In Conversation with… Shelina Permalloo: BBC Masterchef Winner 2012
When I first started writing for the newspaper here in Mauritius back in 2015, I sat down with le husband and compiled a list of inspiring Mauritian humans that I would like to interview. Shelina Permalloo, the 2012 BBC Masterchef winner, was on that list and so the powers of the Universe brought that interview to fruition when she happened to be visiting Mauritius last month for a series of work events.
So off we went, the husband and I with the kids in tow, to meet lovely Shelina straight after her book signing at Bagatelle Mall. Shelina was accompanied by her childhood friend Anna and honestly, I felt that we all just hit it off right away. Both ladies were so warm and open and were genuinely just the sweetest, most down-to-earth human beings ever! It was an absolute pleasure to talk together on many different levels, laugh and almost cry (that would be Shelina!). Here’s how the conversation went as we spoke about Masterchef, motherhood and more…
It is such an honour and a pleasure to meet you Shelina! So to begin, how did your book signing go at BookCourt and how did that come about?
Yeah it was nice. They ran out of books, so that’s always a good thing! I know the guys who run BookCourt as their family business, so every time I come back to Mauritius I try to do something with them. But as an author, it’s really important to be around your readers aswell, so I just thought it would be nice to get involved.
Well it’s lovely to have you here! Every time you come back to Mauritius, how do you feel coming back to your roots?
It’s funny, every time I come back here, it doesn’t feel like I’ve been away for very long – but this time it has been a while, it’s been 2 and a half years. But it feels like it’s home away from home. Because I live and breathe Mauritian food in the restaurant and I’m always talking about the island, it’s always nice to come back and reconfirm what I’m doing, if that makes sense. Even though I’m British, I’ve always felt like Mauritius is my spiritual home. Growing up in Britain, I grew up always thinking that I was Mauritian. I first came to Mauritius when I was 12 years old so I spent 12 years thinking I was Mauritian; until I came here and everyone thought I was British.
Well I know how you feel, being a British-born Pakistani myself. How did you handle that?
Well firstly, I guess I realised I was a bit different. Mainly because I was chubbier than the rest of my cousins, eating butter and English cakes back in the UK! But I loved it and I’ve always loved the island.
So as you’ve probably guessed, I’m going to ask you about Masterchef. Can I ask you what you were doing in life before the competition?
My background is in project management, in talent and diversity. I always really wanted to make a difference. I felt like I kind of had my quarter life crisis when I was 28/29, edging towards 30, and I just felt like it was the right time for me to go into food. So basically, I saved a load of money, applied online for Masterchef and that was pretty much it! I got a phone call from Masterchef asking me to come in to do a trial and things like that, and from that point everything changed.
So did you always have an interest in cooking then?
Yeah, I’ve always cooked. From a very young age I’ve always been cooking. I was always around my mum and we were always cooking together. Having people around the table, well that’s what I really love and while I was at uni I always used to cook for everyone as well.
I would have loved to have been your housemate then, haha! You said you worked in project management. What made you turn to food and cooking at that particular point in your life?
I think there’s sometimes a frustration when you work in businesses, like you feel like you’re not really making much of a difference. I always thought with food, no matter who you are or what your background is, if you put food in front of people, everyone will come to a table and talk – so I thought that was a really good way of making people connect from different walks of life. That’s what I always thought about food, being one thing that gels people together. I just kind of got a bit bored of thinking I was making a difference, yet not really making a difference and then I thought at least if I go into food, I’ll be able to make a difference in that field.
And then you applied for Masterchef…
Haha yes, a bit of a dramatic change of career! I actually did apply for a job at a supermarket as a volunteer in their food development section. They said yes to me and it would have been 2 or 3 days a week, and then the rest of the time I was going to get a temporary job just to make some money. But at the same time I got the job, Masterchef called me! It was a bit bonkers when all of that happened!
Can you sum up what the Masterchef journey was like for you?
The journey was really, really hard. It’s very intense. Every single dish that you cook has to be the best dish you have ever cooked in your life, so you basically use up all your ammo in one go and then if you get through that stage, the next day or the following week you have to do it all over again.
Was there a point in the competition when you thought ‘okay, I can win this’?
There was a time when I went to a 3* Michelin restaurant in Bruges and I learnt so much from the head chef there. When we got back, I ended up cooking a soft crab dish and it was a soft shell crab, deep-fried with green mango and tamarind and apple chutney. I remember cooking it and John Torode saying “you’ve come home” and he had tears in his eyes. And at the time I didn’t understand what he meant, but looking back, what I understand now is that he really thought that I understood my food, my culture and my heritage. Before that, I was trying to make my food more European and I was trying to look at the European way of cooking when actually, we don’t fit into that type of cooking – so that’s why he said that.
So in contrast to that, were there any times in the competition where you experienced self-doubt? And if so, how did you overcome that?
I think because I was thrown into these awful, hard, challenging situations that people were watching on TV, I didn’t get the chance to even think about self-doubt. I think throwing yourself in at the deep end is the way that you learn. Failing is a really good thing – if you fail, you have learnt something so much more than if you just pass. All of the stuff I’ve learnt is through failing. In this industry however, being a woman and being brown, I experience self-doubt every single day. There’s always a challenge.
I’m just being nosey now but can I ask, was Masterchef filmed one day after another or over a period of time?
It was over a period of time, so it was over a 2-and-a-half month period and initially it worked out to be one day a week for the show and then towards the finals, we were filming 3 or 4 days a week, so it was really intense. We went to Thailand (as part of the show) and we were there for 8 days so it’s really very intense. It’s an amazing experience and actually each and every single time, I remember thinking “I better remember all of this because I’m gonna leave soon”. And then each and every time I got through one of the challenges I thought that that’s the best I can be and I was thankful for that alone. But then when I actually went on to win, it was not something I was expecting at all. I genuinely thought that one of the other 2 finalists was going to win. I never thought Mauritian food would be fancy enough to win Masterchef so it really was a huge surprise!
Well it’s such an amazing achievement – well done! So while it was being aired, was it still being filmed?
No, it was all finished. I knew I was the winner at the beginning of December and it was aired on TV the following February. So you have like two-and-a-half months where you can’t tell anyone… your life has changed and you have to be discreet and act like nothing’s changed. And then it goes on TV and for a very short period of time you’re a celebrity in that world. In that period of time they tell you to go away and act like nothing’s happened… but in that time I actually wrote my first book and tried to focus on that.
How did the Mauritian community take to you being in Masterchef?
Well basically, a load of people who hadn’t spoken to my mum in years suddenly started calling and they would call my mum and tell her what I should be cooking for the next round! I’d get texts from cousins saying “my mums telling me to tell you that next time you should cook this or that” – it was really funny actually! But I had so many Mauritians supporting me though and I still do; it’s really lovely.
And how would you say your life has changed from before to after Masterchef?
Completely. I haven’t changed, but my life has changed. My life has changed so much because I get to work in an industry that I love. I feel really lucky to be honest. I feel so lucky that I’m able to showcase Mauritian food to a British audience – something I never thought was possible.
Staying in line with that, you now have your own Mauritian restaurant back in the UK. Can you tell us more about Lakaz Maman?
The restaurant, Lakaz Maman, is in dedication to my mum – she was the one that taught me how to cook. It’s all about home traditions so the actual food at the restaurant is traditional Mauritian food with a twist. Our biggest seller is Bol Renverse (magic bowl). It has taken a lot of hard work and in that time period of two years I’ve gotten married and had a baby as well, so it’s been two years of hard-core work. I think it’s the hardest I’ve ever worked if I’m honest!
So are you actually there cooking all the food yourself?
For the first 6 months it was just me and my mum. Mum would be in the kitchen shouting at me and I’d be like “hey mum, I’m supposed to be the head chef” haha! My mum has been amazing, she’s been my lifeline – and my husband as well. But now, I have a head chef and a sous chef so the kitchen runs itself. I work 4 days a week and the other 3 days I’m a full-time mummy. It’s just finding the balance really.
When you go in on the days that you are working, what are your main responsibilities?
Paperwork, cooking, paperwork, cooking, telling people off…! I’m at the forefront too, speaking to the customers. Just before we left the UK for this trip actually, we had the WI (Women’s institute) who booked a table of 30 and they personally requested that I came in – and it was the last night that I was going to have with baby to put her to bed. But my husband was like “it’s okay”. So I went in and they were so happy that I came in. People are so happy to talk and learn about the history of the restaurant and finding out more about me. When I was pregnant, the day before I gave birth, I was mopping the front of the restaurant – I was like in nesting mode, at the restaurant!
Haha, bless you! And that takes us nicely to your wonderful daughter, who has just turned one! How has motherhood impacted your life?
By far, it’s the best thing that has ever happened to me. Put aside Masterchef, the restaurant, everything – she’s changed the way I think about everything to be honest. Motherhood is the ultimate thing, I think.
How do you manage to balance everything that you do, the way you do – especially now being a mother?
I have a lot of support. My husband and my mum are very, very supportive – without them I wouldn’t be able to do it. What I’ve realised now is that I shouldn’t be too hard on myself. I try and do too much sometimes and then I get really exhausted. The priority for me is my daughter’s growth and wellbeing and her childhood. Now that I’ve prioritised the days that I work (4 days a week full-time), the rest of the time I get to focus completely on her. I still work when she naps and sleeps but when she’s awake, she is my main focus.
Do you ever get much time to yourself?
I’ll be honest; I don’t really need much time off. For me, time off is a meal at home with my husband. I don’t need much else. Oh and spending time with my mum.
Is your mum close by?
Yeah she is, she’s always looking after the baby and she doesn’t know how to sit still either. I say to her “mum come over, I’m going to cook you dinner, and you relax” but she comes and irons all my husbands shirts and starts hoovering, and I’m like “that’s not really relaxing is it”!
I guess that’s mums for you hey! What would you say brings you the most joy in life?
If you had to eat one thing, that was the same thing every single day for a year, what would it be and why?
Probably something with mango. Fresh mango. I could eat fresh mango every single day, without question!
And what’s your favourite meal to cook for guests when they come over?
I’m a fish and seafood woman. So it’s normally fish and seafood when people come over; like a whole roasted sea bream with lots of different sides. Usually Mauritian themed sides like a coconut chutney. One thing I do is get the fish, slash it and stuff the chutney in the inside, wrap it in banana leaf and put it in the oven – that’s a really nice one!
Can you tell me about a standout experience in your career as a professional chef?
Opening the restaurant with my husband and my mum. The day that we opened and cut the ribbon was like the ultimate day for me. It was a dream come true.
Where do you plan on going with the restaurant in the future?
We would like more, we’re actively looking for more sites at the moment, but we’re just trying to figure out which location is best.
Okay, well good luck with that! Can you tell me about a challenging time in your life and how you overcame it?
Opening the restaurant actually. So the actual build of the restaurant was really challenging as the building was in a really bad state. We were constantly trying to open the restaurant but there would always be another hurdle in the way. But the answer is patience and always having an end goal in sight. Telling myself that it’s all going to be okay and remaining calm. I think for me, I’ve gotten used to knowing that things don’t always go to plan so if you know that, you’re better at dealing with it when things go wrong. I panic a lot less now.
We could all learn something from that. So I know that you’re an inspiration to many people around the world, especially to those in Mauritius. But I’m interested to know, who inspires you?
My mum. She’s my biggest inspiration. I never understood how she managed to raise 3 kids on her own. My dad passed away when we were young. She’s just an incredible, inspiring woman and she still has all the time in the world for us.
That’s so lovely, God bless her. Before we end, if you could share one message with the entire world, what would it be?
Do what your heart is telling you to do and believe in that dream. If you work hard at something that you love, then something good will come from it.
And finally, what would you like the future to hold for you?
To keep on doing what I’m doing and have my family involved in all of it. If I can carry on doing what I love, I’ll be happy.
Thank you so much for your time, your beautiful words and the sunshine you bring to the world Shelina. It’s been an absolute pleasure!
You can keep up-to-date with wonderful Shelina on her website www.shelinacooks.com and across social media. Her recipe books, Sunshine on a Plate and The Sunshine Diet are available to purchase online and in a bookstore near you.