– Salt Cod, Lobster and Mangoes –
Interview with Shelina Permalloo
2012 MasterChef Winner
“Geert van Hecke taught me to believe in my food style as well as simplicity in cooking” – Shelina Permalloo
There will be many of you out there who like me were glued to the television every week for the 2012 MasterChef competition; the fifteen episodes of this year’s Herculean culinary contest had me on the couch and out of action for several weeks, as I watched contestants wrestle with urns of curry, forage for herbs, cook with cockroach paste as well as cater for the Thai Royal family. And throughout the contest, there was one person who was a winner from the start for me; she was cool, calm and happy – she looked liked she actually enjoyed cooking, plus her food was original with a touch of the Indian Ocean…….in short, it was innovative, tasty and yet totally accessible. The person I am talking about is Shelina Permalloo, who as we all now know DID eventually win the coveted MasterChef 2012 title against stiff competition from Andrew Kojima and Tom Rennolds in the finals. I was in “Camp Shelina” right from the start for several reasons; firstly I admired her sunny disposition and hard work throughout all of the trials and tribulations of the contest, as well as her original and yet reassuringly accessible recipes and dishes; Shelina’s dishes are those that you would be happy to serve to your family,which is a compliment, as this is a show that normally leans towards winners who embrace wacky molecular cooking and can’t live without a water bath or dehydrator in their kitchens. Shelina showed that you can be imaginative and embrace colour, flavour and texture, but in an unpretentious manner. So, it was with great excitement that I learned that I had been given the chance to interview Shelina and ask her all about her MasterChef experiences as well as discover more about her, her family and her plans for the future.
I had a long list of questions that I wanted to ask Shelina, but she was so friendly and engaging, as well as obviously being passionate about food, that my questions seemed to be answered before I had a chance to ask them. There were quite a few “fishy” questions on my list, as Shelina cooked with a lot of fish and seafood throughout the MasterChef contest, and as a Fish Fanatic from Fish is the Dish, I wanted to ask her why……..
You cooked with a lot of fish and seafood in MC, why was this?
Shelina: “For me, fish and seafood evoke the happiest memories of when I am on holiday; fish and seafood are memories of happy days and remind me of sharing food with family and friends, and throughout the MasterChef contest, I wanted to share that concept of happy food and cooking with fish and seafood filled that criteria, plus, I adore fish and seafood too”.
What is your favourite fish or seafood?
Shelina: “My favourite, undoubtedly, is Lobster. I love its meaty texture and sweet, nutty flavour as well as its versatility”.
What were your biggest challenges involving fish or seafood under the spotlight and against the clock?
Shelina: “Whilst I was preparing and cooking under the tutelage of Clare Smyth, Head Chef and holder of 3 Michelin Stars at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. I had to cook the starter for a gastronomic meal for seven of the professional chef mentors that had featured in the 2012 programme so far. My dish was poached Scottish Lobster with Pork Fat, Pickled Baby Vegetables and a Coral Vinaigrette (Poached Scottish lobster tail with lardo di colonnata, vegetables à la grecque and coral vinaigrette). I remember Clare saying that the finished dish should look like a vase of flowers, and it was the most exacting dish that I had to make with such tight time constraints and whilst being filmed, but I learned so much from her in such a short time; it was a wonderful exeprience”.
What kind of fish did you eat as a child?
Shelina: “Fresh fish was very expensive when I was growing up and my mum used to be inventive with tinned fish such as mackerel and sardines. I remember she would make curries with tinned fish, as well as a traditional Mauritian dish called “Rougaille“, which is made with salt cod, which she could get quite cheaply too. Rougaille is from the Franco-Mauritian school of Mauritian cooking and is still one of my favourite recipes today.
One of the burning questions that I wanted to ask Shelina was what her plans were for the future – as any past MaterChef winner knows, her life will never be the same again and there will doubtless be many exciting opportunities to pursue her love food. Shelina told me that she DOES have plans to publish a book, and the book will be about Mauritian food, but, it will be Mauritian food aimed at families, as she wants it to be accessible to all. This is the underlying ethos that I picked up on all the way through the contest, Shelina’s love of traditional food and recipes, and food that is family friendly. Shelina also has plans to work alongside some very exciting chefs to reinforce her culinary experiences and skills; she told me that she is very excited to be working with Atul Kochhar at Benares, David Thompson at Nahm and also with James Campbell who is head pastry chef at Waitrose Cookery School. And of course, I wanted to know if there were any plans to open a restaurant; we chatted for quite a while about this, Shelina would love to open a Mauritian restaurant, but she has to tackle the thorny problem of whether it will be a “Mauritian Street Food” type of eatery, or a more up-market “Fine Dining Experience” style of restaurant, and she is torn between the two at present.
Throughout my conversation with Shelina, it was evident that the inspiration for her love of food and cooking came from her family, in particular her mum. However, more recently her husband has also been a source of inspiration, and introduced Shelina to Italian food as well as the general concept of European culinary traditions. Shelina explained how he had taught her the basics of Italian cooking and eating, how the ingredients were picked for simplicity and to aid digestion, and how important it was to eat food in the right way…….. such as pasta before meat and then vegetables before cheese and desserts; and although she and her husband eat Mauritian and Italian food at home, they also love British food, specially bangers and mash, cottage pie and her husband’s top favourite is roast beef, in fact he loves beef cooked most ways! Again, I picked up on how important food and family is to Shelina; she mentioned on more than one occasion how eating with family and friends, as well as sharing food is the root of friendship and kinship, and even when she was growing up and they were quite poor, her mum would still manage to cook wonderful and authentic Mauritian meals to satisfy and nurture her family.
One cannot forget one important ingredient when talking about Shelina, Mangoes! I asked her how mangoes became the icon of her journey through MasterChef, and she explained that she was constantly being teased (in a good hearted way) by the other contestants due to her constant use of them in her recipes and dishes, although Shelina explained that she really hadn’t used them that much until towards the latter part of the contest. There is another poignant story related to Shelina’s family and mangoes however; her mum recalled how when she was younger and still living in Mauritius, how she could walk through a field and just pick mangoes at will……she would then peel them and eat them on the spot, something that she obviously missed when she came to live in the UK. Mangoes then became a symbol of celebration to Shelina, as they were hard to obtain and expensive, so they only made an appearance at special times of the year and were linked to special family events, feasts and festivals. I am relieved to say that fresh mangoes can be found in abundance nowadays and Shelina will be able to continue to cook with them, much to my delight, as some of her best recipes on MasterChef had mangoes as a key ingredient, such as the dish she cooked on finals night, Mauritian octopus salad with mango and apple vinegar. You can find more or Shelina’s winning recipes on the BBC Food website here: Shelina Permalloo.
Shelina has a very busy schedule at present but if you fancy seeing her, then she is cooking live on Friday 13th and Saturday 14th April with last year’s MasterChef champion Tim Anderson and Celebrity MasterChef winner Lisa Faulkner, at the launch of the BBC Good Food Show Spring at Glow, Bluewater, Kent. For more info and to book tickets visit www.bbcgoodfoodshowspring.com or call 0844 581 1362. In addition to these dates, Shelina is also appearing at more upcoming Good Food Shows in Birmingham this summer, in Scotland in the autumn and in Birmingham again in the winter. I have lots more to share with you about Shelina and what we discussed, but I am saving that for another post when I will be attempting to cook one of her winning seafood recipes……….to read more about Shelina and remarkable journey from Diversity manager to MasterChef champion, visit her lovely “Mango coloured” website here: Shelina Permalloo. With thanks to Beverly for arranging the interview and a HUGE BIG WARM thanks to Shelina for giving up so much of her time to talk to me, and especially as she was feeling under the weather at the time, get well soon – honey and lemon as I prescribed before, and another BIG thanks and CONGRATULATIONS!
See Shelina at:
13th – 14th April 2012, GLOW at Bluewater, Greenhithe, Kent DA9 9ST
15th – 17th June 2012, Birmingham NEC
19th – 21st October 2012, Glasgow SECC
9th – 11th November 2012, Olympia, London
30th – 2nd December 2012, Birmingham NEC