Dani Venn talks about social distancing on the MasterChef Australia set
If you haven't binged the entire season of MasterChef Australia: Back to Win online already - it just premiered on Star World. And features plenty of familiar faces from previous seasons including Poh Ling Yeow, Ben Ungermann and Dani Venn. We got on a telephonic interview with 34-year-old mom of two Dani Venn from Australia who we last saw on Season 3. Dani gives us a taste of her experience on the show, shooting in the midst of a pandemic and her now-famous Sri Lankan Pineapple Curry that received praise from Gordon Ramsay and recently even bagged her a national deal with supermarket giant Cole's to shelve her pineapple curry sauce in a bottle.
Excerpts from the interview:
We've been seeing a lot of changes and innovation in the food business in India ever since the lockdown. How are things over there in Melbourne?
Yes, there has been a lot of innovation - home delivery services, meal kits, online cooking classes. This obviously doesn't replace the income that has been lost because of COVID.
What I have really been impressed by is a guy called Charlie Carrington who owns a restaurant called Atlas. He started these meal kits that would be delivered to your house. And every week, it takes you to a different part of the world. Apart from new recipes, and he creates cook-along videos online so you can create restaurant-quality meals from your home kitchen.
His restaurant is quite unique in that they change their menu every three months - themed around different parts of the world.
What was it like shooting MasterChef after COVID?
We started filming in January this year and shooting did continue when COVID hit. Although the filming process did change to allow for social distancing, obviously a lot of the international chefs who were scheduled to come on the show couldn't, since no traveling was allowed. But the show still went on. Obviously filming with COVID restrictions was quite different. MasterChef really came on to the Australian television screens at a time when people were feeling quite sad and the show was like a big, warm hug because it brings people together.
How did the pandemic affect the mood and inspiration levels with contestants?
I'm not sure because I wasn't filming during that section, but watching the show, it doesn't seem to translate that way.
You were previously on MasterChef on season 3. Have you been wanting to come back for a while?(Nervous laugh) I'm not sure I wanted to come back to such a stressful situation. But I had it at the back of my mind that maybe they might do an all-stars series. So when they invited me, I thought it was a really great opportunity. I learned so much the first time around and challenged myself. And so, it seemed like a great opportunity to go back 10 years later and have another go at it, and learn something new, and be challenged and inspired again.
How different was it this time? Especially cooking for new judges...
It was actually quite different for me. I am in a completely different place now compared to when I was 26, the first time around. I now have two children who are quite young - under five years old. And so, my style of cooking has changed as well. I cook a lot of family-friendly meals and I am definitely not a fancy cook by any means. I like rustic, traditional foods, comfort foods, and cooking healthy whole foods with lots of spices. I feel like my style of cooking is very different from a fine dining restaurant experience. But I am all about flavor and making the most of what I have in my pantry. As a mum, it's definitely a challenge because you don't have the time to get out to restaurants as much or to practice cooking that frequently. Yeah, it was different. And the pressure was on!
Why didn't you use your immunity pin - you were the only one who had one at that point?
I didn't want to use it so early in the competition because I just thought I would back myself. And it felt like a waste of use in some sense, so I figured I would use it down the line in a challenge.
We heard that you felt some extra pressure with the Pineapple curry that you whipped up because judge Jock Zonfrillo had the same dish on his honeymoon... tell us that story.
Yes! It was definitely a lot of pressure on my shoulders. I honestly thought that no one would have tried a pineapple curry before. So it was a bit of a shock to find out that Jock had gone to Sri Lanka on his honeymoon, and pineapple curry was his favorite. So I put a whole lot more pressure on myself because when you have a food memory, especially one with the kind of sentiment you would attach to your honeymoon - you remember how good it was. And you don't want to let anybody down.
What is your favorite memory from the show?
My highlight would definitely be meeting Gordon Ramsay on the first episode and working with him that whole week. He's an incredible chef, of course, and someone that I personally admire. So meeting him and having that one-on-one time was really special. He was actually quite a sweetheart and not as rude as he comes across on some of the other shows! He's really a big softie underneath.
At this point, we have to also ask, what are you cooking to raise immunity levels at home?
I do a lot of cooking with whole foods like ginger, garlic, kiwi fruit and kale... ingredients that increase Vitamin C levels. I also use Vitamin C essential powders to improve my family's immunity. Also, there is lots of slow cooking, veggies, everything green and foods that help combat colds and the flu. It's obviously about flavor for me, but also about nutrition as well.
What have you been up to while in quarantine?
Recently, I did an air fryer cooking class online, they are quite popular here in Melbourne. And I am always recipe testing, cooking for projects with new clients... that's the best part of my job!
Given that we are chatting with you from Chennai, we wonde: do you have a favorite South Indian dish?
I love South Indian food, it is amazing. I have been to Kerala and Hampi, and Goa - the flavors are beautiful, spicy, aromatic, light. If I were to make a dish from South India, it would be a seafood curry with some Kerala jumbo prawns...
What is next?
I've got some really exciting projects coming up - which I can't talk about yet, but I think the Indian community is going to really excited by it. And I've been hugely inspired by flavors from India and Sri Lanka in my career. Let's just say, we might talk again soon.
MasterChef Australia: Back to Win (Season 12) premiered on September 14, airs every Monday to Friday at 9 pm only on Star World.