The AYALA SquareMeal Female Chef of the Year Series 2024: Adriana Cavita

After visa issues and eight months out of the UK, Adriana Cavita returned to her eponymous restaurant last year, and has been pushing the boundaries of Mexican food ever since

Updated on • Written By Pete Dreyer

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For most chefs, having your own restaurant is the ultimate dream. All the toil - the cuts and burns, the late nights and early mornings - it’s all worth it for the moment that someone presses a cold set of keys into your palm, and you click open the lock on the door of your restaurant for the first time.

When Adriana Cavita opened her eponymous restaurant in May 2022, it was the completion of one such journey for her - the summitting of a peak that few manage to climb. Once you have the site, there’s still plenty of work to be done - building renovation, menu design, hiring the right team, branding, marketing, and myriad other things, before you finally throw open the doors for your first service. Cavita opened to rave reviews, as London took instantly to her modern twists on classic Mexican flavours and dishes. Smooth sailing, then - the hard work paid off. Except, there was a storm looming on the horizon.

Unbeknownst to anyone, Adriana’s visa had ceased to be valid, and a few months after opening she was forced to leave the UK and move back to Mexico City. Initially, it was just for ten days, but days soon became weeks. Weeks became months. In the end, it would be eight months until she was allowed to return to the restaurant that has her name over the door.

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‘I’m the face of the company, the food is mine, the name of the restaurant is my name, everything that goes on is my responsibility,’ she wrote in a piece penned for the Evening Standard. ‘I was desperately trying to figure out what we could do because it felt like: surely, this is not the only option, there must be something we can try.’

adriana cavita at restaurant cavita

Fast forward to 2024 and Adriana is now back at the helm of her restaurant once again. Amongst the gamut of emotions, relief is by far the strongest, she says, alongside a bit of residual stress and guilt that her team have had to shoulder so much. By the standards of London’s relentless restaurant calendar Cavita should be a grizzled veteran by now; instead, Adriana and team feel more like they’re launching the restaurant all over again. ‘We’ve changed the menu a couple of times since I’ve been back,’ says Adriana. ‘We’ve changed the wine list, and we’ve relaunched the bar with a new cocktail list.’

It’s clear that Adriana is not one for half measures - aside from relaunching the restaurant, she is going all guns blazing outside the restaurant too. Last year, stuck in Mexico, she wrote a cookbook. This year, she’ll be a regular sight on the summer food festival circuit, with appearances at Meatopia and Taste of London lined up, among some international collaborations too. There’s even the possibility of a second project, though it's still in the very early stages. ‘We’re trying to find another space for another project,’ she says, seemingly undeterred by her recent experiences. ‘We’re still developing the idea but I’d like to do something a bit more rustic.

‘I think the space will tell us what kind of restaurant would work,’ she adds. ‘If we were close to the sea, I’d love to do seafood!’

‘Everything we do in Mexico is about food...’

Adriana’s journey to her first solo restaurant started early. Even as a five year old, her formative mind was being bombarded with the sights, sounds and smells of colourful food markets in her native Mexico City, which she would visit with her grandma. ‘My grandma used to have a food stall in her house, where she used to make and serve antojitos (little snacks),’ says Adriana. ‘She taught me how to make tortillas, gorditas, all sorts of different street food things.’ Meanwhile, Adriana would visit her grandfather on his farm outside the city, where he grew crops and raised livestock.

Although blessed with a unique familial connection to food, Adriana’s food obsession isn’t unusual in Mexico; this is a country where days sink into a hazy blur of snacks, meals, and little bites in between snacks and meals. ‘Everything we do in Mexico is about food,’ she laughs. ‘We eat breakfast, then we talk about what we’re going to have for lunch and dinner.’

All the signs pointed to a career in the kitchen, but Adriana rejected this for some years. She disliked the machismo of cooking and Mexican culture. ‘When you cook in Mexico, for example, you serve all the men first,’ she explains. ‘I didn’t want to do that so I just refused to cook.’ Her grandmother passed away when she was eight years old, and Adriana’s connection with food faded a little too, replaced by a love of art and oil painting.

cavita interiors

Convinced that she needed to study something useful, Adriana briefly took a wrong turn into tourist administration enterprises, before a friend told her about a gastronomy course he was studying. ‘I didn’t even realise it was an option!’ she laughs. She found her way to Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana, a private university in Mexico City, and jumped at the chance to rekindle her passion for food, working in kitchens in the evenings to fund her studies.

This was still a time when Mexico, particularly Mexico City, had somewhat of an obsession with French food. Most culinary schools taught French cooking technique predominantly, but the syllabus at Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana focused on Mexican food - not just cookery, but also agriculture, history and ethnology. Del Claustro also had partnerships with restaurants in Mexico City, and Adriana landed a job at one, a French restaurant called Pujol. Yes, that Pujol - a world-renowned trailblazer for modern Mexican cooking - started life as a traditional French restaurant. ‘If we think about the history of restaurants, especially in Mexico, no-one wanted to pay for Mexican food, because you have good Mexican food available everywhere,’ Adriana explains. ‘Until now, there’s always been a big difference in what people are willing to pay for Mexican food compared to French, or Japanese, or others.’

Adriana’s career blossomed from there, taking her through the kitchens at some outstanding restaurants, where she worked alongside some of the most influential chefs of the last decade - Enrique Olvera and Eduardo Garcia at Pujol, and Ferran Adrià and Oriol Castro at El Bulli, the latter of which would go on to found three Michelin-starred Disfrutar in Barcelona. It was Garcia that pointed Adriana’s star-like trajectory towards London, when he opened a restaurant in Notting Hill - Peyotito - and asked Adriana to be a part of it. ‘I actually had an offer to go to New York as well,’ she says, ‘but I’d been to New York for a year before and London was something new, so that’s where I went.’

'We can get six or seven of the main types of chiles, but in Mexico we have hundreds.’

When Adriana first arrived in London, there were a handful of restaurants serving passably authentic Mexican food. That number has grown massively, but Mexican cuisine remains very difficult to recreate on this side of the Atlantic for multiple reasons: the wildly different climates mean that many of the ingredients that characterise food in Mexico are tricky to cultivate here, and the distance between the two countries also makes fresh items hard to import. ‘It’s never going to be possible to replicate everything,’ she explains. ‘Quelites (Mexican wild herbs) taste very different to what you get here - we could maybe grow some but not enough for the whole restaurant. We can get six or seven of the main types of chiles, but in Mexico we have hundreds.’

Naturally, that creates boundaries around what Adriana can put on the menu at Cavita too - rather than finding ways to create something similar, she tries to stay as true as possible to the traditional dishes. ‘If I don’t have the right flavour, I won’t make the dish,’ she says. ‘Half the recipes we make are very traditional, and the other half of the menu is more creative but still using Mexican ingredients.’

Though London is home once again, one feels that part of Adriana is always back in Mexico. The love for her home country is evident at every turn. When Adriana talks about the vibrant markets, the afternoons and evenings spent jumping between different taco and tamale stalls, you really feel the chasm that exists between Mexico and the UK. Time will tell if London will always be home for Adriana, but for now, we’re glad to have bringing a bit of Mexican sunshine to London.

Adriana’s perfect match for AYALA's A/18 Le Blanc de Blancs 2018

plating the crab infladita

The dish: Crab Infladita - puffed corn tortilla stuffed with crab, Pasilla chile, cucumber and kohlrabi in lime and coffee mayo dressing

The Champagne: A/18 Le Blanc de Blancs 2018

ayala champagne

Adriana explains: ‘I chose a crab infladita - it's basically a puffed tortilla, deep-fried, a bit like a pani puri. For this one we make a ceviche with crab, and we add carrot, cucumber, jalapeno and parsley, and we mix with a mayonnaise of coffee and Pasilla chiles. Pasilla chile has a slightly raisiny taste and smell. That all goes in the middle of the puffed tortilla, and then we finish with a bit of fresh red onion and jalapeno. It’s quite refreshing but has richness and a bit of oiliness from the mayonnaise, so the Champagne really enhances that and cuts through with citrus and acidity, as well as adding a bit of creaminess.

crab infladita close up

Adriana’s quick bites

Who or what have been your biggest influences?

My head chef at Pujol, Alejandro Villagomez. He really helped me a lot when I was first starting. After that I went to El Bulli, and Oriol Castro was the creative chef there - he was so nice, always asking me questions about Mexican food, very curious. He’s another person that really motivated me a lot. Also Eduardo Garcia - he has a restaurant in Mexico City called Maximo Bistrot. He’s a really great chef - I met him at Pujol when I was very young, and he really pushed me to keep learning. He’s the reason I’m here in London!

Which female chefs have inspired you in your career?

Elena Arzak and Dominique Crenn, they’re both amazing! But also, in Mexican communities we have cocineras tradicionales (traditional cooks in Mexico). They aren't exactly chefs but they've been very important for me - they hold a lot of knowledge. Maybe they just cook for locals in a village but I think that's so important, and to me they're very inspiring. And of course, my grandma - all my first memories of food are linked to my grandma.

If you could give someone just starting out some words of wisdom, what would they be?

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Follow your instincts with your taste and your smell. And sometimes you’ll find yourself working with people who aren’t helping you to grow - we decide for ourselves what we’re going to be, so don’t let anyone else tell you how far you’re going to go.

Describe your cooking style in three words?

Fresh. Deep flavours. Delicious.

What is your favourite thing to cook at home?

I love working with seafood but if I had to pick on think it would be moles. Very complex moles take days to make - you have to clean the chiles, toast the seeds, choose the spices then prepare the whole thing and blend it. It reminds me of being with my family - when everyone is cleaning chiles that’s the time to chat and connect!

Do you have a guilty food pleasure?

I really like hot dogs and hamburgers! We have a lot of American influences in Mexico. We have these hot dogs with pico de gallo, bacon, onion and lots of sauces on top - so good!

Where is your favourite foodie destination?

If we’re talking Mexico it would be Nayarit on the beach, or Baja California. You get amazing seafood like ceviche and aguachile, and they cook a lot over charcoal so you can get fish or prawns cooked on the grill.

If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing?

For sure an artist, or a gardener - I love plants!

What was the last great thing you ate?

Everything at Lisboeta! Nuno Mendes is a fantastic chef.

Read more about our AYALA Female Chef of the Year awards, including interviews with the likes of Pip LaceySabrina Gidda, and Lisa Goodwin-Allen.

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With its longstanding commitment to the restaurant industry, Champagne AYALA is a natural sponsor to this award and to the series of interviews that accompanies it.

AYALA is one of the best kept secrets of Champagne. With a history dating back to 1860, AYALA were pioneers of dry, vibrant styles of Champagne, they were one of the original Grandes Marques Houses, and were awarded a Royal Warrant by Edward VII in 1908. Since 2005, the Bollinger family have helped restore this historic House to its former glory. Champagne AYALA is known for its fresh and elegant wines, made with precision and delicacy and crafted on a boutique scale. The wines have been served in the UK for over 100 years in many of London’s most prestigious establishments.

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