Adriana Cavita on the hell of spending eight months in a secret exile

Kitchen nightmare: Adriana Cavita in her eponymous restaurant   (Adrian Lourie)
Kitchen nightmare: Adriana Cavita in her eponymous restaurant (Adrian Lourie)

It was a year ago, last May, when it felt like my dream had come true. After seven years in the UK, I had finally opened the first restaurant of my own, Cavita in Marylebone, which pays tribute to Mexico. I was 35.

Pushed by my grandmother, who used to sell quesadillas, tacos and tamales with her street food business, I had become a chef 17 years ago, first working at Nicos in Mexico City, and moving to Pujol at 19, which is still considered one of the world’s top 10 restaurants.But when I moved to London as head chef at Peyotito, I was soon thinking all the time of my own place. After putting in all that work, finding partners and a team, Cavita was going to show everything I could do. In fact, I had been working on it so much that I was filled with a fear — a fear that people wouldn’t like it. I had even taken a flat about 20 minutes away in West Hampstead, so I could always be there, I was so nervous. But we opened to all these amazing reviews, and suddenly my fear was gone. I don’t have the words but I was filled completely with happiness. My restaurant was full, and I had my dream.

Only a couple of months later, something changed. I should explain how I arrived in the UK. Being Mexican, I needed to apply for a work visa when I first arrived, and later I met my husband and took a spouse’s visa. It’s another story, but now we are getting divorced and even as I was planning my restaurant, we were not in a very nice situation. I knew I needed to change the permit I had. I started the process months before Cavita opened, and someone I thought I could trust told me I had no option but to apply for an innovator visa. There is a long story here, but the short one is that I trusted the advice. But I’m no expert, and I shouldn’t have.

Suddenly, despite emails desperately trying to sort things, it was October and before things were properly arranged, I was forced to leave the country and return to Mexico City, where I moved back in with my sister. I remember the email from the endorsement company, who I needed to give my new application approval, who told me I would be gone 10 days. That didn’t seem so bad; I could see family, friends.I picked up the phone and kept the news to my business partner, sous chef and managers. No-one else knew; when leaving the country isn’t your choice, you don’t want everyone to know.

Home: inside Cavita in Marylebone (Adrian Lourie)
Home: inside Cavita in Marylebone (Adrian Lourie)

But in those 10 days, there was another message. Because of the war in Ukraine and the refugees coming in, the visa would take longer, I was told. It would be a month. And then two months, then three. And this is when I realised, things are not looking great. I was literally in shock, and I started to have all these fears about the restaurant, the team.

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. 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. Eight months later, and I am still in Mexico. But last Friday, I finally got the news I needed so much. I have been approved on a different visa and I will be back on May 15. After so long kept from my restaurant, my team and my life in London, I cannot tell you the relief. It’s been very difficult. I kind of had a breakdown in January because I didn’t know what was going on. I kept asking myself: “What am I going to do?” I was worried about all the people working for me because they might end up without a job. I was scared the restaurant would shut permanently because it is about me, my career, it is my name.

What is it, if I am away? And I was worried about the business we were losing — brands didn’t want to work with the restaurant without me. Because I wasn’t there, events were postponed. We have investors, we have responsibilities. It was a lot for a small company. And even the good things — like when we had the word from the Michelin guide saying we were one of the best openings of last year — I couldn’t be there to celebrate. I felt so distant. And besides, after seven years, living in the UK, it has become a really big part of my life.

Life on pause: Cavita’s food includes the likes of this mahi mahi ceviche (Amber Breitenberg)
Life on pause: Cavita’s food includes the likes of this mahi mahi ceviche (Amber Breitenberg)

Somehow, I felt my life had stopped. Professionally, in friendships, in everything. Everything I’d expected to do had been cancelled. I was in limbo. I could not plan here in Mexico but I could not plan in London, because I never knew when an answer would come. Eventually I could not keep my flat, my friends had to move me out (“just put everything in a big box!” I said). That was the most difficult part; I had built a life in London, and suddenly it was being taken away from me.

But I am positive as a person, and I suppose hyperactive by nature. I am always looking for things to do. Being away, it has helped me think about the restaurant. I have been going to my old places here in Mexico, places where I love to eat, and also different states that I wanted to explore. I’ve travelled across Mexico, the different regions, and now have inspiration for my next menu. I’ve reconnected with people I worked with, friends too, which has been really nice. I’m already planning the new menu, the new flavours, and that is really exciting me a lot.

I also had the chance to write a book, Cocina Mexicana, which comes out in September. It’s basically 100 recipes — there’s everything from breakfast to Christmas ideas, which can all be made with ingredients you’ll find in the UK. I don’t think I’d have had the freedom to write it if I hadn’t been away, not to test and refine the recipes the way I did. I really am happy with how it’s turned out. And on my travels, I have made plans for the restaurant to work with the Wild Foundation, to celebrate a new passion for sustainability, and with a mental health charity, because of what I experienced. I know my restaurant can make such a change once I am back.

But there are two more things that I can only be grateful for. For seven years, I have tried to always come back to Mexico once a year, but one week, two weeks a year is not enough. My niece and nephew are growing up so fast, I lost some years. My niece told me once: “You’re kind of a faraway aunt.” I just went “oh my God!” because I always want to be the closest one to her. This has really given me more time to connect. I will always be happy for this time, in that way.

The other thing I can say is, it has bought me closer to my team. They have dealt with everything without me and though it has been really stressful for them, they have been incredible. We have never been closer. I can’t wait to pick up my projects and be able to plan my life again. We have our first anniversary on May 27, and we will be working on that. I want to welcome London back to Cavita, and be there to do it. But the first thing I will do? I will hug everyone in my team. I can’t wait to see them. And then, I know what we’ll do — we’ll all go to the nearest pub.

Cavita, 56-60 Wigmore Street, W1U 2RZ,

Cocina Mexicana will be published later this month by Ryland Peters & Small