A Master Chef comes calling

Updated: Aug 27, 2019, 08:28 IST | Suman Mahfuz Quazi

Reality show winner Sashi Cheliah on Indian influences, fav Mumbai grub and more

Sashi Chelia. Pic/ Suresh Karkera
Sashi Chelia. Pic/ Suresh Karkera

Long before algorithm-generated recommendations on OTT streaming platforms sorted our watchlist out, most of us desi kids would rely on newspaper listings to chalk out our media diet. And of the myriad offerings of the TV era, one show that seemed to have touched the hearts of millions of viewers in India, is MasterChef Australia.

If you were one of those who planned their dinner around the show's telecast, there's a high chance you'd know what a mystery box challenge is. It was a segment of the show, typically in the last leg, where the contestants were given a box of surprise ingredients, which they would then have to use to create a dish that was good enough to impress the judges.

In town to judge the finale of a cooking competition called Häfele Supermom 2019, Sashi Cheliah looks rested and composed in his seat at a design studio in Mahalaxmi. A man of few-but-articulate words, the Singapore-born Indian-origin chef, who won the competition in 2018, says this was his favourite part of the show. "We were given limited ingredients and time, but I enjoyed the stress. It allowed me to focus on what was in front of me," Cheliah, who worked for the Special Tactics and Rescue (STAR) unit of the Singapore Police Force for 12 years, explains. The ability to work with a clear mind in high-pressure situations, he says, is a result of the extensive training he received at the special forces.

"We would only be called in, in extreme situations, when all other resources had been exhausted. There was no room for mistakes and we would have to utilise whatever we had to the best of our abilities," he adds. Little is known of the intersection between these two roles Cheliah has played. Much of the discipline, rigour and concentration that he puts into his food are extensions of his second nature, which was moulded during police training. It is this attitude that helps him sail through the unforgiving business of food.

Sashi and Saransh
Cheliah and Saransh Goila engaged in gupshup at Mumbai's iconic Kyani & Co. 

However, throughout his time at STAR, he nurtured a deep love for food, which was heightened further once he moved to Australia in 2012. What is interesting though, is how much of Cheliah's interest in gastronomy is entwined with Indian cuisine. This translates into the fare he serves at Gaja by Sashi, his pop-up venture that will find a brick-and-mortar home in Adelaide this October. But how did a man who spent all his life in foreign lands manage to retain his ties with Indian food? "Even though I was growing up in Singapore, a large part of what my mom and aunts cooked at home was Indian. I have learnt the most from them and my roots are here, so it comes naturally to me," he shares about his roots in Tamil Nadu.

This is believable because when the chef was on an India tour a few months ago, where Mumbai was part of his itinerary, we spotted many snippets of him indulging in street and homegrown fare across the city. Now, on his second visit, Cheliah is continuing the culinary adventures, and exploring Mumbai's gems. "I enjoy local food more than eating at fine-dines. So, chef Saransh Goila took me to Kyani & Co and later, to a Gujarati restaurant called Soam. We had dinner at Leopold Café, and one particular dish blew my mind — chilli cheese toast. My god! It was really solid," he exclaims.

It is this diversity, he adds, that keeps drawing him back to Mumbai, which currently has a vibrant food scene, encumbering all kinds of ventures — fine-dines, including those with a twist, heritage restaurants and cafés, and now, independent ventures, too. Cheliah can relate to folks from that segment of Mumbai's foodscape, considering he himself ventured into the industry with a pop-up format. "Not everyone, including me, has had professional culinary training, and it takes a while to understand how things work. To that end, pop-ups are great because they allow you to gauge your audience and the future without going all in," he elaborates.

It's, in fact, an intelligent and cost-effective manner of stepping into an unpredictable world. Look at how an 11-year-old legacy, of which Cheliah is a part, was shaken overnight with news of judge George Calombaris being involved in financial misappropriation, followed by the departure of the three iconic judges from the widely watched show. We ask Cheliah about his thoughts on these events, but he gently refuses to comment, "I am not the right person for it."

Be that as it may, with a restaurant in Adelaide, and cookbook in the pipeline, Cheliah's future looks promising. With so much on his plate, is he looking to return to Mumbai soon? "Certainly. You could spend 365 days in this city and still have things you've not tried."

Cheliah's top Mumbai picks

  • Vada pav at Jai Maharashtra Vada Pav, Andheri West.
  • Kheema egg pav at Kyani & Co., Dhobi Talao.

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