Masterchef Australia Winner Sashi Cheliah On His New Restaurant, Visit To Mumbai, & More

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Every Masterchef Australia fan knows Sashi Cheliah–the first Indian-origin chef to win the cooking competition back in 2018. With dishes like fish curry and cumin rice, Malaysian pineapple tart and peanut praline crumb, and Sambal prawn with crispy prawn heads, the Singapore-born chef with roots in Madurai won hearts among the audience and the judges from the very beginning. He is known for his fusion cooking that combined Indian, Malay and Chinese flavours, and impeccable use of spices. 

Sashi Cheliah

Four years after winning the competition, Sashi went on to open his restaurant, Gaja by Sashi in Melbourne. But after shifting to Adelaide, the restaurant also moved with him there. He also returned earlier this year on Masterchef Australia: Fans vs Favourites. Although his early exit was shocking for not just fans watching the show but also the contestants, that didn’t deter him. He wants to keep learning and cooking.

The chef has been busy travelling across kitchens of India as part of the World on a Plate Series. After presenting his Singaporean flavours in Gurugram, Chennai, New Delhi and Bengaluru, the chef is now introducing his regional cuisine to Mumbai. He is all set to serve you a 6-course degustation menu at Nawab Saheb at The Westin Mumbai Powai Lake.  

 

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Ahead of his service in Mumbai, Sashi chats with us about the menu, his new restaurant that is set to open in Chennai, his food philosophy, and more. 

ELLE: Tell us about your 6-course degustation menu.

Sashi Cheliah (SC): It will consist of Malaysian and Singapore flavours. They will be authentic, robust and bold flavours, but be very refined in taste and presentations. I visited Mumbai last in 2018 and now thanks to World on a Plate, I am so excited to be cooking for the city for the first time.

ELLE: You have visited India multiple times. What do you like about the Indian food scene and what is your biggest takeaway from it?

SC: There is so much to love about the Indian food scene. Every different state and city has unique ingredients and flavours that there is just so much to explore, discover and learn. In fact, you can  uncover something new every 50 kms. I have visited India so many times, however I have still only uncovered possibly just 15% of the Indian culinary scene. Indian food is all about diversity. Every flavour profile is unique and distinct even if they belong to regions just kms away. You can never master any particular region’s cuisine in totality unless you study the subtle nuances of it. It’s like learning a new language, starting from the basics of grammar and moving up. My biggest take away is to keep learning. 

ELLE: Your restaurant Pandan Club is opening doors soon. What made you choose Chennai as its location?

SC: Couple of things. My business partners are from Chennai, so I knew that we would have a strong professional team to help me with the set up and running of the restaurant. Also, Chennai is big on authentic flavours but has now grown to become an experimental city with food. The people are also more receptive to something new and exciting. I think it helps that they will find some familiarity in my cooking methods and ingredients such as coconut milk, chilli etc, which they are accustomed to and certain flavours like that of lemongrass and galangal which will bring in the twist. We will be serving Peranakan cuisine, which is a completely new cuisine not just for Chennai but for India and hence, while we will launch in Chennai, we will be expanding too soon to  Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru. 

 

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ELLE: What exactly is Peranakan cuisine and where does it originate from?

SC: The Peranakans are Chinese who adopted Malay culture, so there is a strong Malaysian influence on our cooking and that will be reflected on the menu.

 

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ELLE: Your cooking style blends your Indian and Singaporean roots along with the Australian lifestyle. What made you shift from these flavours and move towards Peranakan food?

SC: I wanted to pioneer a new experience for the Indian market and offer something different. Asian, Malaysian, Thai etc has already become popular in India. But the Peranakan food is something that is currently not available and I do believe it will be relished as it compliments the Indian flavour palate.

ELLE: What are the similarities between Indian and Peranakan cuisine?

SC: During the British ruling, lots of Indian ingredients and flavours came to Malaysia and hence were adopted into the cuisine resulting is interesting similarities. Bursting with flavours and colours, both cuisines are bold and robust. 

ELLE: We all know how much you are inclined towards spices. Where did your love for it stem from and which spice do you like using the most?

SC: At Home, growing up, my mother used a lot of spices and thus developed my love for it. Coriander is the spice I love and gravitate to the most.

ELLE: After winning Masterchef Season 10, you’ve launched various culinary ventures and yet you came back on the latest season of Fans Vs Favourites. Why make that choice after winning the season you were on?

SC: Covid was one of the main reasons. I am so passionate about cooking that I felt that during the pandemic I was losing touch. Hence when they asked me to come back, I really was wanting the creative challenge and readily accepted it. 

 

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A post shared by Sashi Cheliah (@sashicheliah)

ELLE: Cooking was never your first career choice. So what drew you to the culinary world?

SC: Being a typical Indian family, we were always encouraged to take a white collar job. But I was always so passionate about cooking. MasterChef was when I took the massive risk and said I must give it a try. Winning the title truly helped me realise that my passion was my true calling.

ELLE: How has your journey in and out of Masterchef Australia shaped you as a chef?

SC: It is so much tougher when in a competition. It trains you to a certain level to cook. But after that, cooking for real people in the real world is a totally different ball game. I salute all those chefs who have been cooking for years in a professional kitchen. I am most excited to meet them when traveling with World on A Plate too.

ELLE: What is your food philosophy now?

SC: Less is more–less ingredients but maximum flavours. 

ELLE: What are your future plans?

SC: Lots in the pipeline, Pandan Club launch with multiple outlets across India. I hope to expand Gaja in Australia too. Plus I have my cookbook, Kampong Boy out next month. 

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