Chef Michael Weldon talks about his love for Indian cuisine
A two-time MasterChef Australia finalist and co-host of the popular television show 'Farm To Fork', the chef was recently in Bengaluru for a dinner pop-up hosted at The Oberoi's restaurant Lapis
Simplicity and wholesomeness seem to be the core food philosophy for Chef Michael Weldon. The two-time MasterChef Australia finalist and co-host of the popular television show Farm To Fork was recently in Bengaluru for a dinner pop-up hosted at The Oberoi's restaurant Lapis. The sumptuous dishes on the menu explored native Australian flavours, albeit considering the Indian food palate. We got to experience the three-course meal by the chef, followed by a candid chat where he opened up about his inspiration behind the dishes, similarities between the culinary cultures of India and Australia, his favourite Bangalorean food, and much more. Excerpts:
You started your career as a film projectionist. Now you are one of the most celebrated chefs across the globe. What do you feel about your journey so far?
I would say it has been a bit of luck. I studied at the university and worked as a projectionist in a cinema (theatre). I wasn't planning on becoming a chef, but then a mate dared me to do it! That was when I went on MasterChef (Australia). I became a cook, travelled the world cooking and eating, and have been lucky enough to participate in MasterChef (Australia) twice by now. Apart from that, I've got my own TV show that I work on for three months of the year; I work on exciting projects for a few great clients, like Coles Supermarkets, the biggest supermarket in Australia. A lot of it has been just being in the right place at the right time. I've worked hard, but my stars also aligned when it came to food. If you had told me 11 years ago that I would be in India working on a series of dinners, I would have told you that it’s crazy. But that's what has happened. And I just love it and am excited to see what's next.
This is your first tour in India, and you've been touring across cities. How do you find Bengaluru different from the other cities you've been to so far?
There's a real freshness to Bengaluru. People call it the Silicon Valley of India, and it has that feel. The city is always on-the-go, and it feels like anything can happen in Bengaluru! It seems quite a young city compared to some of the other cities I have visited so far. But I think that youth and vibrance are the exciting part.
And the food is really great. I had the classic Benne Masala Dosa at Vidyarthi Bhavan. That was my first meal in Bengaluru! It was chewy, crispy, and soft and had beautifully spiced potato stuffing. I also had Vada, Idli, Donne Biryani, and Chow Chow Bath. They were all so exciting and different.
But my favourite was the Benne Masala Dosa! By far, the best breakfast I have had.
What similarities and differences have you noticed between the cuisines of India and Australia?
The difference is that there are so many different elements to the cuisine here. Indian cuisine is the most exciting cuisine in the world – there's no doubt about it. I think there is more diversity in food here than anywhere else. And that makes sense because there are so many different kinds of people here. There is so much history in India. But Australia doesn't have much food history that way. I think the similarity is that both cuisines are all about flavour.
Can you tell us a little bit about the food on the menu we had today? We had Avocado and Charred Tomatoes on Sourdough for starters, Banana Leaf Baked Fish for the main course, and Lamington for dessert at the pop-up meal today. It was simple yet so delectable and wholesome.
That’s my food philosophy – food should be about showing off the ingredients. For instance, avocado is a beautiful ingredient. So we did all mash it with lime and salt, creating a creamy effect. Avocado and Charred Tomatoes on Sourdough seem like a simple dish, but it’s all about balancing the flavours. We added some pickles for the heat, charred the tomatoes a bit, so they just burst, and a little bit of wattle seed for the bitterness. Typically, you do not think of avocado toast as a dish you would eat in a restaurant – but why not? It’s yum. In India, tasty beats fancy anyway! And we use a lot of jalapeno in Australia, but I thought, why not use chillies while in India? When you pickle chillies, it takes away their harshness.
The Banana Leaf Baked Fish was inspired by fish wrapped in paperbark in Australia. We could not use paperbark, so I wrapped the fish in banana leaves. But I did not realise that it has similarities with a dish cooked in Kolkata! It has lemon myrtle (which gives it a beautiful lemon grassy flavour), mountain pepper, and leek. The sauce had basil, coriander, pineapple, and fish sauce.
Lamington is a classic tea cake in Australia. You have them at lunchtime during cricket matches, or you have them as a snack with a cup of tea. I just did a dessert version of it here – it was a natural evolution of an Aussie dish. I used strawberry gum because it works well with chocolate (especially when paired with ice cream), and the coconut takes away the harsh sweetness.
What factors did you consider while deciding on the menu for this pop-up dinner?
I did not want to be like, “This is Australian food – take it or leave it," or "If you don’t like the Australian palate, bad luck.” The food had to show off Australian cuisine, but at the same time, it had to suit the Indian palate. So we used some local ingredients and some Australian ingredients. For instance, the lamb has a crust of wattle seed, but it has cumin and cinnamon (an Indian influence), which go well with lamb. I did some research, talked to a few friends, talked to the chefs here (at The Oberoi), and they helped me change a few things to suit the Bengaluru clientele better. It has been fun to curate the menu thinking about the Indian diners.
You were again back to MasterChef in the 'Fans and Favourite' category. How different was your experience this time?
It was much more nerve-wracking (smiles). I've been in this industry for 11 years now, I've learned a lot about food, and I think my knowledge is as good as anyone else on that series. So, with all that in mind, it was hard for me this season. It was all about learning from and teaching other people, especially the fans. Even though we competed together, I think the best thing about food is sharing knowledge. I believe whatever I know of cooking until now is mostly because of learning from other chefs. And by teaching the fans, I hope to learn from them.
I love being in India – I have been teaching and learning from other chefs.
Your show, Farm to Fork has made quite a name for itself. When can we expect another season?
We are filming the fourth season at the moment. I have taken one month off to come to India. When I go back, I go straight for filming! And we will start filming the fifth season probably next year. So it’s going well.
I was wondering if something like a 'Farm To Fork: India Special' would be cool, right? (chuckles).
Lastly, do you have any plans to open your restaurant?
Yeah, I’d love to open something, whether it be a restaurant or wine bar. I love wine and have got some good friends who are winemakers. So, I’d love to open a wine bar where we show off their wine and my food together.
I am not sure when that will happen. But someday, yes – hopefully sooner than later.