Maggie noodles to MasterChef

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Rishi Desai aims to morph Indian cooking in Australia from ‘curry in a bowl’ to an esoteric culinary experience with just a dash of Heston, writes DEEKSHA CHOPRA

 MC5 Rishi Desai_1

It was a heart-wrenching moment for his family and fans to watch Canberra’s favourite contestant Hrishikesh Desai, aka Rishi, come so close to making it to the grand finale of MasterChef Australia 2013. However, one fatal mistake in the elimination challenge sadly sent him home. But for this 35-year-old, who cooks from the heart, it’s not all about winning. Rishi has a bigger plan in mind. He wants to take Indian cooking to a whole new level in Australia. And he is grateful to MasterChef for giving him a platform to showcase his talent and bring him step closer to achieving his dream of opening a modern Indian restaurant someday.

“Everyone takes part in MasterChef to win, but what people need to realise is the enormous learning experience that is gained through the show,” said Rishi, speaking to Indian Link. “Every opportunity one gets to learn should be grabbed, and these skills will never go to waste. The show has improved my understanding about food at least tenfold and has given me the skills to work towards my dream”.

Rishi was always focused and on the right track from his first team challenge on the show. He surprised everyone by his accuracy and speed in the kitchen. People’s expectations started to rise with every perfect dish he presented, and unlike his fellow contestants, he never lost his composure at the MasterChef headquarters.

“I am the kind of person who thrives under pressure,” said Desai. “In a high pressure situation, the worst thing to do is to lose your composure. It is better to step back for a few minutes, assess the situation and come up with a solution, rather than panic, lose 30 minutes of valuable time and have no solution at hand. It is common-sense for me, and this is what kept me focused. What kept me going was my end goal, which is to have my own restaurant”.

Known for his precision and nicknamed the ‘machine’ by his fellow contestants, Rishi received a lot of praise from the judges as well. After clearing eleven eliminations, it was difficult to walk away from the show on his last day. Recalling where things went wrong on the day, he said, “I was disappointed in myself for not making it to the finals. I knew I could have done better than I did that fateful day. On the day of my elimination I had 30 minutes to cook the mussels dish. So I had a process and a checklist in my mind… this is what happens when you work as a machine and not as a human,” he said with a chuckle. “As I did not have a lot of time, I made a list of things I needed to get done – one, cook mussels; two, make sauce; and three, make flat bread. In my mind I ran this program and executed it with fantastic accuracy, except my order of steps was wrong. So I cooked the mussels first which ended up overcooking by the end of 30 minutes,” lamented Rishi.

One of the most cherished moments for this talented chef on the show was the opportunity to cook with his role model and someone from whom he draws his food inspiration. “My most memorable moment was working with my food hero, Heston Blumenthal,” he said. “I cooked in the kitchen with him for four days and was privileged to cook the Heston trifle and Heston’s edible garden. The immunity pin challenge cook off against Heston where I wanted to reproduce something that I had learned watching him, was hard to replicate. Unfortunately the ‘Snow Man’ did not work out,” said Desai.

Another challenge very close to his heart was the ‘Dreams’ week. “We had to cook for our families and in the elimination, we had to cook something that we would serve in our restaurant,” he said. “The challenge gave a boost to my ability to cook modern Indian food. My favourite masterclass was in Perth, with the backdrop of the Indian Ocean and I made impersonations of Gary, Matt and George,” he chuckled.

Experimenting with different cuisines is something Rishi loves to do in his spare time at home. Cooking is therapeutic to him. “I love to cook different cuisines at home,” he said. “We love to try Chinese, South East Asian, Indian, Italian, Mexican and North African flavours. I specially love Chinese food in general, but Sichuan province food is my favourite”.

Rishi also thoroughly relishes his traditional Kolhapuri food. His favourite place to eat in India goes back to his roots. “I always would go back to a sugarcane farm and have traditional Kolhapuri food of bhakri, mutton sukka, tambda rassa, pandhra rassa, and for dessert, hot fresh jaggery and bhakri. There is nothing like it in the world,” he said with relish. Rishi stays well connected to his family back home, visiting every couple of years.

Rishi was born and bred in the city of Kolhapur in India. He completed a Bachelor’s degree in engineering from Pune, and Masters at Rochester Institute of Technology, USA. He migrated to Australia in 2008, to work as a patents examiner at Intellectual Property (IP) Australia (Australian Patent Office) and is now assistant director of an examination division.

Rishi’s passion for cooking started quite young. “As far as I remember and relying on my mum’s accounts, I have always spent a lot of time in the kitchen. The first thing I ever cooked was 2 minute Maggie noodles when I was five, and since then I have never looked back. When I am in the kitchen I am at peace,” said Rishi.

He has always had a strong influence of women in his life especially after losing his father at just 15. His mother raised him and inspired him to cook. “The inspiration and knowledge of food came from my mother. She is a great cook who produces some amazing Indian foods, sometimes with rather unassuming and humble ingredients,” he stated.

Rishi’s wife Mitra and son Sharang are probably his biggest fans, who have been the driving force behind him throughout his MasterChef journey.

“My wife of 13 years is my best critic and she says if she hadn’t let me take charge of the kitchen at home, I would not have ended up on MasterChef. Jokes apart, without my family’s support, I would not have made it this far,” he said.

A doting father, it was tough on Rishi to be away from his six and half year old son while shooting for MasterChef. “It was extremely difficult staying away from my family for the five months. I could speak to them on and off, but my son missed me a lot and I missed five months of his childhood. After I got back home, my mother and sisters had arrived from India to greet me, as well as friends came home to celebrate my success. So it was the best homecoming for me,” said Rishi.

However, Rishi strongly feels Indian food has a lot more to offer than it currently does in Australia, and needs to break the stereotypical image of curry in a bowl. His aim is to showcase modern Indian cooking in a new avatar and create illusion with his food just like Heston, but with an Indian twist.

“As far as I am concerned Indian food needs to move on from curry in a bowl to something contemporary. Our food has tremendous potential in terms of modernising. I live by Heston’s philosophy: food should be consumed using all of your senses and not just taste. For example, I want to present a dish which tastes exactly like palak paneer but looks completely different,” explained Rishi.

There is good news for his fans as well, who can keep an eye out for his cookbook and pop-up restaurant in the near future. “I plan to write a cookbook on modern Indian food and eventually open a restaurant; but before that I want to test the waters first. I am working towards opening a pop-up restaurant in Canberra and will see how things go,” he revealed.

Rishi is a complete family man with a witty sense of humour.  Despite all the fame and recognition from Masterchef and thousands of fans on social media since the show, he remains very humble and grounded. “Well, I wouldn’t say life has changed, but I am certainly a changed person after the show. It’s made me realise how important my family is to me and I could not have done this without them. It has also given me wonderful friends along the way, for which I am grateful. Finally, I do like when people recognise me on the streets and stop to ask me about my experience on the show. It’s fun!” he said.