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Chef Profile

A view from Chef Santosh Shah

What inspired you to become a chef?

I spent my childhood in Nepal, moving to India when I was 14 or 15 years old. I started working as a kitchen porter and studied for a culinary diploma, gaining experience. I decided I wanted more international exposure, so I went abroad to Montenegro to work in a five-star hotel. I didn’t enjoy this however – it was not what I was expecting, but I stayed for one year to build up the work experience and enhance my CV, before moving back to India. I put everything to the test to keep learning and improving – whatever I learnt in one year in Montenegro, I experimented with when I returned to India. I then worked at a food festival which was featured in a newspaper, which led to a job in London.

How did your career develop?

When I first came to London, around 2010, I worked in a curry house, which wasn’t a great experience. I then worked at Dishoom, before moving to Michelin-starred Benares restaurant, which had a great work culture in the kitchen. Everyone was motivated, competitive and looking for new recipes, and I took all of this in. While at Benares, a colleague entered the Masterchef competition which sparked my interest, but they only lasted one round. This scared me so I prepared for the show for the next five years. I was at Benares for three years but I knew that I needed to refine my techniques and knowledge of French cuisine, which took me to Brasserie Blanc [Raymond Blanc’s restaurants], which was a great experience. I was then at Cinnamon Kitchen. Most recently, I was at the LaLit London hotel, but there were many management changes which didn’t create the best environment, so I returned to Cinnamon Kitchen.

What motivates you?

When I came to the UK, I really appreciated what it is to be a chef – in India at that time, there was no chef culture. I pushed myself, met different people and got support from mentors, particularly at Benares. I like to be inventive too – I was brave enough to cook and combine octopus with spices at The Cinnamon Club. I define myself as an innovative chef.

How have you been keeping busy during the various lockdowns?

I’ve had so much time to research food and look at new recipes. I’ve also been busy on social media and developing these channels. Lockdown has taught me how to make the most of my free time, and I’ve also been developing a cookbook.

What’s been the best advice you’ve received?

I have worked with Vivek Singh, executive chef of The Cinnamon Collection, the group of five restaurants which includes Cinnamon Kitchen, for a number of years. He told me to just be myself and you will find success in your life. There is no need to copy anyone – act like who you are, be how you are, be yourself and do what you love and what makes you happy.

What’s your biggest regret?

Not having been more passionate about world cuisine earlier on in my career. I tend to always focus on Nepalese/Indian cuisine – it wasn’t until I came to London that I focused on world cuisine. I should have done some research and practice when I was in India, but I am very proud of what I have achieved thus far.

Any tips for aspiring Masterchef contestants?

Just be yourself – it’s a lot tougher than what you see on television. The chefs I competed against were so strong but it was an amazing experience. Practice as much as you can! 

What’s your favourite dish and how do you like to unwind?

I like to cook fish and lamb with smoky and chargrilled barbecue flavours. I’m a real fan of comfort food and prefer to have home cooked dishes, Nepalese-style. I like to watch movies in my spare time – particularly documentaries about chef and cooking shows.

What’s in the pipeline?

My ambition is to open a high-end Nepalese restaurant. We are talking to a range of investors but the plans are delayed slightly due to the Covid situation. We hope to be able to announce something by the end of this year or the middle of next year.

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