An interview with MasterChef finalist Santosh Shah

Updated on 09 April 2021 | 0 Comments

MasterChef finalist Santosh Shah talks to us about his childhood in Nepal, what it's like to cook in 5-star hotel restaurants and how he plans to introduce his home country's cuisine to the world.

Until recently, Nepalese food hasn't got much airtime on cooking shows and the cuisine of the small country between India and the Tibet region of China, on the slopes of the Himalayas, isn't widely represented in the mainstream food scene. That was until season 10 of MasterChef: The Professionals which saw spice-loving Santosh, head chef at Indian restaurant group Cinnamon Collection, prepping ingredients such as black stone flower, a mountain moss and aphrodisiac for monkeys.

His kind nature and exciting creations impressed judges and viewers and he was hailed the people’s champion despite missing out on the winning spot.

loveFOOD caught up with the standout chef a few days after the final aired on TV in December 2020, to find out how he learned to cook, what it's like to get down to the last four on the competitive cooking show and when we can expect a Nepalese restaurant from him.

What are the first dishes you remember eating?

When I was young, between 10 and 15 years-old, I was living with my mother who was old and sick. I cooked hotpot for her – rice, lentils and vegetables all together.

Those kinds of things I never forget and now when I get the chance, I cook in a modern way.

What is Nepalese cuisine like?

We have similar techniques to French cooking: fermentation, slow-cooking and smoking – we smoke raw bananas. We also eat raw meat, similar to beef tartare. Here we make it with lamb, beef or deer, fenugreek seed, mustard oil and mustard.

I was surprised as we’re a poor country.  But this technique is thousands of years old and typical Newari cuisine. Newar is one caste in Nepal.

It’s amazing and different to other cuisines. What I show on MasterChef is only the trailer.

Where did you learn to cook? 

I'm from a poor background and didn’t have the money to afford school after a certain point. I chose to go to India and started as a kitchen porter in a 5-star hotel. It was a big hotel with 40 to 50 chefs in chef jackets, hats and aprons. My mind was blown – it was like something in a movie.

After three months as a kitchen porter, I asked a chef “Can I work as a chef in the kitchen if you give me a chance?”. I was very passionate, humble and proud of what I did and he liked my attitude. He called another chef and said “From tomorrow you take him in the kitchen”.

I worked for one year in the kitchen as a commis chef then I had the chance to work in another hotel which had a college. I asked “How do you become an executive chef? How do you become a sous chef? What do you need?” and if I could have admission to the college. I learned different cuisines – Mexican, Italian, Thai – while I was working in India.

Then in 2010, I came to England and started at a curry house in Croydon, which wasn’t a satisfying job. I began looking for another and got a job at Dishoom three months later.

READ MORE: An interview with Vivek Singh

I got a chance to work in Michelin-starred Benares in Mayfair. I wanted to learn French cuisine so I went to Raymond Blanc's Brasserie Blanc. After that I went to Cinnamon Group and worked as a head chef for Vivek Singh.

I got the chance to work in The LaLiT as executive chef. My focus was to get a Michelin star in [the hotel's] Baluchi restaurant, but there were management issues and changes. So I came back to Vivek Singh and went on MasterChef.

Did you watch MasterChef before you went on the show? 

I’ve been watching MasterChef: The Professionals for a long time. I still remember Adam Handling and how amazing he did. 

I’ve been preparing for almost five years, watching every single one from Canada and Australia to America.

What was the pressure like? Was it better or worse than working at Cinnamon Group? 

It was so much pressure. Working as a head chef, executive chef and commis chef, you go up and down the ranks. I was head chef and executive chef, then went down to commis, so imagine how much pressure that is mentally and physically. I’m okay to handle pressure.

But this is MasterChef: The Professionals and this year it was amazing. The winner was a very strong chef and the top six were super talented.

What was your favourite moment on the show? 

My favourite moment was when I was cooking in the final four, for The Chef’s Table challenge

The main course was jimbu-spiced and wild garlic-marinated lamb cannon wrapped in mustard greens, soya bean crumble, black stone flower and bone marrow sauce, and fermented and sun-dried radish leaf. That was an amazing dish for me.

READ MORE: An interview with MasterChef 2019 winner Irini Tzortzoglou

What do you cook at home?

I cook average meals. Rice, lentils, chicken curry and goat curry.

Whatever you eat in childhood, you enjoy for your whole life. Here people eat burgers, pasta and pizza, and miss that food.

How do you think MasterChef has changed things for you? 

My plan was to open a Nepalese fine dining restaurant and go on MasterChef with Indian food. It's what I’ve cooked for 20 years. But then I changed my mind and decided to go with Nepalese food.

It’s better to win or get to the semi-final with Nepalese food because not many people know it. It’s a great opportunity to promote the restaurant.

I didn’t want to win a title, I wanted to put Nepalese food on the culinary world map and I think I achieved that. After COVID I will open a Nepalese fine dining restaurant in central London.

READ MORE: An interview with MasterChef 2016 semi-finalist Liz Cottam

Can we expect a cookbook?

I’m working on a Nepalese cookbook. I’ve done the research and everything. I want to release that as soon as possible.

It will focus on never-heard-about Nepalese ingredients and be for professional chefs and foodie people who want to learn about different cuisines.

Main image: Courtesy of Santosh Shah


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