India’s 2013 MasterChef winner and Australia’s Iron Chef cook up a camaraderie.
When two great chefs come together, you expect the best of both worlds. And this is precisely what happened when Australia’s Iron chef Mark Normoyle and Indian MasterChef 2013 Winner Ripu Daman Handa got together. They gave Melburnians a gourmet experience like no other.
Handa came to Melbourne on the invitation of Normoyle, who is the executive chef at the RACV Club in Melbourne. The club marked a week-long celebration of Diwali where Handa as guest chef showcased the best of his creations and helped dispel the myth that Indian food is “not all spicy”. The week-long event which saw hundreds and hundreds of RACV members and guests come up, close and personal with Handa and his food proved to be a great success. Normoyle, credited for bringing many guest chefs to RACV from around the world, once again helped drive home the point that bringing good food and exploring food is a great cultural bridge. Clearly, Normoyle and Handa created food entertainment with passion and creativity.
The man who brought them together Ashwani Kumar, himself a chef and owner of Shiraz restaurant @ Geelong, says the high credentials of both the chefs was enough to draw patrons. In their honour Kumar also hosted a special dinner at Shiraaz.
Chefs have a brotherhood and a network, says Normoyle. The RACV experience just proved that.
But beyond the ephemeral experience of food, what makes Handa and Normoyle great men in apron? Let’s take a look at their recipes for success.
AUSTRALIA’S IRON CHEF
Mark Normoyle earned this title from the Iron Chefs themselves. And deservedly so. In 2011 when the Japanese Tourism Board expressed their desire to send two of their famous iron chefs to Melbourne, Normoyle, who is executive chef at RACV Club in Melbourne, was more than willing to host them. What followed was two nights’ outstanding events where three legendary Japanese Iron Chefs – Hiroyuki Sakai, Chen Kenichi and Rokusaburo Michiba — cooked two courses and Normoyle also presented two courses. “It was a sell-out at $400 for 300 people each night. People went online and voted,” recalls Normoyle. The Iron Chef title was bestowed to him by the Iron Chefs themselves who applauded him for his great efforts and team work. Normoyle was invited to Japan to cook with them and he would go on to form a lasting relationship with them.
Normoyle’s cooking career began as a 15-year old. He says he was a smart kid who always wanted to be busy but did not have any interest in studies. After he completed school, his father gave him the option to either work or continue his studies. He readily chose the former and started working at a local pub washing dishes and gradually rising to become a kitchen hand and cook. He soon realised he enjoyed the busy kitchen, the late nights and weekends. “I learnt how to work hard and because I was young I became qualified early. What I also learnt was that I could run the kitchen, work fast and get the food out.”
When Normoyle turned 19, he realised he did not want to become head chef. Instead he wanted to work in bigger hotels and better quality restaurants to learn all over again. So he found himself at Ayers Rock in Central Australia at a fine-dining bush tucker restaurant. That was the 1980s. But it was here that he drew his inspiration from an Indian chef who was also the manager. His India connect happened then. Or so it seems, as Normoyle later recalls. “Raj Gupta was the one who really helped me with my career. As executive chef he was a very good manager, organiser and a great guy, “ he fondly recalls. However, the restaurant didn’t do much Indian food and being a bush tucker drew on all the native ingredients and herbs such as bush tomatoes, rosella flowers etc.
In the years that followed, Normoyle went on to complete a four-year apprenticeship and training in cooking and went on to work all over the world – from Dubai to Malaysia to Singapore to Thailand. In 2003 he joined RACV Club going on to become its executive chef and leading a team of 80 chefs from different backgrounds. He also conducts food tours in different parts of the world with RACV members.
Last year, Normoyle went on a food tour to India traversing the north and covering states such as Rajasthan, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. But it was the seven-day cruise on the Ganges river where they stopped at little villages largely untouched by western tourists, seeing local life and tasting local food that made him realise the diversity of Indian food.
The experience in a way sealed his friendship with India. “What it taught me and what I didn’t realise was the regionality of Indian cuisine. I learnt north and south were different and that you cannot get pakaoras everywhere,” he laughs.
But it was also during this visit that he saw the festival of Diwali being celebrated in a big way. When he came back to Melbourne, he did his own small research and came up with the idea of hosting an Indian chef for Diwali at RACV. So he got in touch with his long-time associate Ashwani Kumar of Shiraaz, who in turn got him in touch with Ripu Daman Handa. And this November during the week of Diwali, Normoyle and Handa teamed up to create some spectacular moments at RACV.
“We did something very night. We did a tasting for the members at the foyer where we introduced Handa, it was great,” says Normoyle adding, “Handa is a great young guy, very personable…It’s not about the food, it’s about the team, the custom and about happiness.”
Normoyle has been working in the kitchen for over 20 years. “I love the food, the people, the industry. I love coming for work every day. I have fun as it is also about meeting good people and learning every day. When you have a job you enjoy you are also productive. For me it’s important to have a great team too.”
At the moment Normoyle’s favourite toy is the thermoregulator. His favourite food, he admits, keeps changing all the time but the fact remains that he likes simple, local food. As for the future, one thing is sure: his relationship with India is bound to strengthen.
INDIA’S YOUNGEST MASTERCHEF
Born to a family of doctors in Delhi, Ripu Daman Handa admits he was quite like the black sheep given his aversion to study. He simply loathed the idea of becoming a doctor and secretly harboured a love for cooking. This often led to clashes with his father who wanted his young son to pursue medicine at any cost. But a rebellious Handa would not give in. At year 10, he purposely scored a low 45 percent despite being a good student so that he would not have to take up Science subjects.
What Handa really wanted to do was get into the kitchen and get his hands dirty. In Indian society, a male cooking food is not common sight, leave alone aspiring to become a chef. Handa began his cooking affair when as a young boy, he saw the women in his house fasting during the one-day festival of Karwa Chauth, which was broken in the evening. He took this opportunity to make a simple dal (lentils) and rice, which was savoured by all. Since then, he would go on to cook for the women every Karwa Chauth.
By the time Handa was in Year 12, the fight with his father had intensified given that he did not want to sit for medical exams. So the family decided to send him to Canada to study something else. Around that time, he was at a relative’s house one morning when he saw a very long queue of women. To his curiosity, he went up to them and asked what the queue was for. When told it was for the audition of MasterChef competition, Handa found himself in the queue amid what he calls “thousands of aunties”. Handa ended up giving eight auditions standing in the queue from 6 am and getting back home around 11 pm.
Finally just as the time for applying for his Canada visa came, Handa got a call from the makers of MasterChef saying he was among the 1500 contestants selected from all over India for a month of auditioning again in Mumbai. They were to pay for his accommodation and tickets and he had nothing to worry about except his cooking. As expected the news did not go down well with his father and his family who tried their best to dissuade him from going to Mumbai. With his family’s back turned towards him, Handa left Delhi on December 31st of 2012 to become the star he now is.
In Mumbai, Handa was among the top 12 contestants to get through. That is when the live telecast of MasterChef began. Two months into filming, television crew Star Plus had to go and interview Handa’s family to reflect on his journey as part of the narrative. When the TV crew arrived on the doorsteps of his family home, his father turned them away on the suspicion that they were friends of Handa who were up to some pranks. They had three days to shoot but on the second day, convinced that they were genuine people, his family opened their doors.
For the next six months of 2013, Handa switched off from every possible connection around him and concentrated on his MasterChef stint. What kept him going, he recalls were the words of his grandmother who told him to cook anything but with love and to treat food as Prasad (offering to God). However on day one of its telecast, he messaged his family to tune into the television at 8 pm. He shocked himself and his family by going on to win the MasterChef title, a whopping prize money of Rs one crore (AUD 200,000), and age by his side. He was only 21.
“My life totally changed. I felt blessed,” says Handa, who gifted his mother his prize money.
After MasterChef, Handa did a short course in Switzerland to upskill himself. His Italian restaurant Mochhiato in Mumbai has just completed a year.
In Melbourne for the first time, Handa says the experience of working with Mark Normoyle and his team is one that he will never forget. “I was very excited by this project and Mark is very supportive, he gave me a free hand. It is a different kitchen, different staff, different nationalities and different style of cooking. I was looking forward to this.”
At RACV Club, Handa showcased his culinary skills once again by bring out an a la carte which comprised of Achaari fish masala on butter garlic asparagus and red radish salad as the entre, a pistachio lamb chop with zucchini rolls and mashed masala potatoes for the mains and sago pudding and Banarasi pan ice-cream for dessert. In one day, he served about 200-220 guests.
Handa also brought out an Indian buffet with Normoyle and his team and conducted cooking classes for RACV members.
Asked what the reactions of patrons were, Handa said, “People in Melbourne love Indian food. Many thought Indian food was spicy but they were pleasantly surprised that it was not
“I feel so proud here. I am getting so much of good cooking,” says Handa, adding, “I am taking back lots of experience with me. The chefs in the kitchen now like Indian food. In the beginning they were not a bit skeptical about the level of spice,” he laughs.
Handa also believes the quality of meat and vegetables in Australia is one of the best which made his cooking experience more enjoyable.
He does not like to call himself a celebrity. “I see myself only in the kitchen in the next 5-10 years. I don’t think too much, I live for the present.” His love for cooking is such that when he sees the tandoor, his favourite cooking appliance to work with, he starts making rotis for his staff in his restaurant.
When travelling abroad he indulges in street food and he believes this is an element of food that is also being introduced in fine-dine restaurants as people love street food.
Handa has certainly upped the reputation of Indian food in Melbourne. He seems to have the knack for it given that he also did a television shoot in the US where he covered 132 Indian restaurants to promote Indian food and restaurants. Watch out for this globe-trotting chef in the years to come.
The coming together of Mark Normoyle and Ripu Daman Handa to celebrate Indian food and culture on the occasion of Diwali is truly in keeping with the multicultural ethos of Melbourne. They forged a unique connection with their guests with their dedication to good food. And the city’s culinary scene just got richer!
By Indira Laisram