Having worked in professional kitchens since the age of 15, Santiago’s journey as a chef has taken him across the globe, from London’s Tate Modern to Hija de Sanchez in Copenhagen. In 2017 he worked alongside Rene Redzepi to launch Noma in his homeland, sourcing exceptional ingredients from independent suppliers across Mexico.
Since opening, KOL has won prestigious awards and is counted among the best restaurants in the UK. We caught up with Santiago about his inspiration, langoustine tacos and kitchen playlists.
Tell us a bit about the concept behind Kol.
KOL, taken from the word ‘Col’, means cabbage in Mexican Spanish and represents my belief that the simplest things can be made extraordinary if you believe in them. The restaurant showcases the innovation and diversity of Mexican cuisine and food culture whilst using the finest British ingredients. I decided to open KOL after my time with Rene Redzepi as part of the Noma Mexico team; the fact that you can build a community around a concept really appealed to me. Opening in London gave me the opportunity to showcase the quality and substance of Mexican culture and cuisine to the world.
How did you get into cooking?
I didn’t have any real connection with good food until I turned 15. At the supermarket, I found a small booklet of Italian recipes and I cooked them all. I then went to an Italian restaurant called Formaggio in Mexico City to see if I liked being in the kitchen and it was love at first sight. Everything was so exciting, and I knew that cooking was what I wanted to do with my life. To be able to craft moments that make people happy with your hands, that’s what it is all about.
Who has been your greatest teacher?
Rene Redzepi from Noma is one of my biggest inspirations and mentors. I’m so lucky to have been able to travel with him and the team of Noma around Mexico and be able to understand more about my own culture and learn from him about the real meaning of quality that is directly related with craft and respect. I also really admire the indigenous communities in Mexico who preserve its culture and show your craft is an extension of your life and your universe. I learnt a lot from these communities while travelling through Mexico. It is beautiful to experience how these inspiring women and men preserve our heritage and culture everyday.
You recently began a Chef’s Table Experience- what can diners expect?
The Chef’s Table is a private extension of the restaurant upstairs in an elegant space designed to be akin to an Oaxacan home kitchen. The room has its own private kitchen as well, so our guests can have a closer look at our team preparing their courses.
Aside from Kol, what are some of your favourite restaurants to eat at in London?
I love Bright, St. John, P. Franco and 40 Maltby Street, Chiltern FireHouse, Carousel, Koya
Ikoyi, Da Terra, Trullo, Clove Club, Lyles to name a few. There are so many more amazing bars and restaurants in London.
After travelling the globe and sampling cuisines from across the world, what is one of the most memorable meals you’ve ever eaten?
Whenever I get the chance to eat at Noma I take it – my favourite restaurant in the world. I also think memorable meals are always related to emotions and life stories, and I love eating and cooking outdoors. One of my favourite experiences was eating lobster tacos made by the locals on a beach in Baja California. We caught the lobsters with my good friend Ezequiel who is one of the best seafood suppliers in Mexico and then we organised this lobster taco cooked on the beach with freshly made tortillas and beans. The lobsters were cut in half and masterfully cooked in pork fat and served with different garnishes and salsas.
What are some of your favourite ingredients to work with? How do you track down the best quality producers?
I love working with the great quality seafood we get from across the UK; it’s always on our menu in one way or another. Whether it be crab from Cornwall for our crab chalupa or Scottish langoustines for our langoustine tacos, it’s some of the best quality seafood in the world.
Tracking down the best quality producers takes time – before I opened KOL I travelled around the UK searching for the best quality producers. Of course, chefs can give you advice on where to source from, but actually going and looking for yourself is the best way to ensure you’re working with the right product and also of equal importance, the right kind of people.
For example, we work with a dairy farmer in Kent who makes Oaxacan style cheese for the restaurant. We spent months developing the recipe in collaboration with him and its those kinds of relationships that bring the best out of the producer and out of us in the kitchen to do the produce justice.
Mezcal or tequila?
Tequila is part of the mezcal family, so by default, Mezcal. There is so much more to the world of agave spirits than just tequila – I would encourage people to try mezcals made with different agaves and different production methods. At the Mezcaleria, we have a very wide range of mezcals made from all manner of agaves and producers/production methods to showcase the diversity of agave spirits.
When you’re in charge of the music, what might you be listening to in the kitchen to maintain the energy?
I like the guys to feel like they can play any music they like. Actually, fun fact: the first item I bought for the production kitchen was a speaker and I gave it straight to the production chefs. They’re mostly the ones playing their playlists. However, I do enjoy all sorts of music, from alternative rock to Mexican folk “banda”. Anything that has the beat or the lyrics to get you excited!
Which Latin American cuisine do you find most inspiring at the moment?
Mexican, of course! Mexico is such a big country that you never stop finding inspiration. Me and KOL are rooted to it. There’s always something new to discover: traditions, people, ingredients. If I needed to choose another cuisine that is not Mexican, it would probably be Peruvian, but there’s so much going on everywhere in Latin America- such rich and exciting cuisines!
Are there any food trends you dislike?
I think it is slowly changing, but I’m not a fan of fast food and take away. I do understand that people are living their life and don’t always have time to go to a 2 hr meal restaurant, sometimes you just got to eat. However, I do believe eating is such an intimate thing that we do every day, we should take a break to enjoy the things that are keeping us alive.
How do you think your cooking style will evolve in the coming years?
I think cooking is always an evolving process, you learn, you try and you learn again. I’m always trying to make time for me and the team to get involved in research trips, congresses, speaking to suppliers and other people in the industry. Even when you go out to have a meal in another restaurant you’re always learning and getting inspiration. I think that makes every chef’s cooking style evolve over time, where exactly I’m not sure.
What are some of the best dishes you’ve created?
I try not to dwell on the same dishes for too long, but the langoustine tacos with chipotle cream and sea buckthorn with our in-house sourdough tortillas is a fan favourite at KOL.
What do you hope will be your greatest legacy?
I’d like to create a change in how kitchens and the industry work. That restaurants are places where the staff has a good balance, where the ego is left aside and we can grow collectively as a team.
What advice would you give to the next generation of chefs?
Dream, but also be patient. Hard work will always pay off. I remember I was a stagiaire (intern) and CDP (Chef de Partie) for 10 years and the only goal was to keep learning and to keep getting better. The hard work we put in on developing ourselves will always be rewarded.
Visit Kol at 9 Seymour Street, London W1H 7BA.
Photos of Santiago courtesy of Eleanora Boscarelli and Charlie McKay.