15 Jan


“Anyone can cook but only the fearless can be great.” So said much loved Disney figure, Parisian chef Auguste Gusteau in the 2007 movie, Ratatouille. These may have been the words that inspired Remy the rat to become a chef, but they also describe Shaista Shantkumar Anoop to a T.

Called Shai by friends and family alike, the 23-year-old scooped the Junior Chef Award at this year’s Unilever Chef of the Year competition. Currently working as a pastry lecturer at the respected 1 000 Hills Hotel School in Botha’s Hill, Shai was determined to succeed. “I’d entered twice before,” she says. “The first time I made a complete mess of things. I burnt my tuile (a crispy biscuit) and everything went to pieces from there. Of course I was determined to do better the following year.”

The following year – 2018 – she came second. “Then this year I entered to win it. I knew it was now or never.”

Undaunted she set herself an almost insurmountable task, challenging herself to create 23 components over three courses, all technically difficult. Baby squid with a beetroot and egg yolk pasta and broccoli pesto was followed by a main of two meats – lamb loin and ostrich – with a choux pastry, a lamb pâté and turnip purée among other delicacies, all trumped by a nine-component dessert of startling complexity – including pork craquelin, dark chocolate mousse, a wheatgrass micro- sponge and butternut cheesecake.

“I did about seven practice rounds,” says Shai. “None were perfect. By the fourth my main was good. By the fifth my head of department and mentor didn’t give me any feedback. It was that bad.” The young woman with nerves of steel was, however, not daunted. “I was not raised to give up, and there is a real adrenalin rush in entering competitions,” she says. “You might say to yourself that this is the last time, but then the time rolls around and you are again driven to compete. No two experiences are the same, and there is so much to be learnt.”

This is not the only win under Shai’s apron. She represented South Africa at the World Chefs Congress in Malaysia in 2018 after taking the title of Peppadew Young Chef of the Year. “It was nerve-wracking. I had to create my winning dish in front of 250 people with cameras all over the place. I almost burnt my chicken!”

Shai says her love of cooking began at the age of seven. “My mom fell sick and was on bedrest. I saw her helping dad in the kitchen one day instead of resting, so I asked her to teach me to cook so she could rest. At first she didn’t take me seriously, but I was very persistent and so she told dad to ‘humour me’. My dad started teaching me and that’s where my food journey began.”

At the age of 12 Shai knew she wanted to become a chef. “People filled my head with horror stories about how I would never find a job or fail. I looked at other career options, but my passion was in the kitchen.” Her parents supported her all the way. “They said I had to give it a chance or I may spend my life regretting that I never followed my dream.”

Following a chef’s course at 1 000 Hills Chef School, Shai was hired as a pastry lecturer at the school straight after graduating. “I didn’t think I wanted to teach, but I’m now in my third year and have fallen in love with it.”

Chef Jade Benians, the principal of 1 000 Hills Chef School and herself a previous Junior and Senior South African Chef of the Year, says Shai has what it takes to be a great chef. “You need to be ready to deal with the unexpected, to remain cool, calm and collected.

“To be a competition chef you need to be special. Not everyone can deal with the pressure, and you need to have a thirst for victory. Shai is all of the above. She is also a kind, loving and positive person, and beautiful on top of it all. She really is the whole package.”

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