Draft of print feature article in Hampshire Living Magazine (in association with the Southern Daily Echo), April 2012
After her whirlwind TV success on this season’s Masterchef, Shelina Permalloo is finally indulging in her own well-earned celebratory meal (which thankfully involves far less stress). Sweeping up the Masterchef crown this March with her Mauritian menu, she joins her proud mother in London to take a break from the kitchen counter and dine in the city she hopes will play host to her first ever restaurant.
From humble Southampton beginnings, 29 year old Shelina went from an enthusiastic 11 year old in Shirley, cooking casually for her family and friends, to staggering success on the BBC show, now producing dishes comparable to the infamous Nigella Lawson.
It was the individuality of her Mauritian heritage, weaved passionately into her food that set her apart from fellow competitors Andrew Kojima and Tom Rennolds in the Masterchef final. Striving to bring something simple, exotic yet mind-blowing to the table she is still reeling from her success exclaiming, ‘I just find it amazing that I was able to win with a curry.’
Despite being born and educated in Southampton, it is evident Shelina’s roots are still firmly set in Mauritius where her parents lived before emigrating when her mother was eighteen. Shelina said ‘I only ate Mauritian food growing up as it gave our family that affinity of being close to the Island’. It was in this way her appreciation for food began to grow. ‘My upbringing was centred around my family sitting down and having food together every evening, no matter what.’
Shelina’s cooking is an ongoing legacy to her father who sadly passed away when she was only 13. Yet with her mother’s firm guidance, Shelina set the foundations for her natural talent to flourish from as young as three. ‘My mother taught me to cook by intuition – never by using scales – always by sight and taste, so I developed a strong palate from a young age’. She still maintains her mother and Aunty taught her ‘everything that I know today.’
It seems this loving partnership has not deteriorated with her new-found fame. ‘My mum always cooks and likes to remind me that she is better in the kitchen than I am’ Shelina laughs, before adding ‘not that I’m complaining, who doesn’t like to have someone cook dinner for them?’
She speaks fondly about her days back at Regents Park School and Taunton’s College where she met lifelong friends Leonie, Anna and Keri, standing close by to share the moment which transformed her status from your typical talented chef to the inspirational standard of Nigella Lawson.
Following in the footsteps of Thomasina Miers, the only other female winner of the show in the last eight seasons, Shelina is equally flattered by the comparison to Nigella. ‘Nigella is an amazing, beautiful, talented, homely woman – so to be compared to her is a massive complement. Who wouldn’t want to be likened to her?’
These associations will undoubtedly serve as a fantastic boost for her career and have already supplied her with fresh confidence to follow ambitions far beyond her previous diversity management role. ‘I am an incredibly driven perfectionist and so crazy serious about having a future in food that I have recently handed in my notice.’
But rightly so – although the Masterchef kitchen was a far cry from her usual serene environment, Shelina is undoubtedly hooked and will be securing her success in her Southampton hometown as well as the big city. ‘I don’t think I would open a restaurant there because I think my Mauritian style of cooking would be better suited to London, although I would like to do something like a pop-up restaurant or maybe a market stall or something. Whatever I decide to do I will definitely be coming to Southampton soon.’
Guided through the show by the two notorious Masterchef judges John Torode and Greg Wallace, they provided friendly but authoritative criticism which gradually developed her style to reach its full potential. ‘I usually cook to relax. I put some music on, have a glass of wine and enjoy myself. But this was totally different’.
However, Shelina earned every positive comment she was rewarded, gliding through the final with an octopus based starter, a satisfying mutton curry, and a grand concoction of mango cannelloni filled with lime curd, coconut and rum blancmange, white chocolate crème fraiche, pistachio samosas and mango jelly squares to finish off. ‘Mauritian food is very frugal which is great in these economic climates, but at the same time full of flavour heady with aromatics, nutritional and damn tasty!’
Even dishes with the potential to be basic and boring are crafted to spoil the taste buds as she reminisces about her favourite childhood dish – her mother’s chicken stew with potatoes and rice. ‘It’s a really simple dinner. My mum would always make it for me when I was feeling poorly and under the weather’. Such recipes represent Shelina’s ability to pinpoint that essential balance between simple, wholesome food and the vibrant Mauritian flourish which sets it apart with genuine talent.
At least the steadfast loyalty to her roots can always assure us she will never lose passion for her secret vice – the occasional KFC and a hearty roast dinner.