(CNN) — When Thomasina Miers traveled to Mexico, she brought back home to Britain a souvenir that completely changed her life -- and it wasn't a snow globe. Instead, Miers brought back an entire cuisine.
What's more remarkable is that, even in this age of widespread globalization, she was more or less the first person to do it. Today, Miers runs Wahaca, a successful chain of mid-market restaurants offering a menu inspired by Mexican street food.
Her take on another country's cuisine also netted her top prize in a prestigious TV cooking show and led to book deals and a newspaper column. None of this would've been possible, she says, had she not traveled to Mexico in her late teens to avoid a job she had no interest in.
"I was really escaping the trauma of being a tax consultant for nine months previously, which is what my father wanted me to do," Miers tells CNN. "I drank quite a lot -- I was 18 -- partied a lot and then every night we'd go out late and dance all night and then every morning I would start seeking out the best street food I could find."
The food, she says, led to an epiphany.
"I ate everything in sight. I could not believe the variety, the textures, the tastes and the flavors. Everywhere we went, we were trying different foods -- whether we were on the coast or in the mountains or in the desert or in the cities. I was encountering new ingredients, new flavors and new ways of presenting food."
She returned to London to the disappointing discovery that, in an age of vanishing culinary boundaries, little of the Mexican food she loved had made it home.
"I went back to London armed with this knowledge ... only to discover that you couldn't get any Mexican food. Real Mexican food is completely different from Tex Mex -- and so that seed was planted," she says.
At first, Miers put her experiences behind her and began working on food stalls and other projects. But, she adds, "This Mexican idea kept coming back to me."
It took her a decade to act on it, seizing on an opportunity to work at a restaurant and cocktail bar in Mexico City run by the friend of a friend.
"This time in Mexico, I had more purpose. I wanted to get under the skin of the food. I wanted to learn about it," she said. "The first trip gave me all the memories and the passion and those first initial flavors. It awakened my discovery of Mexican food. The second trip was about learning and knowledge."
Miers: "You can try all you like, but without going to a country... all you're ever going to do is create a pastiche."
Miers says she traveled to every compass point in the country, cooking with as many stall holders and chefs as she could.
In 2005, back in London and short of cash, she got a break by entering and -- to her great surprise -- winning "Masterchef," a culinary TV talent show, wowing judges with her Mexican-inspired creations.
With new-found confidence she was able to persuade a potential restaurant investor to abandon his plans and join her on a whirlwind trip to her favorite destination.
"We flew off to Mexico. I took him, in nine days, to all the best restaurants and we came back and we said, 'We are going to open a Mexican restaurant.'"
Her first Wahaca opened in central London in 2007. The chain now has more than a dozen outlets across the UK capital and beyond. Even though Miers has returned to Mexico numerous times, she credits her first "pivotal" trip with changing her life.
"You can try all you like, but without going to a country and becoming imbued with all the sights and the sounds and the flavors -- all you're ever going to do is create a pastiche."