Michelin-Starred Kol Chef Santiago Lastra Is Constantly Evolving

Chef Santiago Lastra tells Observer how he continues to experiment at Kol, what patrons can expect from his new restaurant and how he uses social media to better tell the stories behind his food. 

Santiago Lastra. Maureen Evans

In October of 2020, during the height of the pandemic, Santiago Lastra opened Kol, a high-end restaurant celebrating the marriage of Mexican flavors and British ingredients. It was an unlikely success at a time when people were desperate for connection. Lastra, who had previously worked with Andoni Aduriz at Mugaritz in San Sebastian and with René Redzepi at Noma’s Mexico residency, spent years looking for the right city to make his home base. He held pop-ups in 27 countries, from Russia to Portugal to China, but eventually settled on the U.K., and more specifically, London, where Kol has become an essential addition to the culinary scene

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“I felt some sort of sense of openness,” Lastra tells Observer. “London gives you this incredible feeling of people being open-minded for flavors and experiences and concepts. There’s not a lot of Mexican chefs outside Mexico, although there’s a few who have spent enough time to really figure out how to do Mexican food abroad. In London, there are amazing restaurants that are more like taquerias, which is great, but I think there was a lack of a place where you go and sit down and it champions quality. These stories of Mexico needed to be told through the lens of quality. London was one of, if not the, best place to do it.”

Kol. Charlie McKay

Since opening in Marylebone, Kol has earned a Michelin star and was listed at No. 23 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2023. But despite the success, Lastra isn’t interested in complacency. He’s continually developing innovative, surprising new dishes and urging his team to push themselves as well. He’s open to change, including introducing more non-alcoholic drink options, including Australian wine alternative Non, to the menu alongside the expansive list of mezcal

“It’s something we are exploring a lot in the restaurant,” Lastra notes. “We are also exploring low-ABV drinks that still give you a complexity and the feeling of the alcohol, but you can drink more and not really feel drunk. We are experimenting with tepaches, which were originally made with pineapple, but we are doing rhubarb and different fruits and vegetables from the U.K. It’s about trying new things to see what works.” 

Lastra tells Observer how he continues to experiment at Kol, what patrons can expect from his new restaurant and how he uses social media to better tell the stories behind his food. 

Observer: How has Kol evolved since it opened in 2020?

Santiago Lastra: There is an organic growth of curiosity. The more that you know, the more that you can do. We’re creating our own style and our own kind of dialect, if you want to call it that. The more flavors we can find and the more we understand the ingredients from Britain and the seasonality and what we can do with them, the more we can bring our inspiration across. One of the most amazing things about being a chef is that it doesn’t end. It’s a craft. So you’re always trying to do things better, but not because you want to show off. It’s how it naturally works.

It’s a silly example, but I do Christmas dinner every year, and I make turkey. You have this sense, “Well, next time I do the turkey I’m going to try a different thing and I’m going to try to make it better, and it’s going to be the best Christmas dinner.” And then every year it’s better. But not because you try something completely different or try to show off. It’s more about the natural growth that you have in your craft. That happens with painters and different artists, as well.

There are different sides of a restaurant. One can be the side of business, where you’re trying to make the perfect steak and not change the menu. But what we do here is creative food. We’re designing flavors and putting them together to bring to people a performance that is inspired by Mexico and rooted in British seasonality. 

The Chef’s Table at Kol. Charlie McKay

What do you think about when doing that?

You think about presentations and you think, “Oh, how can we do this new texture or this new thing?” So then, at the end of the day, you use food chemistry, flavor and the understanding that you have of cooking to create a play. You want the people to learn and to experience where you are at this point, and where the team is and what we want to represent in every menu. So when you look back it really has some sort of constant evolution. 

I try to have a mindset of trying to do one thing better every day. We have 50 people working here. So then, at the end of the day, even if you do one half of a thing better every day, it’s already 25 times better. I think that is also really important, and can help in making longer steps and taking more risks.

What’s one thing you’ve done better this week?

We’re working on this specific asparagus dish. I think we have tried it 60 times already. We started a few months ago, before asparagus was in season. We were getting asparagus from somewhere else just to try the dish, and we had so many iterations. Now, we’re getting to a point where it works. It’s called tetela in Mexico—it’s a triangle shaped tortilla. They made it close to my hometown in Tepoztlán, in the mountains. Normally it’s made with wild ingredients from the area, but we’re doing it with asparagus. 

Would you normally test a dish that many times before you put it on the menu?

The thing [with] getting better or evolving is that every time, it takes longer to make the dishes. We’ve always been like, “Okay, well, it’s fine.” And then suddenly, you get to a point where you become your own competition. The people that come to the restaurant are coming back, and they’ve been here before so they know which one is the best version of yourself already. We do taste the dishes quite a lot of times, so it takes a while. 

Langoustine tacos. Rebecca Dickson

Is there a dish you can’t take off the menu because people love it so much?

Our signature dish, the langoustine taco. When I was doing various pop-ups around the world, I was in Baja California having lots of tacos on the beach. They roll the flour tortillas there and serve them with beans and spicy sauce. Before we opened the restaurant, I did quite a lot of trips to visit suppliers and fishermen. One of them was with a Scottish langoustine supplier who took me to these tiny boats that go and fish langoustines in Scotland, and we had a barbecue on the beach. I did the tacos with langoustines instead of lobster, and it was mind-blowing. I had this connection of this beautiful day on the beach in Mexico and the incredible produce here, and the landscape. Scotland really feels like you’re on another planet. It was this marriage of the two cultures. And it was a taco and tacos make people happy. 

We’ve had that dish since we opened, and it has been a favorite. You can tell when someone has their first langoustine taco. They make a very specific first langoustine taco face that I really enjoy. People come back to the restaurant and want to show it to their friends. They want to share that moment together, and it’s very special. It’s like when you are a rock band and you have that one song that you’re still playing [when] you are 60 and you don’t want to play it, but everyone wants you to. But that’s what people expect. Sometimes people expect something and I think it’s good to give it to them. At the end of the day, yes, we change most of the things all the time. But then it’s good to find things that are special for people and give them what they want.

What can you share about the new restaurant, Fonda, that you’re opening in 2024?

It’s opening later in the year, in September. Fonda is [the Spanish word for] a family-run business. You open the doors of your house, put a few tables out and cook traditional market food for people to enjoy every day. That’s the inspiration. We will have more details in the future, but we’re going to open on Heddon Street in Mayfair, close to Regent Street. The idea is to bring a little bit more of the regional Mexican and my interpretation of Mexican cooking. I think it’s important to be able to reach more people. The good thing is that the more that we do it, the more that other people are going to do it, and the demand will grow and then the love for Mexico will grow. That is the goal.

Where do you eat Mexican food in London?

There is a place called Sonora Taquería in East London, and they have this Northern Mexican cooking that is really good. Tacos Padre in Borough Market. There is also El Pastor; I know [co-founder] Crispin Somerville really well. They’re doing a lot of work to bring authentic parts of Mexico to London. 

Tamales colado. Eleonora Boscarelli

Has social media impacted the way you present your dishes?

Presentation is very important for us. I try not to be on Instagram and TikTok too much because I will see things and I will end up doing something similar to other people, even if I don’t mean to. To be unique, you have to try to stay away from seeing everything. But it is very important for us to share what we do. Our goals and our ethos go beyond the plate. We want to support producers. We want to represent art and craft and Mexico and the ingredients here [in the U.K.]. There are only so many things you can say at the table to the guests, but if they follow us on social media, they can see in detail what we do. 

In the presentation of the dishes, we do try to be unique. If someone takes a picture or a video of a dish or a meal that they have in the restaurant, I want it to look and feel like it is in our restaurants. From the crockery that we buy, to the presentations and ingredients to the way that we cut things and the way that we place them on the plate, it needs to follow our own style. It’s a little bit like branding. You can tell if you take a picture in a Gucci store that you’re in a Gucci store, and this is similar. Fine dining overlaps quite a lot with art, but also with fashion. If you take a picture of a bag or a dress or something that someone is wearing, you can tell that it is from this specific designer. And for us, that is very important. We’re not going to put a piece of fish with a beer. It needs to be like something that follows our style.

What is the most memorable meal you’ve had recently?

That is a difficult question! But in terms of fine dining, I went to Boragó in Chile. The chef, Rodolfo Guzmán, is from an island in Patagonia. He uses all this incredible seaweed and ingredients from the mountains and close to the sea. It was a mind-blowing experience. Everything was beautifully presented. In terms of London, I recently went to Endo at the Rotunda, which is a sushi restaurant, but the experience is amazing as well. It’s not stuffy. It’s interactive and fun. It’s like going to the theater, but you are also eating incredible food. 

Michelin-Starred Kol Chef Santiago Lastra Is Constantly Evolving