Chhibber was a contestant on MasterChef Australia Season 13. Her passion for cooking and love for food have taken her on a journey of exploration, experimentation and refinement of traditional Indian cuisine. Her unique approach to food, combined with her deep knowledge of spices and ingredients, has earned her recognition as one of the leading culinary experts in the world. Through her cooking, Chhibber aims to showcase the diversity and richness of Indian cuisine and inspire people to explore the world of food.
Now that I think about it, my time in the MasterChef kitchen feels like it was ages back, but it’s only been two years. Two transformative years! As you would know, I became a mother to the most beautiful baby girl who is now just a year old. But going back to life after MasterChef – you see, immediately things were moving slow. At that time, lockdowns were implemented, and restaurants had multiple restrictions. The hospitality sector was under a lot of pressure, and with that, a lot of my plans were put on hold, owing to the global pandemic. But I made the best of a bad situation. Apart from working on my cookbook, I reached out to Andy Allen and was lucky enough to earn the chance to work at his local restaurant, Three Blue Ducks. This gave me the chance to work in a professional, commercial kitchen and I must say, it’s a different style, but it sure was a great experience. I especially liked the fact that they do a lot of fire-based cooking, much like Indian cuisine. Andy was a great mentor on MasterChef, and an even better boss to work with.
CAN YOU SHARE A FEW OF YOUR CULINARY INTERESTS AND INFLUENCES GROWING UP IN AUSTRALIA? HAS THERE BEEN ANY PLACE IN AUSTRALIA THAT HAS INSPIRED YOUR CREATIVITY?
I’ll let you in on an interesting tidbit – as a child, I never watched cartoons. Instead, there was always a cooking show I had my eyes glued to. However, growing up, there weren’t many cooking shows like MasterChef Australia that kicked off. I practically grew up watching this show called Huey’s Cooking Adventures which starred Chef Lain Hewitson who made classic Australian dishes. In terms of places that inspire me to cook, I would say they would have to be Australia’s beaches and coastal zones. Tasmania is another place that has my heart for its rich seafood produce. I have lived along the beach ever since I moved to Australia. Coastal seafood and Tasmania’s offerings are sumptuous and extremely fresh. The experience of getting that fresh catch and cooking it by the sea is surreal, in my opinion.
HOW HAS BEING AN INDIAN IN AUSTRALIA INFLUENCED YOUR COOKING STYLE?
Cooking is kind of embedded in our culture. Coming from a big joint family back in Delhi where everybody is cooking and loves food, it almost became like an extension of my personality and identity. Australia is a beautiful country, and their produce is unmatched. But when you move from India, you would not directly dive into Oysters or exotic delicacies. Living in the country for over two decades, I can appreciate it now, but back then when I first moved, I missed home food. Twenty-five years back, all you could get in Australia was probably butter chicken, kebabs, or some basic curry items but it didn’t have the authentic Indian flavour. It was more of an acquired taste for an Australian to appreciate Golgappes or Tikki Chaat. However, now the scenario has completely changed. They now include Indian flavours/ingredients and incorporate them in their cooking more often than one can imagine. Australia is so multicultural, that you now see fusion dishes even in the finest dining restaurants. This fusion of cultures inspires me to cook with local Australian ingredients whilst incorporating Indian flavours in it.
DO YOU HAVE ANY FAVOURITE AUSTRALIAN DISHES THAT YOU LOVE RECREATING?
Australian food is extremely diverse and vast. Being a multicultural country, it has a lot of Asian, Indian, and European influences. Also, Australia is well known for its fresh produce so when I am cooking, that is what I try to showcase but by using Indian flavours. For example – I love cooking Chicken Tikka Meat Pie. I am sure chefs across the world might be cooking it, but it is comfort food for me. I can make it with the ingredients that are readily available in my kitchen, but I am cooking it with pastry which makes it different yet comforting at the same time.
WHICH CHEFS (INDIAN AND AUSTRALIAN) INSPIRE YOU THE MOST?
There are a plethora of chefs across the world who inspire me. However, if I must name one, then in terms of Indian chefs, I will have to say Gagan Anand. It’s majorly for what he has done to Indian food. He is an icon for other Indian chefs too, for making progressive Indian food. He is the ‘OG’ in my opinion. In terms of Australian chefs, I would say Josh Niland. He specializes in seafood and fish butchery. He is all about zero waste. He uses each and every part of the fish, including the scales that are usually considered as waste. He is undeniably pushing the envelope with his cooking. I really look up to their style of cooking and for the innovativeness that they bring in.
HOW HAS YOUR MOTHERHOOD JOURNEY BEEN SO FAR?
It has only been a year so far, but it sure does feel great and rejuvenating. I feel truly blessed and every time I look at her, I forget about everything else. Motherhood has definitely been interesting and rewarding, especially when you’re great in the kitchen. I love cooking for her; it’s very maternal and makes me feel even more connected to what I make. Suffice to say, she’s my best critic at the moment! I keep making new dishes and creating recipes to suit her developing taste buds. Maybe one day, she can be my sous chef in the kitchen.
HOW DO YOU MAINTAIN WORK-LIFE BALANCE?
Honestly, it gets difficult sometimes. However, coming from a healthcare background and working alongside food, kind of comes naturally to me. I can never say that I am not a pharmacist because I need to reward myself for all the hard work that has been put in over the years. I only work part time as a pharmacist, so I make sure the rest of my time is going into pursuing my passion. I have the privilege to be able to do that. It is very easy to fall back to your 9-5 job, but I have worked so hard for this food dream of mine that I want to see it flourish. I never thought I would get this far but I did and that’s what makes me want to continue and give it my best shot. During Covid-19, I realized that this is my time, and this is my only opportunity to pursue my love for cooking.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU?
The first thing that I want to do is definitely complete my cookbook which showcases Indian home food in Australia. Coming from a country that is so multicultural, I believe there is a gap in Indian home cooking in Australia. I want to bridge that gap and I could do that with a restaurant that serves Thali consisting of Indian home-cooked comfort food like Kadhi or Rajma. I want Australians to experience that feeling that we get when we eat Kadhi Chawal ,or just plain Dal. It is a totally different experience. I would like to highlight Indian and regional cuisine and I am working towards it.
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