Fifty shades of sambal

There’s a distinct sizzle as Sashi Cheliah slides in a virulent red paste into hot peanut oil. Made with bright red chillies, ginger, garlic and lemongrass, the paste has to cook for about 45 minutes before it’s ready to be used. Once the oil begins to separate from the sauce, he’ll add some kaffir lime leaves, lemon extract and palm sugar to give the sambal its final zingy flavour. In the meanwhile the Masterchef Australia Season 10 champion is fielding questions from fans — some as young as six — even as he deftly shells the giant prawns sitting at his cooking station.

Sashi is in the thick of action at a Masterclass held at The Flying Elephant, Park Hyatt as part of the Classroom Kitchens initiative by Madras Midtown Round Table 42. Soon, the prawns are tossed into the aromatic chilli sauce and are cooked to perfection. Sashi grabs a dish, piles some Thai style herb salad in the centre and tops it with the prawns. A few crispy prawn heads complete it — Sambal Prawns; the dish that earned him the perfect score in the Masterchef finale and saw him walk away with the trophy and a whole lot more.

Did you know?
  • Sashi is an adrenaline junkie. It was this love for adventure that had him join the military and spend two years as a commando. He eventually joined the Singapore police force and specialised in counter terrorism; he was with the force for 13 years. “I enjoyed what I did, but if I’d continued in that line of work I would have missed out on my children’s childhood. We moved to Australia for better work-life balance,” he says. In Australia, he worked as a prison officer. He now lives in a beautiful place in the hills in Adelaide and loves having barbecue nights with his family.

Restaurant dreams

The whole lot more here is a soon-to-be launched restaurant and of course fame and all that follows. “Gaja [Sashi’s restaurant] was on my mind even before Masterchef Australia. It was the main reason why I entered the contest,” he says. Gaja by Sashi is set to launch by the end of October or early November. “We’re gunning for just before Diwali,” he informs us in an interview with MetroPlus ahead of the Masterclass.

“I’d initially planned for it to be a café that served Singapore and Malay-inspired food. However, after the Masterchef win, the entire concept changed... It became Asian inspired. The food coming to the table will not be authentic; but it will be an explosion of flavours. I’m going to bring together different Asian flavours and cuisines on a single plate; and it will be shared food like we have here in India... not plated meals,” says Sashi, adding, “We will also be pairing the food with Asian flavoured cocktails, local beers and wines. The restaurant is going to be very casual and suitable for working class people — a friendly, casual place.”

Fifty shades of sambal

Sashi is still putting together the team. “I have the core team in place — the head chef, restaurant manager. The setting up is the most crucial part. We’ve put in long hours in planning and executing this restaurant,” he says.

Responsible food

Sustainability figures high on Sashi’s priority list. “I am a big believer of sustainable cooking and eating. It’s important in today’s age; the farm to table concept is very popular. It’s important to know where your food is coming from and how it is being handled. This way you are assured of quality and are doing your bit to reduce food miles,” he says, adding, “At Gaja, we will be working with seasonal produce. Doing Asian inspired food with seasonal ingredients can be hard, given that we don’t have as many seasons in Asia. But we’re planning to work with the seasonal produce that is available in Australia and change it as per the cuisine; we will basically work around the ingredients.”

Cooking with class
  • As part of the MMRT 42 initiative, Sashi curated and created an eight course dinner with 1,200 dishes for 150 people over the weekend followed by the Masterclass the next day. Proceeds from this event went towards building classrooms for the Madras Seva Sadan School on Harrington Road. Given that the theme was Classroom Kitchens, Sashi curated a menu that was a reflection of his childhood, his love for Asian food and his Masterchef Australia experience. Diners were treated to dishes such as liquid gold (tomato consomme with confit tomato, kumquats and pommelo), breaks bread (croutons with liver pate, longans and thyme; the vegetarian version had beetroot pate), one bite (betel leaf with peanut sauce), creamy and spicy (celeriac soup with sambal, crab meat and croutons) and sambal duck, cinnamon apple from his Masterchef Australia stint.

Sashi’s love for Asian inspired food goes back to his childhood when he grew up in Singapore and helped out at his mother’s café. He used to snoop around the kitchen when his mother and aunt cooked; but it wasn’t until much later that he began cooking. Today though, he wields the knife in the kitchen when he’s at home. “I am very particular about the way food is cooked. So when I am home, I rule the kitchen,” he laughs. His favourite ingredient to work with? “A rack of lamb. There’s something to be said about the satisfaction I get when I get the perfect medium-rare lamb. My boys are now spoilt; they aren’t satisfied when they don’t get perfectly done lamb at a restaurant when we eat out.”

When Sashi isn’t planning his restaurant and cooking up a feast in his kitchen at home, he’s busy travelling for pop-ups and food festivals across Asia. “Masterchef Australia opened a lot of doors for me. But I’m selective about what I do; the restaurant is my priority but I do television shows and pop-ups and I’m travelling a fair bit. All the travelling gives me opportunities to learn new cuisines and techniques. It also keeps me busy creating new stuff.”

A cuisine he particularly enjoys working with is Thai. “I simply love the flavours it offers. There are so many aromats and spices and all of these adapt well to other cuisines as well,” says the former prison officer.

Sashi says that while he did cook a lot before participating in Masterchef Australia; the show altered his perception of food. “Before the show, my cooking was simple but flavourful. I wasn’t big on technique. I learnt a lot about the importance of plating and techniques in the show. It changed the dimension of how I was looking at my cooking skills,” he says.

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Printable version | Jul 26, 2021 5:13:43 PM |

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