The secret to beautiful food. Morning tea with Masterchef contestant Rohini Chawla

Every heartwarming story has its sprinkle of sadness, a dash of masala and a cupful of hope; after spending a casual morning with Masterchef India contestant Rohini Chawla, I see too that her story has all of these ingredients. It was her father who inspired her lifelong connection to cooking along with her decision to join Masterchef and ultimately it was his sudden passing that urged her early withdrawal from the competition. She had come full circle, or so she thought. Today, what she gained through the Masterchef experience only strengthens her beliefs in the food journey she had begun all those years ago standing in the kitchen preparing Sunday lunch with her beloved Dad.

Rohini was born in Delhi and as the daughter of a Lt. Col. in the Indian Army, her family lived in Agra, Jammu, Leh, Kerala and many other cities. When she was 19, she went to pursue her undergraduate studies in New Jersey and a couple years of later her parents also moved to New Jersey. Four years ago she moved back to India with her husband and their son. Now with a young son and a two-year-old daughter, they are based in Gurgaon. “Being an Army kid, travel has been part and parcel of my life and since being married we have travelled around the world. These broad travel experiences have given me so much growth and I want my kids to also experience the same.” Rohini and her family are true foodies and they love going to the little mom and pop shops to pick up the local spices and to taste the real flavors when travelling. “We love to do the touristy things when travelling, but the one thing that is always a must are a few trips to local spice/food shacks and grocery stores to pick up food items to bring back and these are like our prized souvenirs. I like to stay authentic to the cuisines of the region.” This is absolutely one of the themes that comes through when talking about Rohini’s culinary philosophy and it’s this dedication to authentic home cooking that gives Rohini’s food such heart.

We sat down over morning chai and had the chance to ask Rohini a little more about her life, her food journey and hopes beyond Masterchef.

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What was your earliest childhood memory around food?

“My earliest memories are two-dimensional, my Mom made us very simple food but when my Dad was home he would love making “fancy” food; he would make samosa’s and mathi’s and sugar coat them so they became little treats, all from scratch. I was in Kindergarten and so vividly still remember him making these delicacies. This is a skill that I appreciate the most about him and feel proud today that I do the same! Even though it may take a lot of time, my style today is to make everything from scratch as much as possible. As tempting as it is when I walk into a grocery store, I refuse to buy anything that is bottled like pasta sauce etc., the concept just doesn’t suit me. From seeing Papa, I’d say this style of soul cooking is very important; like him, I put my soul into the dish from the beginning.”

As a kid were you an adventurous eater?

“No, my love of food came later! I was a fussy eater, though my parents did a great job introducing seasonal food to us. We ate what was cooked, there was never special food that was made to please my brother and I. Now being a mum of two young kids, I let them develop their own taste as I know that ours change as we grow. I load up hidden veggies in dishes so they get what they need but I’m not as strict as my parents were.”

What was your favourite meal growing up?

“Our weekend tradition would start with Friday dinner usually being a slow cooked lamb curry, and then rajma chawal on Sunday’s in our house was always special. This is a wonderful food memory of mine and I love making such food memories with our kids  too. Food has a huge connection with family at a lot of levels. Your mind brightens up at the wonderful memories that food sparks.”

You’ve said before that your father inspired your love of cooking, though this is a sensitive subject, do you mind sharing what influence you feel he had?

“I saw my Dad come back from work and still have enthusiasm to be creative with his cooking. He gave a spin to our everyday Indian food. I have enormous admiration that 30 years ago he was creative enough to jazz up the same ingredients and create something interesting. I love this style of cooking; you give me a red and yellow bell pepper and I’ll make it 5 ways. Nothing goes to waste and you get the best out of the food. I’ve spent so many hours with him in the kitchen when he’s cooking and he would always be happy to toil. Some of his favourite dishes were slow-cooked meat stews that would take hours, like his mutton gravy dish, but he was always so patient because he just loved spending time in the kitchen. I have got this patience and commitment to the dish from him. Even today, though I love entertaining, my happiest time is in the kitchen preparing and serving my friends and family the best food I can create. This is what he was known for. At his funeral service, the most heart-warming stories came from people’s experiences sharing times around the table with him.”

What style of cooking do you enjoy best?

“I love baking, things that are quick yet flavoursome like stir-fries and sautés. I cook everything with love. To get the right flavour I will cook exactly how the dish requires it. If there’s a specific kind of cheese in Greek food and I’m cooking Greek, then I will try to use that same cheese and not try to find substitutes. My favourite style of cooking ultimately is that which is true to its origin.”

What made you try out for Masterchef?

Under a chuckle “I still don’t know…a friend first recommended it and I mulled over it for a while, I googled it, thought about it some more and then thought “ok, I’ll give it a try.” I think I entered to get affirmation from the judges to really see how good my cooking is. I thought Masterchef would be a great platform to understand if all the generous comments from family and friends over the years about my cooking is true. It was extremely hard and stressful leaving my family behind, especially my then 17 month old baby. Overall, it sure has been an amazing experience and I wouldn’t trade it for anything…”

If you could sum up your Masterchef experience in 3 words, what would you say?

“I’d say inspiring, reassuring and confidence-building.”

What’s the best criticism you received from the judges?

“I think plating-up; my style has always been rustic, organic, free-flowing but there I learnt the art of fine plating. The overload of edible flowers and micro herbs, I learnt how to present food in a style that was different for me.”

Do you feel the experience changed you in any way and if so, how?

“Yes absolutely! It has given me a huge confidence boost. I have received pats on the back and many affirmations on my ability and this confidence is allowing me to take more risks, to be more adventurous with ingredients that I was scared to work with before and say, yes I can do this. In a very positive way, it has given me a purpose; I’ve always loved to cook and entertain but now I can look beyond this to do something more. It has shown me the path that my cooking can take me on and for that I’m very excited.”

What are you most passionate about in terms of your food journey?

“My whole idea is to bring authentic world cuisine to people that is easily replicable at home. We are all busy, we all travel and have full lives but I want people to become smart, to prepare ahead and create authentic dishes from all over the world. If we prepare, we can bring interesting and creative different foods like Middle Eastern and Italian cooking to the everyday. Instead of going out, let’s create these dishes at home. a) It’s made with love; b) It’s healthier and c) I think the family will love it more.”

With such success and your new Masterchef profile, what do you hope to do next?

“I really want to write a book; I want people to start entertaining at home. In India we are all big hearted, we love to entertain but bringing in caterers when we have guests has become the norm. I want to change that. I want people to start cooking at home; when you cook and people enjoy your labour of love, the satisfaction and happiness that this brings is priceless. I want to share easy entertaining recipes, where people think outside of the box, where they prepare ahead and bring wonderful world recipes to life. “

“And one day I want to open a food truck, though there is a lot of red tape here, I’d love to one day make it possible. I’ll have a rotating menu, you’ll find new and different foods to expand your palate, some days there would be all baked goodies, the next day it might be a different world cuisine. I love change and love to express this change through my food.”

If you were to jump ahead 3 years, where do you hope your food journey has taken you?

“I’m still finding my direction, but I hope that people start associating me with the ability to bring world cuisine to them in a very simplified manner. If I can do this, then I’m on the right path.”

What are the personal qualities that make you a great cook?

“Well I’m fun and I think my food also turns out to be fun, in terms of its flavours and the way it is presented. As a warm person, this warmth comes through my food because it brings everyone together, in a happy fuzzy way. I’m also patient with my food preparation and I try to create everything from scratch no matter how long it takes. I don’t mind sacrificing my sleep when it comes to creating a beautiful dish.”

If you were preparing your favourite meal for someone, what would it be?

“This is one of the simplest dishes and the whole family loves it so I would cook Aglio olio spaghetti with basil pesto chicken and now that I have conquered my fear of yeast, a freshly baked bread to go along. This is such a special meal because it’s a dish that all my family loves and my son even helps me pick the fresh basil from our balcony garden and keeps an eye on the spaghetti and my little one can’t wait to slurp up that pasta.”

Rohini’s the kind of girl whose big smile and big heart shines through in everything she does. When she laughs, it’s a big laugh and you can feel the happy place that it comes from. I think cooking is that place because it’s bonded in many ways to her love of family. I imagine her father would be proud; with his flair for making ordinary food extraordinary and his dedication to create beautiful food for his family, when you talk with Rohini, you can feel she shares his heart for this connection. Maybe it’s he who has come full circle.

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