Cook Out | Almost famous

Rishi Desai, the reality TV show contestant from 'MasterChef Australia 2013' on performing under pressure, writing a cookbook, and the hunt for his own cookery show

Rishi Desai was the only Indian contestant to make it to MasterChef Australia 2013’s finals week. He recently conducted an in-store demonstration at Godrej Nature’s Basket in Bandra, Mumbai, as part of the retail chain’s “Celebrate Australia" initiative in association with Tourism Australia. We got a chance to talk to him on his dream of opening a modern Indian restaurant in Australia, squabbles with fellow contestant Samira El Khafir, and life after the reality TV show. Edited excerpts:

On the show, you often credited your mother for your cooking skills. Did you spend a lot of time in the kitchen growing up?

I grew up in Kolhapur (Maharashtra) in a joint family with five kids. Everyone in the house had different preferences when it came to food. I have always loved meat and I’ve been eating meat since childhood but one of my sisters is vegetarian. It was really difficult for my mother to cook for everyone but I saw her actually catering to all these different tastes. I think that’s really how I started getting into the kitchen and trying different things. My mother tells me that I cooked 2-minute noodles when I was only five years old, so for me cooking goes a long time back.

My mother also runs a spice store and a sweets shop for traditional Maharashtrian savoury and sweet dishes in Kolhapur. Even though my grandmother set up the spice shop as a non-profit venture to empower local women a long time ago, my mother took it over and turned it into a profit-making business after my father passed away in 1992. So, my mom was definitely an inspiration for me to get into cooking.

Did you ever consider taking up a career in the food business before ‘MasterChef Australia’?

Do you think it would have been easier for you to get into the food industry if more men in India were encouraged to get into the kitchen?

I mean we live in the 21st century, we say men and women are equal in India. But we are only saying that, we are not practising that. I really think women have done enough. They’ve done their bit. They have carried enough of the burden (of cooking) alone. I mean, women today work, they cook and do a lot of other things in the house, so I think it’s high time men get into the kitchen to help.

You often fought with Samira El Khafir on the show—why didn’t you get along with her?

You spend a lot of time with 22 people on the show, especially the top six. We spent almost five-and-a-half months together, so we all ended up as good friends. I had fights with Samira on air but at the end of the day, when we would return to the MasterChef house, we would speak about it and apologize to each other. It was really all about being under pressure, we would always reconcile after the fight. But I think I became really good friends with Lynton Tapp, Lucy Wallrock and Christina Batista. I still constantly talk to them and meet them every now and then.

What have you been up to after the show?

Since the show has ended, I have done five pop-up restaurants in Canberra with a modern Indian food concept. I’ve been doing a six-course degustation menu with matching wines. I am also working on a cookbook on modern Indian cuisine. I am also trying to see if I can get a TV show in the future.

I still work in public service too. I think we are lucky in Australia to have employers who understand the work-life balance. My boss and the Australia government have been really supportive of my MasterChef journey. I still work from 8-to-5 and then I go home, work on my cookbook and on the weekends I do pop-up restaurants.

How do you define modern Indian cuisine?

First off, I don’t fuse any other type of cooking or cuisine with Indian food. On the show, I also learned to make the protein or the main ingredients the hero of the dish, so I don’t hide them in a curry any more. So my dishes are conceptually different, I use innovative techniques, and they look different because of a nice presentation but they’ll still remind you of the flavours of the original recipes.

It’s really hard for me to explain this better, so let me also give you a few examples. I take classic dishes like the Kolhapuri sukka mutton—I use the same traditional spices but I slow-cook the mutton at 90 degrees Celsius for 2 hours in the oven. I then shred the mutton and serve it up with a cauliflower purée and papad and garnish it with herbs.

I also do a Karwari fish curry from Karnataka. I first attempted this for my audition but I also featured it in my pop-up restaurant. Like the mutton, I poach an Australian salmon in coconut milk using the same curry spices for 2 hours. I also make a velouté sauce out of the poaching liquid and serve it up with a caramelized onion purée. Fish curry is served with rice, but my interpretation of rice is deep-fried wild rice that puffs up when cooked. It adds the crunch to my fish in a bowl.

What do you think of Indian restaurants in Australia?

Indian restaurants in Australia are still mostly about butter chicken and naan. Not that there is anything wrong with serving north Indian food but I think that just as we say in India, the language or the dialect changes every 100km, so does the food. It’s just that we don’t feature it enough; for example I don’t think Maharashtrian food is featured at any restaurant in Australia. If I were to open a restaurant, I would love to travel around India and find these little-known recipes and feature them. In fact, my cookbook will have about 70 recipes, a few from Maharashtra, some from Karnataka, a few from Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Delhi too. But like I said, these will be my interpretations of traditional recipes, the way I’ve tried to modernize them.

‘MasterChef Australia’ launched directly with the top 22 this season—there were no auditions, no live meltdowns, no embarrassing applicants and no top 50. So what was the selection process like?

We had a long, intense application to write, the organizers of the show wanted to make sure people who apply are serious about cooking. After we filled the application form, we were called to Sydney for auditions—they had a cold audition and a hot audition planned for us. With the cold audition, we had to take a dish that we had prepared in advance. The judges would just taste the dish and interview us to see how well we perform in front of the camera. If they liked us, we were called for a hot audition, which is when you cook in front of the judges. A month after all this is when the organizers called me and said they wanted me to travel to Melbourne for MasterChef and even then I had no idea what it would be like. I didn’t know if it was going to be the top 50 or the top 42, it was only when I arrived there that I realized that I had made it to the top 22.

How long had you been planning to apply to ‘MasterChef Australia’?

I completed my master’s in material science and engineering from the US and returned to India. For a couple of years, I worked in Bangalore at General Electric’s patents division. Shortly after, I got an offer from the Australian government to work in the Australian patent office as a patent examiner. They sponsored my visa and that’s how I moved to Australia in 2008. Coincidentally, the first season of MasterChef Australia started airing shortly after I got there and I got hooked on to it.

I would watch the recipes on the show and try them at home. That’s how I picked up French, Italian and a lot of Asian cooking. I practised a lot before the show and I think that really helped me. My wife would tell me what’s right and what’s wrong, that’s how I developed my cooking skills. After a while, my wife said, “I think you’re good at cooking and I think you should try out for MasterChef". But our son was very young at the time, so we decided to wait until he got a bit older before applying. So last year when he started going to school, we decided it was the best time to try and go on the show.

What were some of your most memorable moments on the show?

I had two very memorable moments on MasterChef—one was when my family came on to the show. I had been away from them for five months and we had no idea who we were cooking for in the kitchen. The other moments were, of course, when Heston Blumenthal was in the kitchen. He is my food hero, so cooking alongside him was really memorable.

Greek salad

Serves 2

Ingredients

3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1½ tbsp balsamic vinegar

½ tsp dried oregano

½ tsp salt

½ tsp freshly ground black pepper, and extra for garnish

12 cherry tomatoes, sliced into wedges or 3 tomatoes, diced

½ red onion, sliced into rings

½ cucumber, sliced into thick half-moons

½ green pepper, julienned

120g feta cheese, cut into small cubes

5-6 pitted olives

Parsley for garnish

Method

Stir the olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper and oregano in a small bowl until the oil and vinegar emulsify. Place the other salad ingredients in a large bowl and pour the dressing over the salad. Gently toss the ingredients to combine just before serving. Finish with some freshly ground black pepper and parsley.

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