Stepping up to the plate


As a child to working parents, Nidhi Mahajan rued the fact that her friends in school had delicious looking lunch boxes compared to hers. Thanks to her love for food, she started experimenting with a lot of cooking inspired by the shows on cooking which she used to watch after school. Spending all her pocket money on buying ingredients, she would often have great snacks prepared for her parents when they got back home from work. While her efforts were greatly appreciated, her parents did not imagine that one day their daughter would be in one of the premium TV shows of the world. And that is how Nidhi surprised herself, her family and friends by her appearance on MasterChef Australia 2016, within just two and a half years of her arrival here in this country.
Last night (May 19), Nidhi got eliminated and in an exclusive interview with The Indian Weekly shares her experiences. A call centre employee, Nidhi holds a Bachelor degree in Commerce from Panjab University. She began to study in 2013 for a Masters in Professional Accounting and Finance at the University of South Australia and graduated in January 2015.
While Indian cuisine is a specialty for Nidhi, she also loves patisserie and desserts and is inspired by a range of cooks and chefs including Poh Ling Yeow, Billie McKay, Farida Ayubi, Adam Swanson, Maggie Beer, Sanjeev Kapoor, Vikas Khanna and Jamie Oliver. Excerpts:

How did you feel being on camera for such a great show?
I didn’t even think I will be on television. I just applied for MasterChef because I wanted to cook for the judges and especially for Marco which was a dream come true. Many of my friends were wondering if I would wear make up on the show. I was like ‘don’t even say those things, I am just going there for the cooking’. In hindsight, I think I should have out on some make up.
How do you rate the importance of Indian cooking in the show?
I think it’s not about the importance of Indian cooking or Italian or modern Australian cuisine but it is about good food. So it does not matter which cuisine as long as you are right with your technique and flavour. It is about the flavours and what you cook is very important.

Overall, how has the MasterChef experience been?
MasterChef kitchen was like a dream world for me. I kept pinching myself every day and asking myself ‘Is it really happening? Am I so lucky?’ When you are in the kitchen you don’t realise this is happening to you but at the end of the day you do realise this surreal experience is actually real. It is a feeling that is unexplainable, beyond excitement, beyond happiness. I guess, it’s like finding a new love, you can’t explain it to anybody but you only experience and feel it.

How did the idea of applying for such a big show come about?
Food has always been something I always look forward to – whether cooking or eating. Since the time I was a kid, I have been a on the larger side which is due to my love for food (laughs). At a very young age I started cooking because my mother was a working woman and used to cook just the normal basic stuff. When other students at school opened their yummy-looking lunches such as various sandwiches, noodles and what not, I thought I could prepare similar stuff too. Luckily I was growing up at a time when cable TV was new and we had all these cooking shows hosted by chefs such as Sanjeev Kapoor and Tarla Dalal. They were my favourite shows and I used to watch them every day after school. So I used to spend a lot of money, in fact all my pocket money went into buying ingredients for my cooking. Sometimes the outcome was great, at other times the food went straight to the bin. My parents used to encourage me, in return they were treated to some good snacks when they came back home from work. With globalisation and western products coming to India I started experimenting a lot more but the only problem is that a lot of the products that are easily available in Australia were not available in India, and even if they did they were very expensive and not within my budget.
Anyway, coming back to the question, my husband and I have been avid viewers of MasterChef and when we got out permanent residency in 2015, he said ‘why don’t you apply for it’. I thought it was too early but he encouraged me a lot. He said the worst is you will be eliminated but at least you will have the experience of having applied and see how things work here. So that’s how I got selected for audition and judges’ audition. Everybody said it was a courageous thing to do within a short span of time.

Do you remember the best advice that someone along the way told you?
Everybody including the judges said be honest, be true, be who you are and cook what you want to eat. I cooked with my whole heart and soul and I was honest. I am what I am and at times I feel embarrassed because I felt like a joker on the show as everyone would laugh at what I said or did, but at least I was happy I made somebody laugh. The best advice given was: keep learning, don’t stop yourself from learning anything new.

What has been your favourite challenge for the show?
Cooking every day in the MasterChef kitchen was a challenge and making food for the judges was my favourite part. That was what I was there for anyway.

What global influences have you had on your cooking style and how do you incorporate them in your dishes?
I do a lot of Italian cooking and a lot of French deserts. I just take the Indian flavours and infuse them. Even in the American burgers I put my ‘aloo tikki’. For instance in Australia they do a lot of beef but we don’t eat them for religious reasons. However I watch how beef is cooked and I use the herbs and recipes used for cooking beef in lamb or chicken. Sometimes I Indianise things. It’s a fusion you can say. In such a big country like Australia you have to change your taste buds and when I go to restaurants I replicate the taste in my cooking with whatever ingredients I have.

But you have no issues cooking beef?
No not really. I have committed myself to something big like MasterChef and even if I was working in a restaurant I would have cooked but I won’t be eating it.

How would you describe your cooking style and how is it unique or special from the other contestants’?
I am very traditional in many ways. I used a lot of conventional methods such as mortar and pestle as opposed to many of my friends who use grinders and food processors. I do everything from scratch even if it takes a longer time. But yes I am open to experiments but I would say my cooking style is conventional. I also like to do a lot of fusion but if I am cooking traditional, it is purely traditional.

The competition at shows like MasterChef is quite intense. How did you prepare mentally for it?
Any kind of competition is intense and MasterChef Australia is the premium cooking competition. I was prepared that there will be both good days and bad days. I was prepared to take every outcome in a positive way. To be calm in stressful situations come naturally to me. But whenever I used to feel disturbed over something I used to do meditation or talk to my husband. It wasn’t easy but it made me sail through it.

How were the judges?
All the judges were very good, very friendly and very helpful. They gave us good advice. They were very beautiful human beings. Matt Preston is one of my favourites; I like his personality and the food he cooks. I follow him a lot.

Women in India learn how to make round rotis, crisp dosas, spicy curries quite early, but the belief that ‘a woman’s place is in the kitchen’ rarely extends beyond her home and foray into the hospitality industry. What is your take on that?
Not just in India but the world over, being a chef is not easy. It takes a lot of toll on your personal life. When children go home they always ask for the mom first and not the dad, or even when they are not well. Fathers are important but a mother’s requirement is more. Yes times have changed but not so much where the woman can sacrifice her domestic life to foray into the challenging life of a professional chef. And personally too, given a preference between career and family I try to balance it out but family is priority. But again, if you really want to do it, you do it. There are women chefs around with the drive and the passion. It’s no longer the domain of men.

What would you make to introduce someone to Indian food in Australia?
Normally people here think Indian food is hot curries with cream. That is a no-no for me. I would introduce a good starter such as the good old dhokla, idli and khandvi. Everybody knows the bhajis and the samosas but not these. For the mains, I would stick to my north Indian roots and make a meat curry, a rajma or chana masala but nothing bordering on sweet taste. It will be typical. People think that Indian food is very spicy but it is in fact flavourful. My deserts would comprise kulfi and kheer, or sandesh. I think Indian cooking is versatile because we do vegan, vegetarian and non- vegetarian.

How did you feel about food here when you moved from India?
For the first month I didn’t know what to do. Everything was so different and everything tasted so different. But after settling in I started going to the shops to explore more. But we still prefer to cook and eat at home rather than going out. We do go and eat outside for the experience but not that often. There is so much variety of food here.
Any chef you see as a role model?
Vikas Khanna, Sanjeev Kapoor, Tarla Dalal, Marco Pierre White and Nigella Lawson. In Adelaide where I live, there is an Afghan restaurant near my house and the owner Mrs Farida Ayubi is someone I admire too. I just love her style of cooking. Jamie Oliver is another chef from whom I have learnt how to make budget meals. There are quite a few of them.

For aspiring Indian chef what would be your message if they want to take part in the next season of MasterChef?
Be confident, be yourself and give everything that you have for this experience.

Is your career from a call centre employee going to change now? What are your future plans?
We have just started our lives here in Australia and to open up a business here you need lots of money. So I will be continuing with my job but side by side I will be opening a catering business which my shift work allows. My husband helps me a lot in everything so he might take the charge for preparations and I will do the rest. There is a very good work-life balance in Australia. I work eight hours and the rest of the 15 hours are for me to pursue my dreams. Once I get settled into this business and I am confident that I am making even then I can say goodbye to my corporate career. But I am not sure about it as yet. Many of my friends are advising that I should start the dabba (tiffin box) service as soon as I can.

Your family would be revelling in your new fame?
They are so proud of me. Right from my in-laws, relatives, all my friends back in India, and workmates too are happy for me. Many didn’t know I was a good cook. My dad said, ‘we never thought you would go to MasterChef’. I said yes I didn’t know that myself. When I was in India I used to watch MasterChef Australia. I had told my husband that I really want to make Marco taste my curry and let him know what flavours are because he is always talking about flavours. And I did manage to impress him.