Ixta Belfrage on Mexico, cooking and her new book “Mezcla” – Low Calorie Diets Tips

Ixta Belfrage aged four: stale bread dipped in tannic red wine and sprinkled with sugar, a traditional dish in Tuscany, Italy. Her family had moved to the Tuscan hills for her father’s job importing wine, and Belfrage had befriended Giuditta, the daughter of a local chef, who served the dish as an after-school snack. ‘It was so tasty!’ she grins. “It’s still a great way to end any meal… A lot of my cooking has been inspired by my time in Italy.”

An Ottolenghi protégé who cooked at Nopi’s writes a food column for That Guardian and has over 100,000 people drooling over her arugula rigatoni on Instagram, Belfrage is one of the most exciting figures on the food scene right now. After building a following with her cooking classes on social media during lockdown, she has all the on-screen seductiveness of Nigella, the skills of Margot Henderson and a chocolate tahini torte that has it all on a dessert menu as a whole country can accommodate. Celebrated for her ability to pair flavors with textures that will take your taste buds for the ride of a lifetime, she’ll have you adding cumin to your béchamel sauce when you’re done reading her first solo cookbook. Mezklareleased this summer.

The word Mezkla (not to be confused with mezcal, which she also loves) means “to mix” in Spanish. This mix, says Belfrage, is the best way to describe not just her cooking but herself: it’s her childhood memories of Italy, her Brazilian heritage on her mother’s side, and the Mexican spirit she inherited from her father.

She remembers a beautiful house in Cuernavaca, just outside of Mexico City, where her father’s family lived. The house is where her parents met. “It was a home for political refugees that my father’s parents set up when they were expelled from America as communists,” she says. “And my mother’s family went there after fleeing the Brazilian military regime.” From the gardens you can see the Ixtaccíhuatl volcano, after which her parents named them. Belfrage spent many vacations at the house, watching the chefs stuff peppers, mash chilies, and make tortillas from scratch. “I think maybe I’m happiest in Mexico,” she says, smiling.

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Today we are sitting in her colorful flat in East London. Cookbooks are spread out on every surface, colorful food posters line the walls, and a mellow blend of smoked chili and sweet tangerine fills the air. She talks about how she sees her place in an industry known for being sweaty, screaming and extremely demanding at all levels. “I’m definitely a cook, not a cook,” she says. “In my imagination, a chef is classically trained. And I think calling myself a chef might give people the impression that I can do a lot of the things that I really can’t. I’m not an expert on specific cuts of meat or the proper use of each knife. But I work everything along the way.’

Next to us, in the corner of the room, is a drinks cart with an enviable selection of tequila. “These days I almost only drink tequila or mezcal. I love wine but it gives me a terrible hangover and I can’t function with the brain fog. Tequila is an upper material,” she says, before guessing, “The perfect tequila cocktail has no other alcohol mixed in, lots of fresh citrus acid, a hint of sweetness, and a charred chilli for a subtle spiciness.”

I think maybe I’m happiest in Mexico

Next door, in the kitchen, cupboards were bursting with jars of dried habanero chilies, achiote seeds, and curry powder. But the best part of her home is next to the bedroom – a walk-in closet with not a single item of clothing in it. Instead, the shelves are crammed with pots, pans and bowls of every shape, color and size – it’s a true chef’s nirvana.

Belfrage says cooking as a career was never a plan, but she was always drawn to the kitchen and would spend hours watching food being prepared. Her mother, a nutritionist, fed her and her sister healthy but “boring” food. After school, a year of traveling in Brazil, an elementary arts course and a stint in Sydney with a then-boyfriend, she was faltering. “I was pretty lost,” she says. Then one evening her sister Beatriz asked: “Why don’t you cook? You love to cook.’ “She just said it like that,” Belfrage says now, beaming at the memory. “It was an aha moment.” Knowing she didn’t want to go back to college, she fired off a barrage of resumes: “My cover letter for each restaurant was, ‘I have no experience, but I’m willing to work hard and learn. ‘I didn’t think I had a chance.’ But the next morning she was woken up by a call from Nopi, Yotam Ottolenghi’s Soho brasserie. “They had left someone and I think they were desperate. It was all just luck.”

Being in a restaurant kitchen wasn’t what she hoped it would be. “I really wasn’t very good in that environment,” she says. The pressure, the hours, the toxic masculinity — none of it worked for her. “It’s not like that with Nopi anymore because they’ve been working to fix it, but restaurant kitchens are very male-dominated places,” she says. “It wasn’t particularly friendly and the chef really didn’t like me. I was overwhelmed – always exhausted, never eaten properly, never slept properly. I was really desperate.”

ixta question

Noor-u-Nisa Khan

Belfrage now has tears in his eyes. “After about nine months, I got to a point where I was like, ‘I can’t do this, working in the kitchen is horrible.'” She was about to quit when one of the managers mentioned that she needed someone to work in the kitchen Kitchen searched Test kitchen, the place where Ottolenghi spends much of his days creating recipes. At that time, she had only met the chef a few times. “But they gave me a chance and I was there for four and a half happy years.”

She worked closely with Ottolenghi; Test, play and layer flavors with the very best ingredients all day long. “No one is surprised to hear that Yotam is an incredible person. He really is so nice and insanely wise. And very funny. There aren’t many people like him educating others around them.’ They ended up writing a best-selling cookbook together. taste. “Without him I wouldn’t be here now and writing my book. But after that tasteI was ready to do my own thing.’

A few weeks before we sit down to talk, Belfrage invites me to a pop-up dinner she’s hosting in the basement of a wine bar. Beneath the streets of London, small groups of friends gather over plates of red pepper tartare, mango-spiced pork and burnt plantains, and chipotle chocolate cake, all served with a glass of their signature tangerine and Jara lemon mezcalita. Every bite is a sensational experience, and cheers echo through the room as diners munch their way through the set menu.

After about nine months I got to a point where I was like, “I can’t do this”

After her experience at Nopi, Belfrage says opening her own restaurant will never happen – “too much stress” – but she will with the pop-ups (check her Instagram for tickets) and a YouTube series and TV show moving on may be on the cards. “I can explain things better in video format,” she says. ‘In a book or newspaper article you have a limited number of words or it sounds more complicated.’ She has yet to join the growing world of viral TikTok cooks, but her weekend plans include making her first Instagram role. “I’m really not interested in getting millions of followers, but it’s a great place to network and share.”

Writing the cookbook was a long process; Each of the hundred recipes had to be tested up to eight times. “It was just me, I cooked all day, every day. I was so fed up with eating my own food I didn’t know if it was still good,” she says. “I really miss having people over, but this has become my office.” She waves her hand across the large dining table, which is strewn with cookbooks and recipe cards. “I’m waiting for a time between projects when I can cook for pleasure again.” The book, she tells me, is divided into two parts: “Everyday” and “Entertaining”. “The first half consists of faster recipes, easier when you have less energy. The second is for dishes that require more time and ingredients.” She assures me with a knowing look that the ingredient lists are shorter than the typical ottolenghi recipe.

Her own daily meals are simple: “Broth, chicken, rice, maybe some watercress and a squirt of lemon and chili oil.” Leftovers from recipe tests are never wasted, instead being given away via neighborhood food-sharing app Olio. As for the ingredients she couldn’t live without, there’s always Seggiano Calabrian Chili Paste, Mom’s Triple Strength Tomato Paste, Happy Butter Ghee, White Miso Paste, Bob’s Red Mill Masa Harina Cornmeal, Parmigiano Reggiano and lots of limes in the fridge…’

ixta question

Noor-u-Nisa Khan

Belfrage loves going out to eat and being cooked for. “People don’t like to cook food for me because they find it quite intimidating,” she says, laughing. “But a lot of my friends are great in the kitchen.” Rare days off are spent with these friends, often cooking. “A few weeks ago, a group of us went looking for wild garlic and shamrock and then went into a kitchen to try out recipes with them.”

Her favorite thing to do is use her skills and platform to progress. She works as a mentor for young chefs and with Migrateful, a non-profit organization that helps refugees host their own cooking classes; The day before we met, she did a cooking fundraiser for Ukraine. In the future, she wants to do with hospital lunches what Jamie Oliver did with school lunches. “When my father had cancer and was doing chemotherapy every day in oncology, he only ate white bread and pasta. It blew me away.”

As we wrap up our time together, I ask her for advice on how to cook from her book at home. She tells me not to follow the recipes too closely. “I used to get annoyed when people didn’t do it. What’s in it for me to test and test and test? But then I realized that people should not Follow them.’ Instead, she says, “Trust your instincts, use your imagination, go with your gut, and just do what feels soulful to you.”

This is Ixta Belfrage across the board: making the food world a more expressive, friendly and inclusive space. And sip some tequila and have fun.

Mezcla: Recipes to Excite will be released on July 5th.

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