You are currently viewing “Anything That Is Stressful Excites Me” – Chef Sashi Cheliah In Candid Conversation With NDTV Food

“Anything That Is Stressful Excites Me” – Chef Sashi Cheliah In Candid Conversation With NDTV Food

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In 2018, Sashi Cheliah made history by becoming the first Indian-origin contestant to win MasterChef Australia. The Singapore-born chef with Indian roots has a fascinating origin story. Before rising to global fame, he used to work for the police and provided high-profile protection as part of a special force. On the show, he enchanted judges and audiences, breaking records with his aromatic creations. He went on to open restaurants in Melbourne, Adelaide, and Chennai. His Indian establishment, the Pandan Club, shines a spotlight on the niche delicacies of Peranakan cuisine.

Chef Sashi was in the country recently for a series of pop-up experiences. We caught up with him at the St. Regis in Mumbai, where he curated a special meal as part of a collaboration between World On A Plate and Johnnie Walker Blue Label. We feasted on Corn Custard, Parsnip Moilee, Whiskey-infused Apple Crumble, and more, as we sipped on signature cocktails. Our candid conversation with him made the evening a truly memorable one.

Excerpts From NDTV Food’s Interview With Chef Sashi Cheliah:

1. Did you grow up in a foodie family?

Growing up in Singapore, we were introduced to different cuisines at a very young age. One can find Malay, Chinese, Indian, and other cultures there. For instance, our daily meals at home would include simple dal with Chinese stir-fried vegetables or Malay sambal. My mother used to run a cafe. That was also a big influence on me.

2. Before you decided to go on MasterChef Australia, what was your relationship with food?

Eating! (He laughs) I have always enjoyed travelling and savouring food. Thankfully, my wife and my kids love that too. We like to try new restaurants in town. We like to go and try something different every day. When we moved to Australia, we were craving food that was close to what we used to have in Singapore. We didn’t get the kind of authentic food we wanted outside. So, we started making it at home. Eating out in Australia was also too expensive. We began cooking at home, and that became a habit. We started inviting friends and colleagues over for meals. Eventually, it grew bigger and bigger. And one day, it translated into me going on MasterChef Australia.

3. It has now been more than 5 years since you won MasterChef Australia. Looking back, what has been your biggest takeaway from your journey since then?

It’s been all about learning. What we did on the show is not even one per cent of what I’m doing at the moment. There has been a lot of learning over the past 5 years. What we cook on the show is usually only for the three judges or sometimes for a larger group as part of a team challenge. All those are fixed menus. When you come outside, you are cooking for people with different dietary preferences…Running a restaurant or service means you need to pay attention to prep, techniques, equipment, planning, management decisions, customers, etc. All these factors are involved. Over the past few years, I have learned a lot through running my own restaurant and doing pop-ups. I’m still learning.

Parsnip moilee by Chef Sashi. Photo Credit: Toshita Sahni

4. You are known to draw influences from different cuisines while cooking. What’s a challenge you face when having such diverse inspirations?

Controlling myself, I think. I can go a little overboard sometimes. Whenever I do that, I now go back to the theory that ‘less is more’. I believe I imbibed that from Gordon Ramsay. I’m quite used to serving large quantities. He showed me how to control aspects like that. I learned to keep it simple, focus on 2-3 ingredients, extract the maximum flavours out of those elements, make a single ingredient the hero, and ensure I don’t overpower it by adding too much of another. At the same time, keeping the dish flavorful is crucial to me. However beautiful a plate of food may look, it is the flavor that entices you to return to try it again and again.

5. How do you balance authenticity and innovation while curating a dish?

Flavours, definitely. Creativity is important, but you must not take away too much from the authenticity of a dish. Authentic flavours are unique. In the name of creativity, you should not destroy or remove authentic flavours. Keeping it authentic in terms of flavors, but presenting it in a slightly different manner is something I really enjoy. For instance, the Rogan Josh on the menu today doesn’t resemble the usual appearance of the dish on a plate. I have given it my own twist by making a jus with herb oil and cooking the lamb sous vide.

6. How do you stay creative and continue to push boundaries in your cooking?

When I started my culinary journey, I was full of enthusiasm and creativity. I was able to pump out menu after menu. Then the Covid-19 pandemic struck, and everything shut down. I lost touch with my creative side and became more of a businessperson. To rekindle my creative spark, I went back to the show (MasterChef Australia series 14: Fans & Favorites). I made some of the best dishes of my life. It put me back to a spot where I’m able to think out of the box.

Whenever I face problems like a creative block, I try to go somewhere else to get inspiration. Travelling helps me in this regard. I really love doing pop-ups. When I travel to different parts of the world countries, I get inspiration from many cuisines. I’m not referring to fine-dining restaurants. I go down onto the streets and relish simple street food. I get inspired by vendors who create one dish that has been perfected over 20-30 years. They are people who are committed to the craft.

7. What excites you about cooking and the culinary world in 2024?

The new projects I’m working on are quite exciting. I’m setting up a new restaurant in Melbourne. I am an adrenaline junkie. I need my dopamine. Thus, every time I’m part of a service, it excites me. As does any new project that throws various challenges at me. I don’t fret if a dish goes wrong and needs to be rectified quickly. Anything that is stressful excites me! I need that to get my brain going. Additionally, I find it fascinating to discover initiatives that aim to reduce food waste. I’m very conscious of food wastage. For instance, today, we have tried our best to make the most of the ingredients, retaining even the vegetable peels. So if anyone is adopting a new approach in this space, I’ll be excited to try it.

8. What’s a change you would like to see in kitchens by 2025?

By 2025, it’s very hard. Many issues have been present for decades. Some kitchens still have a culture of yelling, throwing, and swearing. I’m not saying it’s wrong or that it doesn’t work. It’s just that I don’t like that kind of setting. I prefer my kitchen to have minimum noise and that people maintain silence. Everyone should know each other and work collaboratively. There must be coordinated, synchronized movements. If you can have such a setup, cooking and service will be more like a form of art rather than chaos. I would also like to see younger chefs getting the opportunity to be more involved in various roles. They come with a lot of creativity and fresh ideas.

9. What advice would you give to budding self-taught chefs?

I would advise them to learn their basics. Although I never underwent basic training at a culinary school, I was lucky to win a show and learn from people who know their trade very well. But not everybody has that chance. If you’re a self-taught chef who wants to be a part of the industry, don’t neglect your basics. Those skills are extremely important, so make sure you go and learn them from somewhere or someone.

10. What are you looking forward to the most on this trip to India? Which are your favourite Indian dishes?

Eating as much food as I can! It’s what I plan to do whenever I get the time during this trip. The first thing we did before coming to the hotel from the airport was stop at a vada pav place. Later, we visited many old and new restaurants, from Trishna to Veronica’s. I also enjoyed Irani chai and bun maska at a streetside spot.

Every destination in India is so distinctive that it’s hard to choose. If I go to Madurai, Jigarthanda is a must-have. I’ve never tasted anything like it anywhere else in the world. It’s cold and beautifully soothing in the hot weather. If I come to Mumbai, it’s vada pav that I cannot resist. I also love having chaat in Mumbai and Delhi. Its refreshing combination of yoghurt, tamarind, and mint is so comforting! When I go to Kerala, I relish the wide variety of seafood with a nice glass of toddy. Chennai has a vibrant biryani culture. But what I especially love is the set meals.

Rapid-Fire Section:

  1. Guilty pleasure food? Any kind of dessert. I’ve got a massive sweet tooth, and they are the ultimate guilty pleasure – don’t tell my wife.
  2. Favourite midnight snack? Nuts
  3. Food you hated as a child but love now? I don’t hate any food item. I simply enjoy eating.
  4. A dish you struggled to make? Desserts, in general, and pastries, specifically. I didn’t have the background and experience of making them. You need to have patience and a delicate hand to prepare them. I don’t have that. If anything takes more than 90 minutes, I get impatient.
  5. Top food destination on your bucket list? Turkey
  6. Your favourite cuisine while dining out? Thai food
  7. A food trend you find overrated? Farm-to-table
  8. A kitchen gadget you cannot live without? A food processor
  9. If you were a dessert, what would you be? A dark chocolate mousse
  10. What would you have been if not a chef? I would still be doing what I used to enjoy doing: policing.

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