel, unbelievable music from soaring rock bands Savages, The Horrors, Grammy award winning Zoé and supergroup, Mexrrissey – and not to mention lots and lots of good feeling.

And now for three questions that we ask all of our Leading Lights… What are your three kitchen secrets? 1. Invest in a good pestle and mortar. 2. Buy the biggest freezer that you can. 3. Grow your own herbs.

What is your favourite ingredient and why? I am pretty obsessed with vinegars for making food come alive, not to mention all the great gut bacteria it gives. And of course salt, without which we would be toast.

Please could you share your favourite recipe, along with your reasons for choosing it? This pumpkin seed linguine is so simple to make, packed with the pre-Hispanic nutrients that the ancient tribes in Mexico fed themselves with, whilst also being incredibly delicious. It is a real winner. Recipe taken from Chilli Notes by Thomasina Miers (Hodder & Stoughton £25)

Click here to try Thomasina’s deliciously spicy Pumpkin Seed Pesto Linguine recipe

Click here to read the full feature and the rest of the November/December 2015 issue of Stir it up