Modernizing Indian food

rishiMasterchef Australia contestant is an engineer

This Scorpion loves grey. Ask him what the weirdest food is and he’d say “anything that has reptiles in it”. He loves Singapore chilli crab and swears by authentic Sichuan Chinese cuisine. His comfort food is mutton biryani and his favorite book The Flavor Bible.

But why am I only talking food? Well, what else do you talk to Hrishikesh (Rishi) Desai about? He was a Masterchef Australia 2013 contestant and the first Indian to make it to the coveted top 5 positions in the world’s most loved food and cooking show where celebrity chefs George Colambaris, Gary Mehigan and Matt Preston challenge the contestants to excel in the kitchen and prove they deserve to be the Masterchef.

Desai was not really to the kitchen born. Originally a native of Kolhapur, Rishi studied polymer engineering from MIT, Pune, and did his Masters from Rochester Institute of Technology, USA. An Assistant Director with an Australian Public Service agency, Desai works in the field of patents and now lives in Australia. In an email interview with Preeti Verma Lal, Desai talks of food. And its accompaniments.

When did you first pick up the ladle and the wok?
My mother tells me I was 5 when I first cooked 2-minute noodles. Since then I have spent countless hours in the kitchen.

What prompted participation in Masterchef Australia?
I have always been interested in food but when I migrated to Australia in 2008 it coincided with Season 1 of MasterChef Australia going to air. I would watch and try to emulate the recipes. After a couple of seasons and carefully considering my cooking skills my wife Mitra suggested that I apply.

Are you an innovative experimental chef? Or, do you stick to the good old ways/recipes?
I am always experimenting in the kitchen. For me food is science and needs a lot of experimentation. I like traditional flavors but I like to twist them without changing the flavor profile.

Do you read cook books?
That’s all I read. If I had read my books in Engineering as much as I read cookbooks now, I would have been the university topper.

Considering you are not a professional chef, how easy/difficult was the Masterchef journey?
One of the requirements of MasterChef Australia is that you are not a professional chef. So all contestants are in the same boat. I entered the competition with an open mind to learn a lot and I picked up everything like a sponge on the way. I think this learning will help me achieve my goal in the food industry.

Of all that you rustled in the Masterchef kitchen, which dish was most appreciated?
I think the judges appreciated the fact that I tried to modernize Indian food. I cooked modern modak, butter quail, modern palak paneer and modern fish curry all of which was appreciated a lot by the judges.

Indian cuisine has found many takers worldwide. Is fusion the next step for Indian cuisine?
I am not a big follower of fusion Indian. I like Indian flavors as they are and would not want to fuse them with any other cuisine. I would like to modernize those flavors and feature the diversity of the Indian cuisine in my food. I tried to do exactly that on MasterChef with my dishes.

Now that you have the Masterchef tag, do you plan to take to cooking professionally?
Since the show, I did a few pop-up restaurants in Canberra. I would like to open a restaurant one day but that is a long-term goal. There are a few short-term goals which I need to follow up. One of them is traveling across the length and breadth of India and exploring unexplored flavors.

Are you planning a cookbook? A cookery show?
I am currently in the process of writing a cook book about Modern Indian food. The book will come out next year just in time for Mother’s Day. I am not ruling out a TV show in the near future either.

Preeti Verma Lal

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