She serves up a mean alligator curry. He’s perfected his mother’s Kolhapuri sukka mutton. Both have strong Indian ties. And both plan to switch careers to work on reinventing Indian food. Meet Neha Sen and Rishi Desai, the Indian participants on MasterChef Australia.
“I moved to Australia about five years ago,” says Rishi, who now lives in Queanbeyan (near Canberra), with his wife Mitra and six-year-old son Sharang. He grew up in Kolhapur, Maharashtra, in a joint family, where his mother — a gifted cook — took charge of the kitchen. “Besides me, there were four other kids — my cousins and sisters. Everyone wanted different food, and my mom made everyone’s favourites. Mine was the local Kolhapuri mutton sukka.” He adds, “My mum is still a great inspiration.”
However, Rishi says his heritage didn’t make it any easier to stand out on MasterChef. “It’s very ‘equal opportunity’. There is an intense process of auditions. So by the time you get there, they know you have the ability to cook. After that it’s a journey. It’s about how much you can pick up as you go along. Not how much you know.” Ironically, what worked for him were the skills from his day job. “Being a scientist and researcher all my life helped. I used those skills to understand recipes.”
He adds, “I wanted to showcase my philosophy of modern Indian cooking: basically looking at traditional food in a different way. A revamp, with the same flavours. To get out of that ‘curry in a pot’ idea. I adopt Heston’s (Blumenthal) ideology here: you must eat with five senses — vision, taste, smell, touch and hearing.”
The learning process, he says, is the best part of being on MasterChef. “Everyone gets on it to win. But you also learn so much, and you learn from the best. I grasped techniques, skills, ideas... It’s changed the way I cook. Even in my home kitchen — I’m now very neat, clean and organised. I look at ingredients in a different way. Earlier when I saw an onion, I would think of maybe two ways to cook it. Now I can think of seven. I get ideas just looking at ingredients.”
Rishi plans to open a modern Indian restaurant in Canberra eventually. “Being Indian, you know what kind of pressure parents put on you. I come from a family of doctors. So the expectation was that I would do either medicine or engineering.”
Now he’s experimenting with pop-up dinners, featuring degustation menus that offer his style of food. “I did a six-course dinner recently featuring coconut coriander rolls similar to khandvi. There was coconut milk salmon on a bed of caramelised onion puree, which was a take on an Indian fish curry. And butter quail with naan.”
The first thing he did when he got home was make mutton biriyani. “I was craving it all through the five months we shot the show,” he laughs.
Neha grew up all over India as her parents were doctors who served in the Indian Army. Around eight years ago, she moved to Australia to get a Masters in Information Technology and an MBA. “My father had mortgaged his only house to send me to University abroad. I was always on a budget. But, after three months of cheap pizzas, I decided it was time to start cooking,” says Neha. “My first dish was burnt rice and burnt dal. I was traumatised that I couldn’t even boil rice properly!”
She adds, “Sheer desperation forced me to learn how to cook. I would Skype with mom, who had — thank goodness — sent me to Australia with a little pressure cooker… I would come home at 10.30 p.m. and start cooking; it became a stress buster. I quickly realised how happy being in the kitchen made me.”
Applying to the show was an impromptu decision. “I’m an avid watcher of MasterChef. It’s so easy to sit on a couch and talk at the TV saying, ‘Oh. I can do this. And I can do that.” When the applications were out, I didn’t even consider signing up. Then with four hours to go for the deadline, my husband said, ‘Just give it a go’. So I did.”
Standing out required more than great cooking skills. “You need to think on your feet. To be creative. To be very good under pressure. The clock is always ticking, and there’s the constant fear of making a mistake, not just in front of the judges but also an audience watching you internationally. I dealt with it by telling myself, ‘It’s just another day in the kitchen.’ Or ‘what else can go wrong.’ If I don’t panic, I do well.” She adds, “I won’t lie. There were days I couldn’t even frame two lines in English properly, because I was so nervous. What you don’t realise when you’re watching from home is how intimidating the set-up is: all the cameras. All the chaos. Sound tech. The food team, the art team, judges asking you questions...”
Her dinner table has benefited from the show. “I thought I was a foodie before, not a fanatic. I obsess over food, I dream of recipes. MasterChef has trained me pretty much for life. I now cook things from across the world at home. Sometimes with an Indian twist. Sometimes with French techniques. I make crocodile curry, for instance, with coconut milk.” She adds, “I would say my food is Indian inspired. Because I learnt how to cook in Australia I fuse both traditions. I consider myself an Indian Australian, and my food is who I am on a plate.” She’s planning to work on a line of kulfis, made with Australian ingredients next.
Neha’s parents now live in Coimbatore, and plan to retire near Ooty. “I try and visit quite often. My mom makes this amazing coconut rice and mutton curry. When I fly home, even if it’s 1 a.m., it’ll be on the table. That is the taste of home for me.”