“You inspire others by learning, not teaching,” Santosh Shah

Judges of MasterChef last month were so impressed with Nepali chef Santosh Shah’s performance in the quarterfinals that he is now shortlisted in the semis for the title of Masterchef: The Professionals 2020 on BBC One. Episodes are broadcast from Tuesday to Thursday every week until the final later this month.

Nepali Times caught up with Santosh Shah in London to talk about his life and career so far:

Nepali Times: From Siraha to Cinnamon Kitchen! Quite a journey. How did it begin?

Santosh Shah: I come from a very humble background. I was born in Siraha, the youngest of seven children. My father passed away when I was five years old. I started to work when I was around 9-10, engaging in petty trade, like selling farm produce (we share-cropped), fruits or bread in the market. 

Ours was a story of struggle, and school never got prioritised. I failed SLC but did not have the patience to wait for another year to re-appear for the exams because what was I going to do with an education given my circumstances? So I followed what others in my village did -- go to India. 

When I was told that I will work at a hotel in Ahmedabad, I imagined it would be like one of those small hotels in Siraha. I was shocked to see a five star hotel. Even those of us who washed dishes had to wear uniform and we had a superviser in suit and tie who used to manage seven of us dishwashers. 

I used to wash the skewer of a chef who worked in the tandoor section. I told him that I wanted to be a chef as well, and wanted to help him. He advised me to talk to the executive chef. One day, when I was serving tea to the executive chef, I requested him to give me a shot, and he did. Perhaps he saw that I was eager to work and was committed, so he placed his bet on me. I started helping the chef in the tandoor section who had originally recommended me. 

From there I transferred to another hotel. I started taking a hotel management course, learnt English and computers on the side. I kept strengthening my CV -- the salary discrepancy among chefs was huge. When I started, I was earning Rs900 per month whereas the executive chef was earning Rs17,000 a month so there was value in good credentials and experience. Within seven years of hard work, I became an executive chef. I then went to Montenegro via an agent, but I wasn’t happy and did not see my future there so I returned. 

In India, I organised a food festival and this was picked up by media including The Times of IndiaAaj Tak and India TV. I got an unexpected call from someone who was two hours away from me -- he apparently had read the media piece and asked that I meet him that night itself. I went to meet him at midnight because his flight to the UK was the next morning. At midnight, we talked – he ran a restaurant in the UK and wanted someone like me. I of course agreed and my paperwork came through soon after with all costs borne by the employer. 

In London, the original restaurant was very small -- for someone who was used to working with large teams in five star hotels, it felt very odd to work in a restaurant with 3-4 employees. I have switched jobs multiple times since then. 

I think there are two things that describe my journey. One is, I always ask what is next. I am very happy with where I am because I have made it so far, but I am also always looking at the next step. I never stop learning and keep trying to do better. I could have easily settled with a comfortable job as an executive chef, but I never did. 

The other is, I am a risk-taker. In London, one of the job changes was to a French restaurant that was run by a celebrity chef where the salary was half of what I was earning, but given the learning opportunity and mentorship under a famous chef, I took it. Taking chances may not always work in my favour, but I can always take satisfaction on how far I have come because I took the risk. 

How does it feel to be in MasterChef? What has the experience been like?

In many ways, it feels the same. I am the same person experimenting with recipes and enjoying my job to the fullest. But in many ways, things have changed as well.  I used to get a few messages and now I get thousands from people who are cheering me on. It also feels great to have the platform to introduce Nepali food to the world. I have always worked hard but now it feels like my cause got a lot bigger given the platform and I am thrilled about that.

I also think I now have added responsibility with people looking up to me, especially Nepalis in the hospitality sector. A message that has stuck with me was from another London-based chef also from Siraha after he saw one of my interviews in Maithili that was widely shared in my community. He told me that he never shared with his family that he is a chef because it is not seen as such a respectful job back home. But after he saw me sharing my journey including my rough beginnings so publicly, he said he felt inspired to disclose his profession to his family. 

The MasterChef competition is very tight and we are judged for creativity. As the competition advances further, the margin for error is very small and they seek perfection. We have to be mentally strong -- my experience participating in cooking competitions on a smaller scale in the past has helped. We are timed, and put under immense pressure. One dish is per our liking, and I practice that numerous times in advance so by the time I make the dish on the show, everything is intuitive and I don’t have to think about anything as I get grilled by the judges, the pressure of the camera and the short time. But the other dish is as per the judge’s wish in which case it is easy to falter and mess up. I score lower in the latter, but it averages out in my favour. But the competition is getting tighter and more demanding as two chefs get eliminated in each round. Ten are remaining out of the original 32 and these are some of the best chefs around. I am glad to have made it this far. Even if I don’t win, I am glad I was able to put the spotlight on Nepali cuisine.

Just like it is difficult to say what “Indian” food is, must to be difficult to describe what “Nepali” cuisine is, when it is so diverse? How do you answer that when your international audience asks you the question? 

I am an Indian chef – even in London, if you ask who the ten best Indian chefs are, my name will come up. But I have been experimenting with Nepali food for the last two years. It’s hard to come up with a good way to describe Nepali food. Nepali food is described by others as “similar to Indian food, only slightly different”. But that is not true. 

Our food, especially along our borders are influenced by Tibetan and Indian cuisine, but that is not the entirety of our diverse dishes. That is what I want the world to know. There is no yomari, choila, kachila, tama, gundruk outside Nepal. Our food is unique and diverse and varies by castes or geography, we have different techniques and ingredients. Two years into experimenting with Nepali food, I have realised how little I know and how much there is to learn and do. I could spend a lifetime just researching and experimenting with Nepali recipes. 

Personally what are the best aspects of Nepali cuisine for you ? How much do you experiment, or do you try to keep to traditional ingredients and preparations? 

I experiment a lot because palates differ geographically. Let me share an example. I know sukuti growing up in Nepal. It is a familiar, nostalgic food, and I am fond of sukuti dishes. But to outsiders unfamiliar with the texture, the hardness of the meat may not be palatable. So I experiment with it and try to dehydrate it for different periods of time to soften it while making sure the original taste is not lost. The challenge is to garner wider appreciation for these unique tastes that our rich culinary landscape offers. 

Food trends are dynamic. The Indian food trend has been there for long while in the last few years, I have seen an increase in the trend for Sri Lankan food. These come in waves, and I want a trend for Nepali food as well, beyond just momo and dal-bhat, so people actively seek out Nepali food and appreciate it for its diversity and richness.

In one of your shows you prepared an octopus dish Nepali style. How did it go down? 

There were negative comments on social media on how my spiced chargrilled octopus dish isn’t our food. But we need to understand that this is a global competition for a global audience. Octopus is very popular in Europe and South America. When I was working in an Indian kitchen, I had experimented with octopus recipes with Indian flavor as it is my favourite seafood (in fact I was the first chef to introduce octopus to Indian cuisine here) and the dish had turned out to be amazing. Having made that a few hundred times, I had the urge and confidence to try it with Nepali ingredients and it worked great. So, I went with it in the show. It was described by the judges as, “The most beautiful plate of food I have ever been served seen in Masterchef.” All four judges were generous with their praises for the octopus dish without a single negative feedback. 

When you went to India you had no idea you would land up where you did. What advice do you have for other Nepalis who are also going abroad to make a future for themselves?

My advice to young Nepalis is to never stop learning, you are never too old to learn new things and to improve your craft. Asking what is next is important. There is always room to improve, tweaking my recipes a bit often makes a big difference to the meal. Keep learning and be a positive force to others, not by teaching. Sikayera haina sikera inspire garnu parcha. (You inspire others by learning, not teaching.)


So, what is next?

I am now set to start a high-end fine dining Nepali restaurant in London. The tentative name is ‘Ayla’ by Santosh Shah. I am hopeful that this will help create a separate identity for Nepali cuisine. Being in MasterChef will definitely help, regardless of the outcomes of the competition. 

My ultimate goal is the Michelin Star for Ayla, which is the Oscar equivalent for Chefs. That would further help elevate the profile of Nepali cuisine globally.