'I want to be the first Nepalese to be awarded a star'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

Successful chefs often talk about humble beginnings, but Santosh Shah's story reminds us that in the hospitality industry, the sum of hard work, sheer will and a smidgeon of good fortune can propel you from the most modest of backgrounds to the highest of summits. 

Raised by his mother in a remote village in Nepal, MasterChef: The Professionals 2020 finalist Santosh moved to Ahmedabad in India when he was fifeen to find work. From his rural village, he wound up in an environment of the likes he couldn't have imagined in his wildest dreams.

"I never thought there could be a hotel this big," he laughed. "It had 40 people working in the kitchen, 12 of them kitchen porters." 

"I asked my colleagues, 'how much does a chef earn?' I made about 900 rupees (£8.94) a month as a kitchen porter, the commis chefs were getting 1600 (£15.89) monthly and for a chef that would be 4,000 (£39.71). That got me interested." 

"I had a sense of cooking from watching my mother cook and helping her by picking the vegetables on our land," he explained, but it was the boundless opportunities available to him as a chef that spurred him on.

"Electricity came in my village in 2009-2010; I was already in the UK by that time. We cooked everything on a fire, so I knew how to handle a fire as a child, I wasn't scared at all. I could hold charcoal in my hand. Still can."

Jhol Momo

life-changing naan 

The chef remembers the first time he tasted naan bread - having been raised on more frugal breads, and home-grown produce from his mother's garden, he had never tried it before -  and how he ate so much of it that he made himself ill. 

"The first time I ate bread and butter, dipped in sweet tea... The smell coming from the oven, I'll never forget that smell. One day I ate so much bread that I got sick the next day. It was so tasty, and in the cafeteria you could eat as much as you wanted; roti, tandoori food, curries...

"I'm from that poor background, I never had food to eat. I made 80p for a week selling bread, so that made me more interested in becoming a chef." 

From there, the chef decided that if he was going to climb the ranks, he would need an education, so he went to college, and worked in the same hotel for seven years, until he had finally reached the top. 

Then, in 2008, the chef went to Montenegro, Yugoslavia. 

"I wanted to learn international cuisine. I wanted to see other chefs working and see what food there was in Europe and other parts of the world outside India," he said. 

Not impressed with what he saw there, he committed to stay for a year, then moved back to India.

And later that year, whilst working at a food festival, he was headhunted by a British restaurant owner. And so, in 2010, Santosh landed in Croydon, South London, to work in a curry house called "A Spicy Affair."

He knew right there and then that it wouldn't do, as, he explained, "they were working us very hard and not giving us money - they were paying me £250 a month," and so he made it his mission to work in the capital's more prestigious kitchens: first at then-nascent Dishoom, then at the recently-reinstated in the Michelin Guide Indian restaurant, Benares.

When he witnessed the brigade at work at Benares, he said: "My eyes opened like, 'okay, I want to work in this restaurant.'" 

After three years, having learned what the highest level of Indian cuisine could be, the chef decided it was time to broaden his horizons and learn the French classics. 

"At the time, everyone was talking about Le Manoir, so I applied there," he said.

Unlucky for him, they didn't have work permit registration, and this was before Santosh became a British citizen, so he wasn't able to work there. Instead, they offered him a position at Brasserie Blanc, and he is still glad he accepted, as he credits his success on MasterChef to his time spent there.

"In one year, I learned so much," he said. 

"How to cook a steak, because I had never eaten beef or touched it before - making bearnaise sauce, making butter sauce, filetting a fish. It was life changing for me."

After this, Vivek Singh, a chef Santosh had long admired, recruited him as a head chef at Cinnamon Kitchen, where he currently works. A brief stint as executive chef at The Lalit in Tower Bridge didn't lead anywhere, and so he returned to his position in the hope of opening his own restaurant soon.

He walked onto the set of MasterChef: The Professionals exhuming a quiet confidence, and even with the competition's high calibre of contestants this year, almost bagged the trophy.

Santosh is a determined man. He wants a Michelin star, he's in the process of writing a cookbook, he is set to film a TV series: he wants the world to know who he is, and he wants other chefs to realise that nothing is out of reach.


Nepalese fine dining

"For twenty years, I've been working as an Indian chef. I've decided that in two years, I want to be a Nepalese chef and cook Nepalese food," he said.

And so his journey of discovery begins. Because the geographic landscape of Nepal is so diverse, from the pastures in the South to the Himalayan mountains, there are different concepts, dishes and ingredients across all of the country's regions.

The focus of his book will be on these ingredients and flavours that remain a mystery to most - with his own twist on it. 

"Chefs already know cumin powder, coriander, cardamom - but in my book there will be things that they have never seen before," he said. 

"I want to discover Nepalese food and be inventive. They don't cook like me in Nepal, and what I cooked on MasterChef - nobody has cooked that before."

"There was a time when the likes of Atul Kochhar and Vivek Singh created modern Indian cuisine. I am creating modern Nepalese cuisine. 

"Forget about Benares, I worked at Benares for three years, I could take Nepalese food to that level. I want to take it to the Gaggan [Bangkok, Thailand] level of Nepalese food."

"I want to be the first Nepalese to be awarded a star." 

"This will be my style of food forever now, and hopefully I will find investors to open a fine dining Nepalese restaurant in the centre of London."

While the MasterChef competition stipulated that he be a one-man show, "in your own restaurant you get to practice, you get to put your own vision in place, there will be teams behind you helping you do things." 

Ever the enthusiast, he said: "I can't wait to feed people, to get their first impressions. I can't wait to cook the food that the chefs on MasterChef tasted in my own restaurant." 

In the meantime, watch this space, he said. "Many more amazing things will be happening."

Poleko Makai


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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 11th February 2021

'I want to be the first Nepalese to be awarded a star'