Food should involve all the five senses: Rishi Desai

We meet Rishi Desai, the Indian-origin ‘Aussie’ who contested in MasterChef Season 5 this year, at Godrej Nature’s Basket in Bandra last week. (For the sake of viewers, we won’t reveal the round of his elimination.) An engineer with a passion for cooking since the age of five, the 36-year-old moved to Australia in 2008. Excerpts:

Rishi Desai contestant of MasterChef Australia Season 5. Pic/Satyajit Desai

Tell us about the auditions at MasterChef Season 5.
The rush for the auditions was crazy. And take my word, nothing is fake. When they say you are given 15 minutes to whip up a dish, that’s all the time you do get. With so many people trying to make it to the top 50, and then 20 and so on, I never imagined I would go so far.

How did you tackle the judges’ questions when they came to the station during a cook off?
I realised and accepted early on that I was part of a television show. Gary Mehigan, George Calombaris and Matt Preston would ‘chat’ with all the contestants. It was better to give them the answers and move on (grins). There were nine cameras capturing the show and I had to learn to ignore them.

How did the three judges mentor you on the show?
The judges work as a beautiful team, and each one has a distinct style of critising your dish. Gary, for instance, is a straightforward judge who will not hesitate before telling you your dish is crap. His feedback would be precise and to the point. Matt, on the other hand ,was always interested in the history of food. I remember making a Konkani fish curry and he asked me whether it was an authentic dish. And I had to admit, it was my version of the dish. Even if we received praises for a dish, we would go up to them after the show to ask how we could have made it better.

What do you carry home from the experience?
While I was familiar with most of the cooking techniques, it was the precision of temperature, pressure and chemical reactions that turned me into a food geek. Heston Blumenthal is my inspiration and I’ve adopted his philosophy that good food must include the five senses. While chicken cooks at 70 degrees, you cannot cook a Salmon over 43 degrees. It’s all about the science.

What is your style of cooking?
My Indian food is modern and progressive. I have just finished my book of 70 Indian recipes. Progressive food is about stripping a classic to its ingredients and putting it back together with a different perspective. I ensure the flavours are retained.

Tell us about a single day in the MasterChef kitchen.
We used to start at 4 am, where the judges would give us the challenge brief followed by the challenge. In the beginning, when there were more contestants, it would take a long time, which got tighter with eliminations. The post-cooking judgements would end at 10 pm. It was exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. One of my toughest challenges was recreating Heston’s Trifle.

So what’s next?
I did five pop-up Indian restaurants, a few wine and food pairing events, and currently, I’m giving final touches to my cook book. 

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