The 35 year old Santosh Shah started his journey from Karjanha, Siraha. The youngest among seven siblings, Santosh travelled to India and then London grabbing the best opportunities life threw at him. With 18 years of working his way up through the kitchen ranks, Santosh experimented with Nepali cuisine in MasterChef: The Professionals 2020 and became a household name in his native country. His innovative approach placed Nepali food firmly on the global map and he was announced first runner up in the MasterChef, celebrated worldwide for his creativity and personality.
In an interview with WOW’s Ankita Jain, Santosh Shah, the Head Chef of Cinnamon Collection, London reminisces over his childhood, talks about his love and pursuit of the Michelin star, his upcoming cookbook and restaurant. Excerpts from an interview:
When did you fall in love with cooking?
The love for cooking developed over time. I failed in three subjects in SLC and gave up studies. I travelled to India at the age of 15 in the year 2000 for work. I remember, kitchen was the easiest place to find work back then. I used to wash dishes and earn Rs 900 per month. Gradually, my inquisitiveness towards what chefs do led to endless conversations with the working chefs there. And with the passing time, I discovered my love for cooking.
Also when I was five year old, my father passed away and I used to help my mother in the kitchen with love and curiosity to learn something new.
What has been the defining force in your career?
Every child has a dream to be a doctor or lawyer or engineer, but I had none. I grabbed opportunities as it came and gave my 100% to it. I always believe that education is important, but the key to success is hard work.
You have been fascinated with tandoor ovens since you were 15. Share with our readers the story behind the tandoor and your signature dish Tandoori Octopus.
A tandoor was the first element I was introduced to when I started working. It was quite challenging. I always had burns on my hands and still loved making naan in the tandoor. I had experimented a lot with tandoor during my initial year itself.
Later I fused octopus with tandoor. I love sea food and when I tried octopus, I loved the flavour and started my experimentation. I wanted to introduce octopus in the Indian kitchen which was difficult. However, I convinced my head chef and as a result we sold 70 kgs in a single week. Well, the dish was an immense hit. Till date charcoal octopus with sade ko dahi and timbur is my signature dish.
How would you define your cooking style?
I was into Indian cuisine earlier. And now I have moved onto innovative Nepali cuisine. I try presenting the same dish with a twisted flavour.
When did you start experimenting with Nepali recipes?
I was preparing for MasterChef for these past five years. Every year the chefs were expected to bring something new to the platter and it clicked. This mentor suggested that I introduce Nepali cuisine on an international platform. At first, I didn’t take this idea seriously. Later, when I started researching, I was amazed to see the variety of flavours that we Nepalis use on different occasions. My research period was such that my entire house was covered with sticky notes. Even before I participated, I was sure that I would be able to qualify at least a few major rounds.
Eighteen years of working your way up through the kitchen ranks; did you ever feel like switching careers?
I wasn’t aware of what I would be. I worked hard and took one step at a time. I took English and other classes when I felt the need to. I have no regrets in life. Even when I was participating in MasterChef: The Professionals 2020, many discouraged me but I did what my heart told me.
Your fascination for the Michelin star. Why is it so important to you?
It’s an honour that any chef would want to wear. There are many Nepali chefs worldwide but none of them has been recognised under Michelin star.
I am working towards it and want to achieve it through Nepali food.
Your cookbook and restaurant is underway, would you like to share a few details with our readers?
I am looking for investors for my restaurant. It’s a big project. Also, I would only like to collaborate with people who understand what Michelin star is. Meanwhile I have already decided the name of the restaurant ‘Ayla by Santosh Shah’.
About the cookbook, it will release in the next six months in six different languages. It will be published by one of the big names in the publishing business as my concern was that the cookbook should reach Nepal at a subsidised price.
What was the hardest moment in your life?
I have accepted things as it came. So, nothing has been hard in that context.
How do you define success?
‘Happiness is success’, ‘satisfaction is success’. When I was nine years old, I used to sell plastic bags and bread for a living. I still remember I bought my first pair of footwear by selling bread. It was a Hati Chap chappal and I went home carrying those chappals in my hands worried that it might get dirty if I wear them. I was happy then as well, and I am happy today as well.
Who is your inspiration?
My mother always says, ‘Don’t harm anyone’ and I religiously follow this. Whenever something challenging occurs, I recall my days of selling plastic bags and washing dishes. I am inspired by different people in different phases. People like Barak Obama, Hari Budha Magar inspire me always.
What are three life lessons you have learnt when you look back at your life’s journey?
First, never lie. If you are in a situation that you can’t speak the truth then better keep your mouth shut rather than lying. Second, don’t harm anyone. And lastly, with time you get everything. All you need is patience and problem solving skills.
If you had to share a piece of advice with the young Santosh who lived in his village in Nepal, what would you tell him?
Don’t aim to be someone else. Follow but do not replicate.
What do you like to eat? And who cooks it for you?
I am an easy person when it comes to food. I never complain about how the food has been cooked. But if asked for my favourites: I love dal, bhaat and tarkari. Well, so far I cook for myself (laughs).
Three spices you can’t do without?
Black pepper, cumin and chilli
How does fame feel?
It makes me feel uneasy. Even while wearing a mask, people recognise me and approach for a picture.
However, I am glad that my story has inspired many especially those little kids who cross the border for work.
Anything you would do differently?
I would eat less I guess and would concentrate more on fitness.
‘Aloo Chop’ by Chef Santosh Shah
“Alop Chop is inspired from the streets of Terai.
It is deep-fried masala patties”
SPINACH, FIGS & POTATO ‘ALOO CHOP’
TIME: 50 Minutes
600 gms grated boiled potatoes
½ inch ginger finely chopped
3 green chillies, seeded and finely chopped
5 gms roasted cumin seeds
10 gms salt
30 gms corn flour
For the filling
500 gms of spinach leaves blanched and chopped
50 gms ghee or oil
5 gms cumin
1 large onion finely chopped
4 garlic cloves finely chopped
½ inch ginger chopped
3 green chillies chopped
10 dried figs finely diced
Salt to taste
Chopped vegetables (salad)
Sweet potato crisp
• Mix all the ingredients for the potato cake and make 10 equal sized balls
• For the filling, heat a pan with oil or ghee, add the cumin and when it crackles add the garlic and onions and sauté till the onions are translucent
• Now stir fry adding the chopped ginger and green chilles and salt
• Add the chopped spinach and figs and toss, check seasoning
• Now cool the stuffing
• Take the potato balls and make an insertion with your thumb creating a hollow space
• Take a table spoon full (approx. 20 gm) of the stuffing and stuff into the hollow potato and seal it to make it into a ball.
• Now with your palm press the stuffed potato ball and make it into a patty shape.
• Shallow fry the cake till both the sides are golden. Garnish with sweet yogurt, tamarind chutney, chopped vegetable, pomegranate, and potato crisp or sev.
• Use garnish as you like or take reference from this picture.