MasterChef Australia winner Sashi Cheliah gears up to open his first restaurant in Chennai
Pandan Club will serve his take on Peranakan or Nonya cuisine. The 90-seater which will be located in T Nagar and is slated to launch on August 15
Sashi Cheliah has a full plate. Four years after winning MasterChef Australia, his days are filled with a rollercoaster of events and pop-ups around the world, managing his restaurant Gaja by Sashi back at home in Adelaide and putting the final touches on his first cookbook, Kampong Boy, which is out later this year. But the Singapore-born chef with roots in Madurai tells us that perhaps his most exciting project of the year is a restaurant that will open its doors right here in Chennai. Pandan Club has been close to a year in the making with “friends who are now business partners,” like popular restaurateur Sandesh Reddy and maverick entrepreneur Manoj Padmanabhan. This 90-seater will be located on Bazullah Road, T Nagar and is slated to launch in August. Sashi, who we caught up with during an exclusive seven-course dinner at Leela Palace Chennai, organised by World on a Plate earlier this week, tells us that the ‘family eatery’ will serve his take on Peranakan cuisine.
“In Singapore, these are the people who came from China but adopted the Malay culture. So, what they eat is a marriage of the cuisines from both places,” he gives us a quick cultural orientation before we get a peek at the menu. Expect dishes like Lor Bak (a five-spice pork roll), Otak Otak (spicy fish custard in a banana leaf) and Lah Lah Duck (lychee duck) alongside cocktails made with lemongrass. We’re wondering, of course, why this sudden shift in direction, given that the chef has now come to be associated with elevated Singapore street flavours, much like the Chilli Crab on a Brioche at our table.
He responds, “Well, of course, that was something we did think about when we started brainstorming.” But over many virtual discussions and email exchanges, it became apparent that just another Chinese or Malay set-up would not do. “We wanted to offer a different experience,” shares the 43-year-old, and Nonya food is largely unheard of in India.
To get the flavours on point, Sashi says that he will be travelling between Adelaide and Chennai every other month for a while. “In August, the whole family is coming down. And the boys, especially, can’t wait because this will be their first time coming to India.” Marcus (16) and Ryan (14) take after their father, we are told, and are already very comfortable in the kitchen — whether this means whipping up their own lunches for school or treating their parents to pancakes on a weekend.
Quite the opposite of Sashi, who was not encouraged in the kitchen as a child and only really began cooking at age 20, when he was staying alone for the first time. “I consider cooking a life skill. When they are adults and even now in their teens, it’s important for them to have some kind of knowledge about how to feed themselves,” he says, offering us a glimpse into how food plays a role in his parenting style as well.
Sambal to sambar
We’re curious, however, as to what a typical meal in the home of a MasterChef looks like. “Well, there is always rasam in our kitchen because my wife loves it. I, on the other hand, love sambar, so we try and have it at least once a week,” he shares. As for the Singaporean staples he was raised on, he adds, there is usually a sambal or a vegetable stir-fry with oyster sauce on the side. And you will find the recipes for a lot of these dishes in his upcoming cookbook as well. Kampong Boy loosely translates to ‘country boy’ and Sashi is quick to clarify that the recipes in this book — which is a compilation of Singapore street food — are widely available and not his own. “These are dishes I grew up on and there will be a lot of storytelling around history, origin, best time of day to eat what and so on...” The idea is that these pages will lay the foundation for his second book, which will cover more of his own innovative ideas in the kitchen, following his journey on MasterChef Australia (Season 10).
The show came at a time when he was switching careers from law enforcement to hospitality. Back in 2018, he recalls, he was thinking of opening up a café and thought perhaps entering MasterChef could help get some visibility. “I thought, maybe I would last a week,” he laughs. But fast forward to the present and he says, “It really has changed my life.” Earlier this year, Sashi got the opportunity to return to the MasterChef kitchen with MasterChef Australia Fans & Faves. And he admits, the added pressure of having won made it ‘a bit scarier than the first time’. That apart, the pandemic had wreaked havoc on the hospitality industry and Sashi, like many others, was affected. He also explains that he lost a fair bit of creativity during lockdown. So, the call back to MasterChef came at just the right time. “I decided to go back to remind myself why I started cooking in the first place,” he shares.
And refuel his spirit it did. A humble veggie patch in his garden at home has now become the inspiration toward a project to offer convicts who finish their sentence a farming apprenticeship. “We’re still in the research stage on this,” says the chef, who incidentally is a former prison guard. And the next five years will see him building a global brand, starting with plans to expand the presence of his dinner meal kits, Sashi’s Secret — onto shelves in New Zealand, Europe and the UAE.
Pandan Club opens on August 15 at Bazullah Road, T Nagar.
Adelaide to Chennai
Between hopping continents, planning menus and events, do you have time to sit down and actually take your time in the kitchen to be inspired anymore?
I have to make time for it. That was the only advantage of the lockdowns. During that period, I had so much of time that I was able to develop some new dishes, start thinking out of the box and also creating new properties like Gaja Express, my takeaway outlet.
Outside of the kitchen, what are your plans while in Chennai?
The best thing about travelling is exploring. And I’ve been planning to go to the fish markets. I love to catch the morning buzz. I am all about fresh produce and there is some amazing, fresh seafood here that is quite different from what you get in Australia.
From a prison guard to a MasterChef title winner, we know that your motto is, ‘If you don’t try, you don’t know what you’re missing out on.’ What do you want to try next?
I don’t know. It just comes. I don’t really plan so much ahead. I do something when it strikes my mind. MasterChef wasn’t a plan. It happened to occur to me while I was thinking of starting my own business. Likewise, setting up a restaurant was crucial for me, as someone who wants to be in the hospitality industry and being a chef — to build my skill set and my knowledge. Winning MasterChef Australia was just the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more to learn.