Shelina Permalloo - Southampton’s MasterChef winner on helping the local community

Shelina with her Masterchef trophy back in 2012

Shelina with her Masterchef trophy back in 2012 - Credit: PHILIP COBURN/SUNDAY MIRROR

When MasterChef winner Shelina Permalloo was forced to temporarily close her Southampton restaurant this spring, she immediately looked at how to continue serving the local community. VIV MICKLEFIELD gets a taste of what happened next

Shelina Permalloo at her restaurant Lakaz Maman in Southampton's Bedford Place

Shelina Permalloo at her restaurant Lakaz Maman in Southampton's Bedford Place - Credit: Archant

“It was done with a lot of love,” admits Shelina Permalloo the chef-proprietor of Mauritian eatery Lakaz Maman, recalling her decision to step back into the kitchen during the spring lockdown. Whilst many of us were clapping for carers each week, Shelina went further by cooking and delivering a mouth-watering 1500 meals for essential workers and the homeless across Southampton, her own home city.

But then again, as millions of TV viewers discovered in 2012, when Shelina was crowned BBC MasterChef champion, making people happy by sharing food is the very essence of her cultural identity. It lead presenter Greg Wallace to coin the phrase “Sunshine on a plate”, which could also be used to sum-up a childhood in Sholing centred, she says, on the family kitchen.

“As my parents were first generation immigrants they wanted to be part of a Mauritian community. So I grew-up surrounded by Mauritian food which was almost, always, home-cooked. My memories of food and cooking go right back to when I was three-years-old, the same age that my own daughter Niyyah is now.

“There would be pots clanging, Mauritian music playing in the background and me sifting lentils for my mum. Cooking for me has always been fun. And, if we ate out, this would, usually, be at other people’s houses where there’d be a lot of parties.

“If it was a special occasion we’d go to Nick’s, the restaurant that was in East Street, and eat English food for a treat.” Shelina adds, “We’ve many different established communities in Southampton, including Moroccan, Algerian and Punjabi, but their cuisine was once less obvious to the wider population than it is now.”

Having celebrated the joys of Mauritian food in front of the nation, giving-up a career in project management and focusing on her first love seemed an obvious choice.

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“My mum reminded me afterwards that I always wanted to be a chef, but I never imagined that I’d become a business owner in Southampton.

“I’ve always cooked wholesome, authentic food and sometimes wonder if I’d have eventually opened my own restaurant. However, winning MasterChef provided that acceleration into the industry and I’m really thankful for that.”

Lakaz Maman serves up Mauritian street food with a twist

Lakaz Maman serves up Mauritian street food with a twist - Credit: Archant

Not that she shied away from first gaining experience within commercial kitchens in London, whilst also turning her hand to writing two cookbooks, including the award-winning Sunshine on a Plate. Appearances at food festivals confirmed the appetite for a modern twist on traditional Mauritian dishes, once the preserve of exotic holidays. And, although Southampton’s Bedford Place may not have always been known for its tropical vibe, the search for restaurant premises, she says, ended here.

“This former fried chicken joint was tinged with nostalgia from teenage nights out. Despite the building being damp and semi-derelict I knew immediately that this was where I wanted to be, and we eventually opened in April 2016.”

Calling her new venture Lakaz Maman, which translates as ‘Mum’s House’, also made perfect sense. Whilst these days mum Sheila is no longer by Shelina’s side in the restaurant kitchen, between them they’ve found the blueprint for taking home-cooking to another level. And in doing so, the spirit of Mauritian hospitality has provided the foundations for the business’s success.

“It’s all about those moments in life when you can truly relax by going to the house of someone you love. And as they give you some food, all the stresses melt away. My mum will still hand me Mauritian roti bread and a cup of tea if I pop round,” Shelina laughs.

The street food inspired menu has, she goes on to explain, become more refined over the years. Whilst ‘signature’ dishes might seem at odds with the casual dining experience, customer favourites on the aptly named Sunshine Menu, burst with colour and flavour, and satisfy both carnivores and vegans, and adults and children alike. Take, for example, the traditional Creole curries or the intriguingly named Magic Bowl: a classic rice based Chinese-Mauritian dish topped with a fried egg. No doubt sunny-side up. Meanwhile, Shelina’s personal recommendation is the crispy octopus with masala aioli and pineapple salsa which, she says without any hint of arrogance, would tick all of the Michelin Star boxes if plated differently.

With such an influential matriarch, perhaps it’s of little surprise that the 38-year-old, has actively empowered other women to make their mark.

“Now I have a head chef, Maria, and Sharon is general manger – so we have an all-female senior management team, which is rare in hospitality.”

None of them could have imagined however that instead of celebrating the restaurant’s fourth anniversary in the company of family, friends and customers, like so many other businesses they’d feel the impact of the measures to control the spread of Covid-19. Shelina’s resilience though, in the face of adversity, immediately became apparent.

“I live and breathe the community. And to avoid risking staff and customer safety, I decided to close the restaurant just before lockdown. At the time, stocks of food were full, ready for serving up to 150 curries a day. So I posted this on social media and we had people queuing-up to take it off our hands. It made for a lovely farewell.

“During a two-week break, all the while keeping an eye on the announcements, I was determined not to let staff lose their jobs and they were furloughed.

“But there was still commercial rent, suppliers and a large outstanding VAT bill to pay. So we started a crowdfunding campaign which Solent Local Enterprise Partnership agreed to match fund. The idea was that people could pay for a voucher which can be reclaimed at the restaurant, at a later date. I was a bit scared of doing this, but as a business we’re here to support the local economy as well as local people and their families. Our target was £5,000 and in just five days we’d reached £13,000.”

Buoyed by such an incredible response, she was inspired to use the extra money raised to organise the community food runs. And to recommend this financial life-line. Turkish café Uni Kebab being another small business who’ve used crowdfunding, in their case to buy personal protective equipment for the take-out and delivery service.

So, having been given the green light to resume service, with social distancing measures in place, what are some of the likely changes customers can expect at Lakaz Maman?

“We shall have to reduce what’s on the menu, as there may be supply chain issues with some of our ingredients. And we shall be doing lots of risk assessments, but when it comes to food handling and safety, we are already expert.

“Of course it’s going to be hard, but independent restaurants can be more flexible.”

The words of encouragement received from people passing her door ahead of the phased reopening, certainly gave cause for confidence in a brighter future ahead. And despite any lingering concerns she may have, Shelina’s naturally sunny disposition continues to shine through.

“I’m always an optimist. Even if the hospitality industry is facing its most difficult of times, I know that if we can survive this, we have the ability to survive in the long term.”