What makes a master chef?
“Sneaking cookbooks between her school books,” says MasterChef India season 4 winner Nikita Gandhi’s father. “We would ask her to study for her exams and she’d be reading recipes. I feel on cloud nine today. I knew this was an inherent talent of hers. Actually she started cooking when she was eight and winning at 16 the first prize of Dh5,000 at a [a supermarket chain-organised] food fiesta and she was the youngest contestant in that group”.
“Yes”, confesses Gandhi herself. “I think I did this from the fourth to 12th grade. I’ve always been interested in cooking and have been cooking since I was eight”.
The 21-year-old business and finance graduate, the youngest chef to win the Indian version of the reality cooking show, picked up the Rs10 million (Dh5,90,000) prize last week in Mumbai and now aims to further her gastronomic research journey by, finally, going to culinary school.
“I could not go to hotel management school or study culinary arts as a profession. So what happened was, once I graduated from business and finance I reflected. Four years had gone by and my interest was still in culinary arts and I wanted to make that my career. So I felt, though not one of the easiest, but MasterChef India would be the quickest way. It seemed to be the best platform to switch careers from business to culinary. Luckily it was also perfect timing as it came across as soon as I graduated.
But if her passion lay in cooking was it family pressure that got her to change paths?
“My parents were never against me going to culinary school. Nor did they insist that I study business. They were always open and let me do what I enjoyed. It was my decision to go to business school. I think there’s a phase in every student’s life where they are just so confused on what career path they want to pick and my confusion was should I take the safer side or do culinary school. The thing is going to culinary school is very different from going to any other college. It is very difficult life for a couple of years and I don’t know whether I was ready to take up that life. Rather I’d say, I was ready but wasn’t sure if I would take it through and not lose interest. What if I stopped liking it? And two years later if I didn’t like it, it would have been a waste. So I played it safe”.
Moreover being a vegetarian, Gandhi hadn’t handled meat of any kind. Would it not prove a challenge now that she’s set to start an international culinary journey?
“My MasterChef [India] journey started back in November and ever since I’ve learnt so much from this entire journey. Everyday, every task has been very challenging. How I grew through it all, I would say, we learnt so many new cooking techniques, things that one would only see in restaurants, but one wouldn’t do at home.” Gandhi said.
“Before I came to India for MasterChef, I was under the impression I would have to cook meat. So I decided to come a little early from the US, stay with friends and learn the basics of cooking meat, how to cut and clean – things I’d never done before. But when I reached here I found out this season is vegetarian and it kind of worked in my favour. However, coming to the point how to cook meat when you don’t eat it, it is very important to know how to cook, cut and clean meat if you plan to become an international chef. I definitely plan on learning it at some point. Now that my MasterChef India journey has ended, my next step is to go to a culinary school, not because I’ve learnt anything less in the MasterChef kitchen but only for the reason I want to do it at a more professional, more disciplined level”.
Well the journey has already begun. With a chef such as Sanjeev Kapoor taking on one of the dishes she created on the show to be presented on the menu of his Signature by Sanjeev Kapoor, Gandhi, there’s no looking back.
“When your recipe gets selected to go on the menu of such a renowned chef, it’s a win in itself. When it happened, I told myself ‘now, even if I don’t win MasterChef India, I won’t feel bad because such a thing could happen only much later in life, after a lot of experience’. Yet, here I am today”.
Box: Judges’ speak
“I’m very impressed by Nikita. Everyone tends to equate maturity with age but with Nikita it’s not the case. She’s very stable, very focused and she’s going to take this fame very far – I can give it to you in writing. Sometimes we see that if a young person gains fame too quickly, it ruins them. But in her case it won’t be so.
“On one of the promotional tours the judges were asked to go to Surat [a city in Gujarat state] and Star TV asked us to take her with us. As judges we’ve must maintain a certain dignity as we represent a show and here was this girl who interacted with the people without any airs, answering all kinds of questions they asked and gained whole load of respect from everyone.
“Of course, she had her ups and downs on the show and at one time she started focusing more on presentation and I only told her ‘Nikita you need to remember one thing. People don’t eat food that only looks good. They eat food that is tasty. So you need to maintain a balance’. And I think she understood this in the first month itself.
“Another thing people may not know about her is that she’s a fantastic research student. She’s one of those who just needed one chance to succeed, and she grabbed it when it came. Plus, God has given her a great way to connect to people through her food. Yet everyone questions her for being so young. I don’t think that would be an issue. If you will reach for the sky, when would you if not now? How does age matter?”
“For me what stood out in Nikita was her sincerity towards food and it reflected in her work. She was extremely sincere, punctual, cleanliness first. She had a very clear relationship with food. And this sincerity is something that you don’t need to, but it shows up automatically in what she cooked. The other thing that stood out in her is the fact that she’s only 21, but she’s very experienced when it comes to cooking because she’s been doing it for a while. At an age when kids slipped in comics with their schoolbooks, she slipped in recipe books. We know that she’s 21 but with the kind of dishes she creates, the kind of combination she creates, she’s incomparable”.