Interview with an Innovator

Baluchi's Santosh Shah: ‘If you’re changing an existing dish and the new one isn’t five times as good, what’s the point in doing it?’

The chef talks about his Nepalese beginnings, his journey through 200 Michelin stars and how his experimental risks have paid off in his dishes. 

5 April 2019
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Shah on Paper - CV

  • Came to England in 2011 after starting out as a chef in a number of top hotels across India
  • Rose to the rank of head chef at Vivek Singh’s Cinnamon Kitchen in London after stints at Benares, Brassiere Blanc and Cinnamon Club
  • Approaching his one year anniversary as executive chef of LaliT London Hotel near Tower Bridge where he oversees all food service, including the pan-Indian main restaurant, Baluchi

It’s true to say that chefs embark on individual journeys of self-discovery through food. For Santosh Shah, executive chef of LaliT London Hotel, it has been a journey that has seen him span continents and cultures.

Born and raised in an impoverished village in Nepal – which had no electricity – 14 year-old Shah set off to India in 1998 intent on making a life for himself. It was very much a big city moment for the young Shah who, before starting as a kitchen porter (KP) in a five star hotel, had never even seen a chef in the flesh.

“I set off to India not knowing what I wanted to do with my life,” says Shah. “It was normal to leave my village to go and work in the hospitality industry – ours was a very poor background – so I took a job as a KP at a hotel.”

“I didn’t think a hotel could be so big and when I saw the brigade with their jackets and white toques, I immediately became fascinated.”

As a KP, Shah impressed the hotel’s head chef with his enthusiasm and was promoted to the role of tandoor assistant, complete with his own chef whites. Then, his love affair with the traditional Indian clay oven began in earnest.

Here he chats to Food Spark about introducing unusual ingredients to Indian cuisine, his naan and chutney tasting menu and the restaurants which have inspired him.

 

I’d not tried naan bread before I was fourteen, let alone made one. Trying one straight out of the tandoor for the first time really opened my eyes. I really fell in love with the oven – the charcoal, the fire and flames, how hot it was!

I came to England in 2011 after 13 years of working my way around top hotels in India, cooking and studying.

I started in Dishoom – which was a bit of a factory if I’m honest – and then joined Benares under Atul Kochhar. This was my first experience with Michelin starred food and it was an eye-opening experience for me. With Indian cuisine, dishes are often mixed together on the plate or in the bowl, as you get with curry houses. But this was careful plating, often separating ingredients to create staggered flavour and texture.

I love to eat at restaurants to take inspiration for new dishes for my menu. I once went to Le Champignon Sauvage for dinner and ordered pretty much the entire menu. David Evritt-Matthias (the chef owner) came out to see me because of how much I ordered! I told him I was a chef and was interested in his food and he told me that I really should come and work for a few weeks in the kitchen with him – which would have been much cheaper than ordering everything – so as to understand better what they did there. So I did.

I think I have close to 200 Michelin stars under my belt in terms of the restaurants I’ve eaten at. I eat at new restaurants wherever and whenever possible. It is so important for a chef to do this as there’s so much to learn and when I eat I’m constantly thinking about how I can translate specific dishes or ingredient combinations through Indian cuisine.

French techniques are quite close to my heart. I worked at Brasserie Blanc after Benares and that was the first time I really learnt how to make steak with hollandaise. In traditional Indian cuisine, all meat is well done. That’s just how it is. But I make sure all my chefs understand the idea of medium or rare as we are a modern Indian operation.

 

I have strong foundations in Indian cuisine, which is extremely varied. North Indian cuisine is so very different to South Indian, for example. It’s about taking on board different styles and techniques and adding it to those foundations. For example, I recently ate a celeriac dish at Simon Rogan’s Roganic and thought to myself: “This celeriac is amazing, how can I make this work in an Indian-style dish?”

I went home and drafted out a lot of different dishes. Now we have tandoor roasted celeriac with mint chutney, burnt apple gel, masala seeds, gun powder and coconut foam.

Discovery is key to being a chef – you must always explore and experience.

I introduced an octopus dish to the menu of Cinnamon Club when I was there as sous chef and I think I am the first Indian chef in the UK to do that. Vivek Singh (the executive chef) wasn’t sure about it at the time but he let me do it anyway. It was tandoori spiced octopus with chutney aloo, pickled fennel and a tomato lemongrass dressing – it was a huge success.

I also have octopus on the menu here at Baluchi. It’s one of the most popular dishes on the menu. It’s done in the tandoor, of course, and comes with baby potato, colocasia leaf terrine, labneh, coriander chutney and puffed quinoa. My mum used to give us colocasia leaves back in our village in Nepal and I found some of them by chance in an Indian market here in London. It’s an important dish for many reasons.

We have things like lobster on the menu and also pigeon.

We try and push the boundaries of Indian cuisine and be as innovative as we can. Many of our chefs have worked in the hospitality industry in India and the UK for decades and are real experts.

There is a perception of what Indian food is and sometimes it can cause a few problems. For example, we once had an Iberico pork dish on that confused some diners.

I remember in 2008, I went to Montenegro to help open an Indian restaurant and it didn’t work at all. The palate there was completely different. They have lots of light food, which is often creamy. We came along with lots of coriander and with heavy dishes and we were dead. I still go there every year, because it’s beautiful, but it taught me a lot about how sometimes the things you think will work really don’t.

The Naanary is in each of the six Baluchi restaurants and it is very unique as a concept. It’s a six course naan and chutney tasting menu and the naan breads are made in front of the guests. For example, we have a fig and paneer kulcha with a tamarind chutney, and a porcini and truffle naan with tomato chutney. All the breads are paired individually with wine. I love this concept.

Another mainstay across the Baluchi restaurants is the special black dhal. This is made through cooking black lentils very, very slowly overnight or sometimes two nights which brings out an incredible, natural creaminess. It’s the signature dish of the Baluchi restaurant group.  

I want my tasting menu to be explosive, the next dish better than the last, and new dishes really have to have a wow factor for me. As a chef, you have to make sure all the aspects of the dish connect well and if you’re changing an existing dish and the new one isn’t five times as good, what’s the point in doing it? Little changes and tweaks are commonplace but too many and you’re taking a risk.

Obviously, veganism is a really big trend at the moment – which has been great for us because there’s lots of room to move in Indian cuisine.

Street food is also a big one and we’re currently redeveloping the menu for our terrace which is open in the summer. That menu will be a mix of Indian street food and Nepalese.

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