I am living my dream right now: Masterchef Australia winner Sashi Cheliah
Over the last few weeks, Sashi, 40, has been traversing the length and breadth of India on a private visit
- Published 11.01.19, 12:49 AM
- Updated 11.01.19, 12:49 AM
Cooking was always a dream for Sashi Cheliah, a dream that saw him give up a job as a cop, pursue his passion and ultimately win the title of MasterChef Australia 2018. Since the win, the Indian-origin chef, born in Singapore, has become a famous face, travelling the world and showcasing his culinary skills at pop-up restaurants.
Over the last few weeks, Sashi, 40, has been traversing the length and breadth of India on a private visit. Last weekend, Calcutta was Sashi’s third stop after Delhi and Mumbai. Over 30 minutes, t2 chatted with Sashi at Souk in Taj Bengal, on his India trip, his MasterChef Australia journey and his food dream.
Welcome to India! How has it been so far?
Sashi Cheliah: I started with Delhi on December 29. I spent three days there and then four days in Mumbai. It will be two days in Calcutta and then I move on to the other parts of the country.
You must be sampling the local cuisine wherever you are travelling?
Sashi Cheliah: Oh my God… not sampling, I am indulging! (Laughs) I’ve been to a couple of restaurants in Delhi and Mumbai and when they know there’s a chef in the house, then these guys will go all out to feed you a lot! I tried out the Darbar Special Biryani in Delhi. It was a very different kind of biryani, they used a lot of cloves, and I really liked it.
Mumbai is a food paradise. I went to two of the best restaurants there — Bombay Canteen and Bastian — and I really enjoyed the food. These guys are experimenting a lot with Indian cuisine and taking it to the next level. I found the food at Bastian very close to what I grew up eating — very southeast Asian. The food culture in Mumbai has picked up a lot. Delhi is still very traditional, but the variety is huge. I had vada pav in Mumbai and pani puri in Delhi. I think I must have gained three-four kilos in this last week!
Food is the main reason I am in India, but I am also doing the touristy things. I am here with my wife and we visited the Taj Mahal. We have gone to a lot of forts and museums. And also done a lot of shopping in Mumbai.
What made you pick Calcutta as a pit stop?
Sashi Cheliah: I am always interested in exploring different kinds of cuisines, both in terms of eating and also with an eye on how I can use them to enhance my skills as a chef. I had never been to Calcutta before but many people told me that if I was looking at exploring food destinations in India, then Calcutta had to be on my list, primarily because of the fact that the food here is very unique compared to other parts of India.
I had a typical Bengali lunch today at Sonargaon (at Taj Bengal) and it blew me away. I don’t think there was even one dish I didn’t try. I am not very good with Bengali names (smiles), but I can tell you that two dishes particularly appealed to me. One was the mustard fish wrapped in banana leaf (Bhetki Paturi) and the other was a dish of mixed vegetables (Palong Shaaker Chorchori). I think that alone I can have with rice every day for the rest of my life! (Laughs)
Though you won the MasterChef Australia title in July last year, India watched you lift the trophy in end-December. Now that you are travelling here, are people recognising you?
Sashi Cheliah: Yes, in Australia I am an old story now! (Laughs) But I have a good fan base in Australia and even now when I do pop-ups there, they come and support me. I am still enjoying the euphoria surrounding MasterChef.
This India trip was planned way before MasterChef Australia. It’s something my wife and I had wanted to do for a very long time and we had no idea the finale would play out in India when we would be here. I was in Mumbai when the finale was aired. I never thought that people would recognise me here, but the day before the finale I was at Oberoi Mall there and as usual I was looking for food at the food court, and I got mobbed! (Laughs) It took one person to recognise me and then it became a crowd. But it wasn’t like it is for Bollywood celebrities, it was a small group (smiles), and they were very respectful of the fact that I was on a private visit. I clicked a few pictures, signed some autographs….
Before you came here, did you have any idea that MasterChef Australia is so big in India?
Sashi Cheliah: Before the competition, I didn’t know it was big here. When I was on the show, I started getting an idea of how big it was not only in India and Australia, but worldwide. It shows in many countries and the viewership is huge. India obviously counts as one of the major followers of MasterChef Australia.
Do you remember what was going through your mind when your name was called out as the MasterChef Australia 2018 winner?
Sashi Cheliah: That moment is like a classic movie for me… I can watch it over and over again and still have the emotion (smiles). I get goosebumps every time I watch it. When my name was called out, I just felt numb for a moment and then sheer joy took over. I think what worked for me was that what you saw on TV was me, I am like that every day of my life, there was no pretence.
A lot of people ask me that now when I go back and watch episodes of myself, am I critical? I don’t think I am; the critical ones are my kids (aged 12 and 10), they really mock me all the time. (Laughs) They are critical of my accent and my English is not that polished; they feel they speak much better English than I do. They now rewatch MasterChef and tell me, ‘Papa, you could have said this better, you should have spoken like this’. I am like, ‘What to do? It’s totally unscripted.’
But they are also incredibly proud of me. The boys are very close to me and they kept me motivated throughout MasterChef. On the finale day, my wife, kids and mum were on the show and that was my biggest strength. While I was cooking the final dish, I kept telling myself, ‘My kids are here. I am a role model for them and I shouldn’t falter at this stage’. That helped me pull through.
Do they have an interest in cooking?
Sashi Cheliah: Oh, both of them cook very well. My younger one has a thing for savouries and the elder one makes some really good pastries. When I was in law enforcement, one wanted to be a police officer and the other an engineer. Now my whole career has changed and their interest has also moved towards food. I am supportive of whatever they want to do in life.
What would you count as your top three moments on MasterChef Australia?
Sashi Cheliah: The first would be the one when I got my apron for the first time after I was selected in the auditions. Then I would pick the moment when Gordon (Ramsay) walked into the kitchen; I loved working with him. And then was the history-making moment when I got my second Immunity Pin (a lifeline of sorts that the recipient can use at any time during the competition to save themselves from elimination).
Have you made friends for life on MasterChef Australia?
Sashi Cheliah: For sure! MasterChef is like a family. On the show, we were constantly helping each other, giving advice. We would constantly sample each others’ cooking, critique them, and that is how a lot of us would improve. We really worked together as a team. We would shoot Monday to Friday and weekends would generally be off. On weekends, we would practise a lot, do a lot of reading on food. The kitchen wouldn’t be available to us throughout the day and so we would cook in slots. We would share recipes and ideas.
I am in touch with Ben (Borsht), Jess (Liemantara), Khanh (Ong), Reece (Highnell), Loki (Madireddi). All the three judges (Gary Mehigan, George Calombaris and Matt Preston) were a huge support. I would constantly be tapping on their shoulders and asking for tips and advice. The knowledge they have is huge. All three of them would point out mistakes, give advice, tell us how to improve. I really enjoyed that bit because it’s free advice from the best in the business! (Laughs)
What was it like having Saransh Goila and his famous Butter Chicken on the show this time?
Sashi Cheliah: (Smiles) Everyone on MasterChef Australia knew that I wasn’t the greatest fan of Butter Chicken. On the day Saransh made his Butter Chicken on the show, I wasn’t competing, I was up in the gantry. The following day, I tried cooking his recipe at home and I must tell you it’s the best Butter Chicken in the world! It’s so, so good! He has taken Butter Chicken to the next level. And I’ve not seen anyone make Rumaali bread like him… with bananas in it and so moist. It’s so soft that even if you leave it out for hours, it won’t get dry.
What’s the status of the restaurant you plan to set up?
Sashi Cheliah: I have already started a company called MRS Gaja. Gaja by Sashi is a pop-up restaurant under that company that has successfully been going on for the last four months; we’ve had pop-ups in two locations. I plan to start my restaurant called Gaja this year. Hopefully, I will find some time after this trip to get the ball rolling. I have the concept ready, but I need to look for a location in Adelaide. I need to do some recipe tasting, some wine pairings. I am not rushing into it, but I will make sure I do it well.
In the short-term, I am keeping things fluid. Since winning MasterChef, I have got a lot of offers. I am trying out whatever I like.
I am just going with the flow right now and enjoying the little bit of fame I’ve got! (Laughs) I am living my dream right now.
A few weeks ago, I did a pop-up at the MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground) during the Test match between India and Australia. They had an ‘Indian Summer Festival’ to coincide with the Test series and mine was one of the four restaurants invited. The theme was to do Indian food with an Aussie touch.
Are you a cricket fan?
Sashi Cheliah: I grew up in Singapore, so I am not crazy about cricket. I am more of a soccer guy. I regularly watch the Premier League. But when I shifted to Australia six years ago, I started taking interest in cricket. Now I understand it.
As a kid, what was the first thing you cooked?
Sashi Cheliah: Barbecue. I started my cooking in school. I did watch my mum and aunts cook at home, but I wasn’t allowed to touch anything. In school, it was different. I was allowed to experiment and whenever we had school picnics, you would find me doing the chicken, the lamb…. The interesting story is that I met my wife during one such barbecue (smiles).
Was it the cooking that impressed her?
Sashi Cheliah: Oh yes, my barbecue skills worked for me! (Laughs)
Growing up, who were your food idols?
Sashi Cheliah: In the ’80s, there was a chef called Yan on a TV show called Yan Can Cook. He was my childhood favourite. The way he presented the show, the way he mashed garlic with his chopper was very dramatic and entertaining. He made it look so simple. Then later, it was Jamie Oliver. I enjoy watching him. He puts in a hundred ingredients, but makes very simple dishes, and I liked that.
As I got serious about cooking, Gordon Ramsay became my idol. That’s mostly because of his attitude, he doesn’t take anything lightly. He’s 100 per cent committed to what he does and I like that attribute in people.