Chef Abinas Nayak's human immunity pin
Behind this year's MasterChef India winner is a man in Bali-also a MasterChef enthusiast, also an Indian-who mentored the Odiya chef, to make it first to the finish line
This is the story of two MasterChef contestants. The first one takes place in Melbourne, Australia, in 2014, where Loki Madireddi made it to the top 24 of Season 10. His elimination went down in history since he was one of the rare contestants to leave the show with an unused immunity pin. Instead of using it to skip an elimination challenge into the safe zone, he made the choice to cook.
Madireddi has no regrets. "The pin doesn't decide who I am. It is not about whether you win or lose, but what you become in the process. It taught me integrity, to stand by my decision."
Born in Mysore and raised in Chennai, Loki's life took a turn when he was eight. A fall from the third storey left him with a cracked skull. During recovery, he was confined to his house and couldn't go out to play with friends. "I'd spend a lot of time in the kitchen with my grandmother learning to roast masalas, temper curries and work the sil batta for pastes and chutneys. I became a curious learner, and cooking crab became my delight," says Madireddi in an interview from Ubud in Bali, where he has lived since August 2019.
He went on to pursue a career in information technology like his father, an Indian railways employee, had wished. Higher studies took him to Melbourne. It was here that he realised that a 9 to 5 job was not his destiny. In 2014, when he was in the US visiting his sister, he met his now wife, Ishani, at a yoga retreat in Tennessee. "She had a son from a previous marriage. When I met Indryaan [her son], I felt an instant father-son bond." As a family, they moved to Pondicherry. After six months, they moved to Melbourne.
Loki Madireddi (fifth from left) with MasterChef India Season 6 winner Abinas Nayak (fourth from left) at a retreat in Binsar organised for the winner of the first Loki Cooks Fellowship; Madireddi, who hails from Mysore, was a contestant on MasterChef Australia in 2018
In 2017, while the father and son watched MasterChef Australia on television, Madireddi told him that his job in real estate wasn't keeping him happy. "For a five-year-old, he told me a beautiful thing: dad, you are a butterfly, you can be whatever you want to be."
Madireddi took this as a sign and applied. "It was the last few hours for applications [to close] and I hurried through 300 questions. The next day, I got the selection call," he says.
Soon after the show, together with Ishani, he decided to launch the Loki Cooks Fellowship, a mentorship programme to guide persons with talent but scarce means, to follow their dreams. "When I rolled out the first fellowship in 2019, I received 394 applications and 89 were shortlisted and interviewed." Scanning applications was followed by hour-long video chats with every candidate. The scholarship offers up to 5,000 Australian dollars over a period of 12 months and 50 hour-sessions over the phone and video chat to finetune a food dream project.
Madireddi says his goal is to help people improve their power of manifestation by believing in their dreams and attracting abundance by changing limiting thoughts. "It is not just about food, but understanding what's holding us back as individuals and trying to heal it."
While the winner was announced in June 2019, in October Madireddi organised a retreat with the four finalists in Binsar, Kumaon Himalayas, at his own cost. "At the retreat, we went foraging, we connected with nature and ourselves. The aim was to encounter that aha! moment, the moment of clarity that leads you to your path."
This is where the story of the second MasterChef contestant begins, the one to win the sixth season of MasterChef India last month. Interestingly, Abinas Nayak, 27, was the first awardee of the Loki Cooks Fellowship.
Madireddi picked the Odisha resident for his innate passion for cooking regional Indian food. "Nayak and I had a connect. When I met him, he was lacking in confidence. He dreamed about doing something with food but was unsure if he was ready to quit his job. The first thing we did was to help him align with himself. To achieve something, first, you need to know yourself."
When this writer called Nayak after the win, he confessed he was hardly ever interested in cooking when growing up. "I loved to eat my mother and grandmother's food. Chura ke khata tha unka khana," Nayak laughs. As an Infosys employee, when he was posted in Trivandrum, he had to dial home and take down recipes. "The first few meals were terrible. I had no roommates, so I did it alone," he remembers. The Manja Rai or banana stem and mustard seed curry, became his go-to bachelor pad dish. "Over time, I started seeking out recipes from locals, adding a new twist with my modern plating. My cooking style is rustic and true to regional flavours." Nayak says he enjoyed taking an ingredient and working with it to see it transform on the plate. His confidence grew as he participated in local contests, including the All India Hungry For Haldiram.
In 2019, Nayak was wondering what he should do next when he applied for the Loki Fellowship. He calls it "a backup". The programme supported him mentally and financially.
Interactions with Loki were more about helping him overcome his fears and align with his soul. "Our chats were about self-development, not necessarily about food. Loki said, never to come from a space of fear. He had me realise that I could achieve anything as long as I worked on what I loved. After that, I never looked back," he says.
Loki left Nayak with one more important skill—to understand how we function. "We need to answer the question, why we do what we do. We all function in patterns and it is important to tap into intent. If I want to cook food, it is because I love to. I want to take Odiya and regional Indian cuisine to the world."
Nayak with judge and chef Ranveer Brar, and his family after the win
He applied what he learnt from Madireddi on the show. Nayak remembers being s*** scared when he wheeled in his now famous dish, besara chicken, to the judges. "We were competing for the apron. Ranveer Brar tasted it and asked me about it, a traditional Odiya dish. When I saw the show's footage later, I caught a shot when the three chefs were fighting to take a bite after they had asked me to leave the room. I won't forget that."
At the finale cookout, Nayak remembers his grandmother watching him cook. "I made textures of prawn, a lamb mangsho, and a dessert with milk used in three forms. This was inspired by the folktale of Yashoda cheating Lord Krishna by adding rice to his milk, so he would consume healthy food. I made a kheer with white chocolate mousse, chenna poda made from burnt milk, and a mawa cake."
Madireddi tells us he is excited about flying Nayak to Bali on his first overseas trip. Nayak says he will wait to open his own restaurant because he has a lot to learn. "But when I do, wherever I do, I want a Michelin star to show the world how beautiful regional Indian cuisine is."
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