The infectious culinary charm of MasterChef 2018 winner Sashi Cheliah

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For almost 12 years, Sashikumar Cheliah worked with the Singaporean Police Force loving the adrenalin lifestyle associated with being an Elite Police Officer. He was dealing with rescue operations, counter terrorism, kidnappings and high-profile protection in the riot police. In 2011, he moved to Adelaide and took up yet another demanding job – that of a prison officer. While he loved his career, there was also another love brewing. Watching his mother, a café owner, and his aunts preparing meals, right from his days in Singapore, Sashi had developed an inherent love for cooking. To cut a long story short, Sashi Cheliah scripted his own history becoming the 10th MasterChef of Australia this year. Life has since changed to an extent for this Singapore-born Indian. People want to be photographed with him as he basks in his new-found adulation and stardom. However Sashi has his humility intact and says he wants to give back something back to the community for all the love he has received. Currently, he has taken time off from his prison duty and focussing on his debut pop Gaja by Sashi at HWKR Food Centre up in Melbourne, where he is keeping alive his MasterChef reputation of being the ‘king of flavour’. In conversation with Sashi.

How has life been after the MasterChef 2018 win?
It has been very busy two months, no doubt. Gaja by Sashi at HWKR is also keeping me busy. On top of that, I have demos, shows and couple of other things happening. I really need to balance my time between the pop up and my other commitments.
People recognise me on the streets and come up to me. It is getting a bit lesser now; I think they are getting used to the fact that I am just one of them. I like to mingle with the people around and I don’t feel like a celebrity. Yes, people take photos and get excited to talk to me but I feel it’s more out of love rather than a celebrity thing.

Did you see yourself winning the MasterChef title?
I never thought I would pass the first week. I watched previous seasons and knew how competitive and technically complex some of the cooking would be. I knew I had good flavours because of my background but doubted my technical ability and presentation. I am rustic, I like bold flavours and I don’t bother about plating or finesse as long as there are good flavours. When I went into the competition, I was not sure I fit the MasterChef criteria. There is a reason why they call it MasterChef. You cannot be master in one trade, there is a whole package. You need to have a wide knowledge on cuisines, different techniques, different flavours.
In the beginning I didn’t see anyone as a threat because everybody was on the same level. It took me a couple of weeks to really build the confidence, to feel that I might be able to do it. But as the competition grew further into the weeks, I saw such amazing talents. Brandon is an amazing cook, he had a good chance of winning, Reese was good in both savoury and sweet, Khan was so creative, I can go and on. The judges were fond of any good food that had flavours. They would love anyone who gave good food, good quality and good flavour and met the description of the day

Do you think you’re always going to be looked at through a special lens now?
Definitely. People around the world I would say, because of the fan base, are looking and saying ‘what is he going to do next’. That is something I need to keep up with. What I am going to do next is something that people are curious about.

Do you find it a challenge to constantly innovate?
My thought over food is simple: flavours win, two different types of cuisines integrating with each other. You would have seen most of my food is based on two cuisines. If I take Indian there will be a Thai or western cuisine incorporated with it – either in flavours or in technique. So that is something I love doing and that is what I am trying to bring forward. I would love to bring our Indian food to the next level. To do that, I need the assistance of other flavours and cuisines to elevate it to the next level.

Is it fusion?
I don’t like to use the word fusion because it is very commonly used now and everybody thinks just by getting two things together we have fusion. I don’t believe in that. Fusion is incorporating two different types of flavours together. In my cuisine, sometimes it might not be flavours but the involvement of two different types of techniques. That’s why I don’t like the word fusion. I like to say incorporating two different types of cultures or cuisines.

What are the top five ingredients in your cooking?
Chilly is definitely the most common one. I love using lemon grass. Fish is something I love to cook with but I am not putting it in Gaja. Fish is something that needs a lot of attention. I also love prawns and lentils.

Do local produce have a big impact on the menu?
Australia has become so diverse now that ingredients are easily sourced. So I don’t have much problem in getting any sort of ingredients here. It might be frozen or fresh. My only problem is that I don’t like using frozen items, which is the only concern I have. Even in the restaurant here, I use only fresh ingredients. Some fresh ingredients cost a lot and you have to wait longer, so that is the issue I have.

Your inspiration is from your mother and you are self-taught. How important is formal training?
If you want to become a professional chef and have a career in cooking, I think formal training is important. I come from a military/police force background where formal training is essential. It is the same for any job. For a chef too, formal training is important because you have to learn the basics. You need to have a basic understanding of food, the techniques and the equipment you are using.

What advice would you give home chefs who are inspired by your style of cookery?
I don’t know what advice to give but I have a very simple philosophy: if you don’t try, you don’t get, you don’t know. So if you want something, you got to ask for it, you have to try for it.

If you could cook for and dine with anyone, who would that be?
I am a big fan of Kamal Hassan (south Indian actor), I would love to cook for him. I wanted to cook with Gordon Ramsey, that happened.

What is your food dream?
Most of my cooking is Tamil influenced which is part of my heritage. South Indian food has not picked up as much in Australia or in any other part of the world. I think me introducing south Indian food in MasterChef created a new vibe around south Indian food especially the episode with rasam (soup). Not many people knew how simple rasam is and how much of flavour it can give to a dish. So they were impressed with the simple but flavourful dish.

What have you done with your prize money?
Nothing. I have not touched the money at all. I am saving it for my big project, which is my restaurant so it has been kept aside for that. It involves a lot of time and money. I am giving myself 6-12 months to bring out the project. So yes I want to set up a restaurant in Adelaide, it can be anywhere in Australia but I am looking at Adelaide because I feel at home there and I feel my concept will fit there. It is quiet, less populated and it’s a growing market, so I don’t mind trying out there. It’s going to be a modern, contemporary setting. Being in South Australia wine is very important, so I would love to have wine involved in my food and also local produce. I want to support local produce and source out as much as possible. I also want to support the prisoners. Prison system is close to my heart, they have always supported me the past six years. It’s my turn to give something to them. My creation will be Gaja by Sashi. Gaja is Ganesha, the word has so many meanings in Sanskrit and symbolises strength, wisdom, royalty and solidarity. I need all of that to move forward.

By Indira Laisram

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