Santosh Shah, Executive Chef at luxury boutique hotel The LaLiT London, is quietly determined to add its fine dining restaurant Baluchi to the area’s Michelin starred restaurants. Moreover, the unassuming 34-year-old, who grew up in a Nepalese village without electricity, will use kindness as his secret weapon.
“I’m a very calm, motivational chef. I use positive encouragement instead of harsh criticism. I am not like a teacher with a stick.”
This is an appropriate analogy given he is drinking tea in The Headmaster’s Room, one of the boutique hotel’s opulent lounges named in a nod to its history as St Olave’s grammar school. ‘Opulent’ is indeed the word: Indian luxury hotel brand LaLiT Suri Hospitality Group has spared no rupees in transforming the Victorian red brick into an elegantly lavish city centre getaway featuring 70 guest rooms, a spa and gym.
Shah’s role is to ensure that the hotel’s dining experience lives up to its rich surroundings. Tea finished, he goes to check on the fine dining restaurant, Baluchi. On the way he greets his front of house staff with ‘Namaskar’, the traditional Indian greeting used throughout the hotel.
Baluchi is in the school’s former assembly hall, though these days its parquet floors, wooden panelling and high domed ceilings are lit by two stunning blue glass chandeliers. On the floor, carved wooden screens create intimacy in the huge triple height space.
The décor is East meets West, and the menu is pan-Indian with British influences, thanks to a mixture of Shah’s Indian training and his experimentation with British flavour combinations. Apple sauce for pork, for example, becomes tandoori smoked apple and garam masala purée (the recipe for which took months of iterations with his team).
Those looking for a special occasion can book The Naan’ery, an experience that pairs wine with a selection of naan flavoured with truffle, coconut mango, and fig. Or there is High Chai in the great hall’s gallery, Shah’s version of afternoon tea that includes Indian street food, masala chai and mango lassi.
Ingredients from his childhood also feature heavily in his dishes, such as terrine made from colocasia leaf, a spinach like leaf with a deep earthy flavour. “It grew in my mum’s garden during rainy season. It’s a strong memory for me,” he says.
This memory is far removed from the setting in which he now finds himself. Shah, however, is no country boy counting his lucky fortune, rather a grafter who knows the rewards of hard work and determination.
“I’m the youngest of seven siblings. The others married or moved away for work, so it was just my mother and me. At 14, I moved from Nepal to India with friends from my village to work as a commis in a five-star restaurant. I decided I wanted to be a big chef, and now I’m here,” he says, as if it were as simple as that.
What actually followed was eighteen years of working his way up through the kitchen ranks. He kept a firm focus on his dream, even forgoing his first alcoholic drink until he was 25-years-old. His past times include trying new restaurants, watching MasterChef and reading cookbooks (Too Many Chiefs Only One Indian by second generation UK Sikh, Sat Bains, is a particular favourite.)
It was not all plain sailing. In 2011, he relocated from Gujarat to London, where one of his first jobs was at Brasserie Blanc, owned by Raymond Blanc.
“I’d never cooked beef before and I didn’t know the names of the cuts. They asked for sirloin, I started cooking rump.”
Luckily, there was no shouting down from his section manager who instead took Shah under his wing, influencing his own benevolent management style. Following this, he went on to work at London’s Michelin-starred Benares and Dishoom, before becoming Head Chef at Cinnamon Kitchen & Anise.
Now he is determined for Baluchi to strive for Michelin-starred status in 2019.
“I’ve got a great team of about 20, most of whom have over 20 years of experience. Between us that’s 400 years! When I first visited the area around Tower Bridge about five years ago, there were hardly any good restaurants. Now there are about fifteen or twenty, it’s a foodie destination,” he says.
Explore the neighbourhood – Shah's guide
Story Restaurant - 199 Tooley Street London, SE1 2JX
You no longer have to go to Mayfair for a Michelin starred restaurant. Chef Tom Sellers serves fantastic British food with a changing tasting menu of seasonal dishes.
Coal Shed - Tower Bridge Rd, London SE1 2UP
I try new restaurants at least once a week. This place cooks rare breed meat and seafood over coal. The menu includes dishes like Moroccan smoked goat.
Tom Simmons - Tower Bridge, 2 Still Walk, London SE1 2RF
Like Baluchi, Tom Simmons takes influence from both British and French cuisines, but emphasises the chef’s own heritage - in this case Welsh. Dishes include, Welsh spring lamb loin with Jerusalem artichokes and parsley oil.
The Lalit London, 181 Tooley St, London SE1 2JR