This talented chef has come a long way since winning MasterChef UK in 2012; numerous TV and personal appearances, cook books and her own restaurant
It was back in 2012 that Shelina Permalloo was finally convinced by her friends and family that she should enter high profile cooking show MasterChef. Competing with 25,000 applicants just to make it onto the popular television series, she would eventually be crowned champion. But as it turned out, emerging victorious was just the start of her culinary journey.
Winning the show opened some doors for Shelina but in the more than five years that have passed since her victory she has had to work extremely hard in order to live out her dream of working in the food industry.
“I went to a Michelin restaurant with the show and all I did was peel prawns for four days, I didn’t even get to the pass. But I realised you have to earn your stripes and the good thing about the show is that it is like a shortcut professional food course,” says Shelina.
“You get put into different environments and you know whether you are good or not. It gets rid of the rubbish quite quickly and then it becomes really tough.
“But after winning it was difficult as my passion was to serve my food to people, and prices in London were extortionate. Honestly, I would have had to sell my soul to the devil, so I saved ferociously and took all sorts of jobs in order to save my money.”
While working in a succession of kitchens around London and saving in order to open her own restaurant, Shelina was able to pen two cookbooks that contained recipes inspired by Mauritius.
Having grown up in a Mauritian family she was familiar with the eclectic ingredients found on the island and when writing her first book it made sense to go back to her roots.
“As a Mauritian I love food. We are big foodies so being from a foodie family, it was all about feasts,” she says. “You spend the whole week planning the food and the weekend was eating it. And fortunately, my mum was a very frugal chef, so she could make the money stretch even though we had big Mauritian feasts.
“Even at uni I was called big momma chef because I was constantly cooking for everyone; and even when working as a project manager before MasterChef I was always cooking for my friends.”
Both cookbooks were a huge success and further convinced the bubbly young chef that when she had saved enough money she would open her own Mauritian restaurant.
That dream then became a reality in May, 2016 when Shelina opened Lakaz Maman, which translates as Mum’s House, in her hometown of Southampton.
“My husband built the place and I just had a design brief for him and seriously he has made the most beautiful little Mauritian street shack in the middle of Southampton,” explains Shelina.
“Across the UK there isn’t anything similar. There are shops, but a restaurant that serves modern Mauritian food there aren’t any. I can definitely say that.
“I was unsure what to do so the first month, so I was testing my customers, trying to discover the right balance. We have some dishes that are very powerful, so I went quite bland with my chilli sauces to begin with, but my customers told me it could be hotter.
“So I was shying on being too conservative, now it’s full blown garlic and chilli.”
When first opening it was very much a family affair with mother and daughter in the kitchen. And while the food they produced was proving popular, Shelina soon discovered the problem with learning old family recipes.
“It’s hard to get an actual recipe because my mum growing up would never tell me measurements. She would always say ‘a bit’ of this and ‘a bit’ of that,” says Shelina. “But I’ve watched a lot of the elders and I am writing everything down now.”
And as for the style of the food in her restaurant, well as you might expect from someone influenced so heavily by their family, it is very much home-style cooking.
Despite working in Michelin-starred restaurants and having dined around the world, Shelina still prefers to keep things simple and understated.
“I much prefer home cooking, white table clothes give me the heebie jeebies as I spill my food everywhere,” she says with a broad smile. “There is something wonderful about the showmanship of a Michelin restaurant, but when you are eating at home you want to get your hands dirty. And my restaurant is like that. It’s chill out, take your shoes off, eat and go.
“But I certainly won’t rest on my laurels and as a chef I always like to come up with new ideas. Though with a young baby that can be difficult, but I find time.
“At the minute we have some new dishes which are coconut and mussel as a starter. We have a Mauritian chowder for a main and a syrupy coconut cake. Luckily Mauritian food is very eclectic so nothing in our food is ever ruled out.”
Now the restaurant is proving to be successful and Shelina has found staff she can trust, she is now hoping to spend more time embracing another passion. The mum of one loves to travel and was thrilled to be invited to the UAE capital for Taste of Abu Dhabi.
And while many would take the opportunity to sit down in some of the top restaurants in the very best hotels, Shelina prefers to find the hidden gems that only the locals know about.
“Any time you get to travel it is all about learning and I love to adapt and modernise dishes,” she explains. “I stayed in Atlantis in Dubai a few years ago and I was asking the taxi drivers where they eat. I always ask the drivers as they help you find the flavours of the country.
“They took me to this small place and I had a dosa pancake that was so cheap but utterly amazing. We also had proper Chai tea and it was perfect, those are the places I like to discover.
“So while I am in Abu Dhabi I will make sure to find out where the locals are eating. Luckily I have an Emirati friend so I will make sure he takes me to all the best spots.”
Having had the opportunity to travel around the Middle East, Shelina has also noticed a gap in the somewhat overcrowded market. Despite the thousands of restaurants in the region, it seems there is a real lack of authentic Mauritian food.
So could the British chef soon be opening a restaurant in the UAE? “We actually have lots of Emiratis studying in Southampton and they seem to love my food,” she adds. “They are always saying that I should open in the region, so it could well be something I look it.
“It is great having one restaurant and it can be tough as I have a five-month old baby, but I am looking for a new site to open a restaurant, so it could be in Dubai or Abu Dhabi.”
Certainly there seems no reason why such a restaurant would not be a success with Shelina proving ever since winning MasterChef that just like her culinary idols David Thompson and Atul Kocher, she has managed to refine home style cooking.
And with a lack of Mauritian restaurants across the UAE, Shelina may just have found the perfect market for her second restaurant.
Words by: Adrian Back