Q&A with Adriana Cavita

The Journal interviews the chef owner of restaurant Cavita.

Words: Clare Finney | Images: Lucy Richards, David Cotsworth

Marylebone is now home to some of the most exciting Mexican food and drink in the UK. To celebrate, the Journal meets Adriana Cavita to discuss Mexico’s extraordinary culinary culture.

We catch up in Cavita’s low-lit dining room which is slung with hanging ferns and lampshades like white moths. The aroma of charcoal, slowly braising beans and maize tortilla dough wafts over from the open kitchen, where her team are calmly starting to prep for dinner. Cavita the restaurant has been open a mere couple of months – yet Cavita the chef seems entirely at ease.

After years of studying gastronomy at university and on the ground in Mexico, then working with such luminaries as Ferran Adrià in Spain and Enrique Olvera in Mexico, there is a sense of homecoming to the white drapes, brightly coloured ornaments, and her blue chef’s outfit, hand embroidered with her name, and a strip of pink flowers. For Adriana, Mexico’s diverse cuisine is like its languages: prolific, beautiful and under threat from an increasingly globalised and homogenised world.

“There were around 100 languages in Mexico; now there are 50 or 60. They’re going down, partly because young people are not interested, because the world is so much more open. Yet losing a language means losing part of a culture,” she says. “The same with food.” It needs to be spoken to survive. “I feel a lot of love for these recipes, because so much creativity has gone into them over the years, and if we don’t share those ways of seeing or creating, the creativity goes down. The more uniform the world is, the less creative,” she argues. Thus, while every one of her dishes has her own layer of ingenuity, it is rooted in the land and culture from which it came.

“What I am trying to do here is show the recipes I learned there,” she says: at university, but more importantly during her travels through the small rural towns of Mexico. “It takes a lot of time, the research. For example, I lived with a Oaxacan woman for eight months, cooking different recipes just from that area. And if you go to another area, you really need to do the same.” Everywhere you go the ingredients are slightly different. Londoners might feel spoiled now that we can get seven types of Mexican chilli, but in Mexico itself there are hundreds, each of which vary not just according to variety, but the soil and climate they’re grown in – the ‘terroir’ if you will. The same is true of pulses, herbs, limes and maize. “In each area I go to, I try to understand, why this ingredient? Why not another? It’s difficult to recreate Mexican food because the ingredients are very local. The flavour is connected to the soil.”

Adriana’s grandmother had a business selling ‘antojitos’ – street snacks – and would mill and knead corn for the masa dough each morning. That corn was grown their senses and using their hands. 

Now Adriana, like her grandma before her, makes masa each morning, for the tamales, tetelas tostadas and tacos which come laden with – at the time of writing – pig’s head and salsa verde; smoked mushroom with blue corn, red adobo and goat curd; or slow-cooked beef shin with crispy cheese and guajillo. When I eat at Cavita later that evening, I am presented with her famed tuna tostada, flecked with sesame seeds, ginger and soy sauce. Where possible – that is, affordable and sustainable – Adriana buys her ingredients from Mexico, from small-scale growers and producers whose businesses are increasingly at risk from Chinese imports. “They are growing chillies in China, and selling them cheaply in Mexico,” she explains. “The producers in Mexico are really struggling with that.” Yet she is not averse to drawing upon other ingredients to recreate the taste of her homeland, if they are more readily accessible and better quality than those she can import.

“I’d say my cooking is 50:50 tradition and creativity,” she says. “The root is always proper Mexican food, but I need to be creative with the ingredients I find, because I know that some of the ingredients we’d use in Mexico aren’t going to be as tasty here.” Again, this goes back to the soil: any tomatillos, avocadoes or limes you can find in the UK are likely to have been grown in Spanish soil. “They are not bad, they just don’t have as strong a flavour. Fresh herbs are almost impossible,” she continues – and yet it is from these challenges that her creativity is born.

“I often substitute when cooking, with ingredients which are here and are seasonal: collard greens instead of banana or corn leaves to wrap the tamales in, for example.” British goat’s curd stands in for Mexican cheese, all the seafood is caught off British shores – and yet when creatively combined with her array of dried Mexican ingredients, it is possible for her “to reach the flavours and the feeling,” she explains. “A big part of my cuisine now is dried.” Dried Mexican herbs and spices, dried avocado leaf, dried chillies and maize in many hues: these are the stems that root her dishes in Mexico, in whatever region has inspired them. Shipped over in bulk to reduce the carbon footprint of transport, these are the ingredients that allow Adriana to support rural communities at home, while at the same time championing British produce; that enable her to bring us the flavours of Mexico without great cost to the earth.

Cavita is traditional. At no point during the four courses of our meal did I feel I was eating anywhere other than a Mexican restaurant. There is a sense, conveyed as much by the surroundings as by the food, of being cared for and fed by a generous, if refined, ‘abuela’, the Mexican word for grandma. Yet any tradition needs to grow and adapt if it’s to remain relevant; if it’s to continue to resonate with the people it’s meant to serve. Food is no exception. Like language, it needs to grow and evolve to survive.

So Adriana employs creativity in the context of her tradition, finding new ways of creating old dishes, and applying old techniques to new ingredients. If she wants to ‘invent’ something, she will research it first, to see if there’s anywhere in Mexico it has been done before. “Once I wanted to do something like a foam, similar to what I did at El Bulli, and I found somewhere in Mexico where they made a cacao foam, hundreds of years ago. The more you explore, the more you find inspiration. I travel and I discover, and I find new things – and then I can do what I want, because the roots are there.” She stiches good quality ingredients – be they British, Spanish or Mexican – into a Mexican fabric, and it works because it is rooted in research, experience, family and emotion. She takes this remarkable example of intangible cultural heritage, and she makes it vividly, delectably tangible.