Interview: Santosh Shah
Imagine leaving your impoverished village in Nepal and travelling to the big cities of India in search of life, love and some sort of plan. No, this is not a Disney film. This is Santosh Shah, executive chef of Baluchi restaurant in London, and a man who knows the importance of the swimming in the deep end.
“I come from a very poor background,” Santosh told Way of the Chef. “No electricity, lots of family members in the same house – that kind of thing.
“I left home in 1998 when I was fourteen and went to India. I didn’t know what I wanted to do so I took a job as a kitchen porter in a five-star hotel. That was the first time I saw real chefs in action.
“Eventually, I was promoted to tandoor assistant. And that’s when I really fell in love with cooking.”
Santosh came to the UK in 2011 after cooking his way round top hotels in India for 13 years (plus a stint in Montenegro). He started in Dishoom in London and then moved to the Michelin-starred Benares in Mayfair.
“I wanted to see what brings a star to cooking,” he said. “I was there for a couple of years before moving to Brasserie Blanc where I learnt classic French cooking for the first time.”
Santosh found fame as head chef of Vivek Singh’s Cinnamon Kitchen in the City of London after working his way up from sous chef over two years. During his time there, he lays claim to being the first chef in the UK to introduce octopus into an Indian kitchen.
“Vivek eventually let me do it,” laughed Santosh. “And it went down very well! It was tandoori spiced octopus with chutney aloo, pickled fennel and a tomato lemongrass dressing.”
Santosh has a new rendition of octopus on the menu at Baluchi - Tandoori octopus and baby potato, colocasia leaf terrine, labneh, coriander chutney and puffed quinoa. His use of colocasia leaves stems from his childhood in Nepal where his mother served them at home.
Santosh understands the importance of staging in kitchens, having brought in the concept to Baluchi himself.
“Staging is great for understanding kitchens and even better for practising techniques. We’ve had a few stagiaires in the kitchen here at Baluchi and we’re looking forward to hosting more.
“Quite recently, we had a stagiaire from France spend two weeks with us in the kitchen. He was opening his own restaurant back in France and he wanted to get to grips with Indian techniques.
“There’s so much to learn with Indian cuisine. Being a chef is about exploring and experiencing, and Indian cuisine can really give you both. Northern Indian cuisine is completely different to southern, for example. It’s like cooking in different countries!
“The concept of staging is really important for chefs. I’m arranging some for my own staff right now.”
Eating out as a chef is also hugely important for learning and Santosh has wholly embraced this.
“I must have something like 200 Michelin stars under my belt in terms of restaurants I’ve eaten out at,” he said. “I just can’t get enough of it!”
“I once went to Le Champignon Sauvage in Chelmsford and ordered pretty much the whole menu. The chef (David Everitt-Matthias) came out when the kitchen got the order and said that if I was ordering everything then I might as well come and stage for a couple of weeks. It would be cheaper!
“And so I did!”