In Australia, reality cooking competition MasterChef Australia is something of an unstoppable juggernaut. The show has consistently produced a series of stars in the ilk of season one champ Julie Goodwin, who has gone on to write multiple cookbooks and even has her own cooking school. Then there is second season winner Adam Liaw, who is now considered a food expert (he was on the panel of Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Eatlist guide) and has a cooking show called Destination Flavour.
Even people who didn’t win the show have achieved considerable success, like season seven’s dessert king Reynold Poernomo who went on to open the acclaimed Koi Dessert Bar in Sydney.
This year’s 10th season saw Singapore-born prison officer Sashi Cheliah emerge winner, nabbing a whopping 93 points out of a possible 100 points in the finals, the highest marks in the show’s history.
Sashi grew up in Singapore, the eldest of seven children. Because there were so many people in the household, Sashi’s mother and aunts were the main cooks in the house, whipping up everyday Indian fare like sambar and rasam with regularity. Although Sashi started helping out in the kitchen when he was 10, he wasn’t really cooking full meals as work as a police officer eventually took precedence. So it wasn’t until he moved to Australia a few years ago that he actually started cooking regularly.
“When I moved to Australia, I missed eating home-cooked Malaysian and Singaporean kind of food, so I would make food like biryani and ayam masak merah. Whatever I missed at home, I would try to cook at home,” he said.
Pretty soon, all that cooking got him thinking about opening his own cafe. Coincidentally, at around that time, the buzz surrounding applications for the next season of MasterChef Australia had picked up, so Sashi decided to give it a go, hoping the show would give him a platform to start a career in F&B. Ultimately, that proved to be one of the best decisions of his life.
Throughout the show, Sashi was a stand-out, commanding respect and admiration in the kitchen and winning a historic two immunity pins (a show first). Sashi credits his training in the police force with helping him forge ahead.
“It kept me focused and very determined and I was able to see things from a wider angle, so I didn’t have tunnel vision,” he said.
He says although nothing on the show was staged, there was a heightened sense of anxiety and stress during the challenges that made the experience different from a real-life professional kitchen.
“A real-life professional kitchen is a bit more organised and systematic because they do a lot of prep work in advance and make sure they are ready for service. In the MasterChef kitchen, it’s a bit chaotic because it’s a competition. It might look a bit messy, but it’s because it is meant to be like that, because they want to increase the tension and see how we perform under stress,” he said.
When he made it to the finals, Sashi decided to just stick to his plan of serving food that was a reflection of his lineage.
“I think there are a few things that helped me win: the No.1 thing was the motivation from my family, they were there to really support me. And the second thing was I was true to myself. I kept to my strengths and roots, so I was very clear on what I wanted to do and very focused on what I was plating up,” he said.
Moving forward, Sashi is planning to start a pop-up restaurant called Hawker in Melbourne, which will serve as testing ground for the Indian-influenced restaurant he hopes to open one day. The pop-up will serve authentic Chinese, Indian and Malay fare like prawn Hokkien mee, lamb biryani, Kerala pepper chicken, ayam masak merah, beef rendang and cendol.
“I’m doing very simple, authentic food so it’s what you would have if you went to a typical hawker centre,” he said.