Currently among the top 22 in the contest, Sandeep Pandit recently earned an apron - a milestone in the competition - which is earned only if all judges approve of the dish served.
“Because of poverty, we had to make do with what we had. This is how I cultivated interest in cooking by teaching myself how to cook well with very little,” says Sandeep Pandit, a contestant of Indian origin in the current season of the popular culinary contest, Masterchef Australia.
Mr Pandit, 37, came to Australia in late 2016 as an IT project manager with a multinational company and is based in Melbourne. Professionally, he can be deemed distant from the world of culinary deftness. But when you sprinkle a generous helping of passion over any pursuit, the results can surprise even the doer. This is Mr Pandit’s story, in a nutshell, as told to SBS Punjabi.
“In 1989, I was eight years old when our big family had to flee overnight in a truck with whatever little we had from our home in Srinagar, when militants hit Jammu and Kashmir. We didn’t have cooking equipment at home, not even a fridge and much of food items.
"The first time I tried my hand in the kitchen, I made a cup of tea for my tired mother one day when she came back home from her full-time job, which she had to do to help our family make both ends meet. She had tears in her eyes and hugged me. This is when I thought, I have to cook. When you are able to serve food to someone, the look of satisfaction on their face gives you divine happiness,” says Mr Pandit whose family finally settled in Bengaluru, the IT hub of India.
Recalling those troubled times, he nearly chokes up. He narrated his story to fellow contestants and Masterchef Australia’s celebrity judges, Gary Mehigan, Matt Preston and George Calombaris, in the Masterchef kitchen, which was so emotionally touching that Channel 10 made a promo out of it and Twitter, a trend.
“In India, the joy of sharing and serving food is tremendous. And nobody knows that more than Punjabis. Gurdwaras are a living example of how cooking for others is hugely important in Indian culture,” says Mr Pandit, as he acknowledges the shared history of modern-day Jammu and Kashmir which was once a part of Punjab. The fine Punjabi that he speaks, proves that he hasn’t let that historical relationship be severed by the sword of time.
Mr Pandit says he resorted to his Kashmiri roots when first took to the Masterchef kitchen.
“I began with Roghan Josh (spicy Kashmiri-style lamb curry), our famous dish originally from Kashmir but loved all over north India. I cooked it in an old-fashioned Indian pressure cooker, and everyone laughed. I served it with yellow rice, which is considered a sign of prosperity.
"These dishes are owned by families on both sides of Punjab and Kashmir. My cooking is inspired by the idea of India,” says the passionate cook in Mr Pandit, who loves to showcase his culinary skills on his Facebook and Instagram accounts.
Currently amongst the top 22 in Masterchef Australia, he recently earned an apron - a milestone in this competition and can be earned only if all judges approve of the dish served. Mr Pandit accepted it from Mr Preston in true Indian style.
“I cooked a South Indian prawn curry which earned me the apron -- no small feat for an amateur cook like myself. I touched Matt’s and my mentor’s feet. I told them that it is part of Indian culture to show respect to our guru (teacher). I told them how important this apron is for someone who was displaced from his homeland and fell on bad times.
"Seeing this, everyone got so emotional in the kitchen that they had tears in their eyes,” says Mr Pandit, who adds that his fellow contestants now feel like family to him.
Being a Masterchef Australia contestant means you’d be required to stay away from your world for weeks on end. What’s life like for Mr Pandit as one such contestant?
“All 24 contestants live in a house together in Melbourne. We wake up at around 6.30 am or even earlier, cook breakfast, get ready and are transported to the Masterchef Kitchen. We spend the day shooting there. On our off days too, we practice cooking. We don’t get to go home till the completion is over for us. We are allowed to speak with our family over the phone. This is done so that we don’t digress from our focus which is cooking and cooking alone,” he says and adds: “in the process, our fellow contestants become our family.”
In true Punjabi style, Mr Pandit laughs: “I swear upon all the paranthas I’ve eaten all my life that I will definitely serve paranthas to the judges at some point in the contest.”
Masterchef Australia is considered the benchmark for amateur chefs. Does he believe enough in the self-trained chef in him to win the world’s toughest culinary competition for his ilk?
“I don’t know if I can win or not, but seeing my name on the apron that I’ve earned, is a big achievement for me already," he says.
"My only attempt will be to make India, Kashmir and Punjab proud by being a good human being and a true Indian. I’m blessed with love from north as well as south India. I want to showcase the love of the entire country through my cooking,” says the talented chef, who shares his home with his wife, an eight-year old son and his parents.
Click on the player at the top of the page to listen to the interview in Punjabi.