Why Season 10's MasterChef Australia winner Sashi Cheliah will be roping ex-convicts into his kitchen
It’s not every day that you hear a MasterChef Australia winner tell you their comfort food is sambar. Or that he likes cooking to 1980s Illaiyaraja music in the kitchen. But beyond the resonance of South Indian sentiments, if you followed Season 10 of the show last year, then you already know that almost everything about Indian-origin contestant Sashi Cheliyah has been unexpected from the get-go. For starters, this 40-year-old contestant was involved in special ops as part of the Singapore police, before later moving to Adelaide as a prison guard. Sashi who took home the trophy last year was in Mumbai earlier this week to judge the Hafele Supermom Contest 2019 and is making a stopover in Chennai this weekend. We caught up with him on life post-MasterChef, his passion to give ex-convicts a second chance by roping them into the kitchen and a new cookbook in the pipeline.
How much has your life changed since MasterChef?
Ever since I became MasterChef (in 2018), a lot of things have changed. It’s an honour to receive such a prestigious title. Now everything revolves around food and I’m able to pursue a career that gives me more opportunities to understand different cultures and cuisines from around the world.
What have you been cooking while on tour in India?
I haven’t been cooking that much — although, I have been exploring and relishing the amazing flavours of India.
Did you get a chance to go back home to Madurai and pick up some local dishes — we read in earlier interviews that this has been on your mind for a while.
No, I haven’t got a chance yet but would love to make a trip soon. When I get a chance to explore, I would love to go for Chettinad dishes, distinctive with their unique blend of spices which gives out the region’s authentic dining experiences.
Are any of the dishes that you have tasted on this trip likely to make it on your Gaja by Sashi menu?
There are a few interesting dishes I have tried, but knowing me, I think I will explore more and might create my version before putting in the menu.
We saw from your Instagram feed that you’ve been getting people from around the world reach out when you put out a hiring announcement for Gaja by Sashi in Adelaide. Are you planning a café or restaurant in India perhaps?
I don’t mind having a pop-up at the moment, but for a café or restaurant, I have to plan accordingly. And so, that is not happening any time soon.
Your earliest food memory?
As a 12-year-old, cooking a dessert at home — Kueh Dadah (Malaysian coconut crêpe).
Comfort food for you?
Ingredients you cannot do without in your kitchen?
Chilli, lemongrass and cardamom.
One food trend you are currently loving?
Farm to table — it helps people understand about the produce.
One song you enjoy while whipping up a storm in the kitchen?
’80s-’90s Tamil songs from Illaiyaraja or AR Rahman.
For the millennial on the move, give us three hacks to make cooking convenient and fun.
Keep it simple, buy fresh ingredients and prepare in advance.
You have said in interviews that you weren’t encouraged in the kitchen as a young boy. Do you make it a point to involve your kids in the cooking process — when you get a day off? Is there a fun dish you like to whip up together, while your wife puts her feet up?
Most weekends, especially on Saturdays, my kids and I love making pancakes for breakfast and that is something the boys can do themselves now.
We hear that it’s been a long-standing dream of yours to hire ex-convicts — is that a model of restaurant that we will see from you soon?
I have been in contact with some organisations to work on this project, it will be happening in Gaja by Sashi but it’s not fully operated by them, they will be part of my team.
You said in an interview that the MasterChef final was more high pressure than a counter-terrorism operation. What are some lessons in the kitchen that can have help one handle real-life pressure tests?
You should always expect the unexpected, and I feel it’s always good to be prepared for unexpected situations during a cook.
What is next?
Finishing my cookbook by the end of this year!