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Rishi Desai

“Imoved to Australia about five years ago,” says Rishi, who now lives in Queanbeyan 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. “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.

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