CHENNAI: It’s not every day that Chennai foodies get a chance to feast on treats served by MasterChef contestants. But it seemed like their prayers were answered on Saturday when three stars of MasterChef India season 6 — Abinas Nayak (the title winner), Natasha Gandhi and Mahendra Thulung (Rudy) — took over the kitchen of Dank resto-bar in T Nagar.
If you have been a MasterChef fan — Indian or any other version — you’d be well-versed with the rounds, especially the one in which contestants are divided into teams, assigned to prepare a full-course meal and then present it to diners. This was the scene on Saturday noon at the restobar — albeit without the scores and time limit.
They were in the city to flag off their Tour de India food pop-up. Fans of the show and foodies came in droves to take part in the three-hour exquisite culinary experience planned by the trio. A few inquisitive eyes tried to get a sneak peek of the food being prepped, a few others managed clicking selfies with the chefs, who were busy shuttling between the kitchen and tables.
A hearty twist
Anticipating a long brunch ahead, I kept my eyes glued to the menu card. The five-course meal presented by the trio had a personal twist to Dank’s existing menu, using local condiments. All courses had vegetarian and non-vegetarian variants. Our meal opened with Arancini, a Sicilian staple. The deep-fried snack, stuffed with red rice, ghee, and cheese, came with accompaniments like fried basil, garlic podi and coconut mustard dip. The crispy texture matched with the cheesy ooze was an explosion of flavours. Setting our expectations high, next up was a pita bread stuffed with a tandoor kebab and served with Middle-Eastern lachha salad (made of onion, chat powder and lemon).
The non-vegetarian variant of the kebab had small chunks of chicken compactly packed into triangular pita pockets. Every bite found favour with our tongues and tummies. Next on the menu was a bao with a traditional Bhutanese chicken. The semi-gravy was placed on a lettuce in-between two slices of a bao and presented like a burger. While the baos were pillowy and mildly sweet, the filling was mildly spiced, assuring a long and lazy taste of the cosy afternoon.
No wonder when my favourite of the lot — black momo ravioli with chicken filling paired with peanut chutney and roasted tomato and garlic sauce — was served, I allowed the calories to pile on with lethargic grace. The nutty flavours of the peanut chutney and tanginess from tomato-garlic perhaps even did a little dance with every bite, as I kept my head bent with total focus. It wasn’t easy to emerge from this bao-wow without burping happily, especially when patience was the key ingredient as we waited for the dessert.
As the chefs hustled with the final touches while plating the sinful pleasures, we watched with popping eyes and hopping heart as a warm millet cake topped with light cream cheese, paired with pineapple sorbet and nut crumble, made its gentle way to our table. Ditching our not-so-immense reserve of willpower, we surrendered to this melt-inthe- mouth crumble, the taste of which lingers hours after the experience. “The plates were wiped clean and their eyes carried a sparkle while talking about the food. That’s all mattered to us,” said a joyous Natasha. After whipping up a storm in the kitchen for 100 plates of the five-course meal, the trio sat down for a free-wheeling chat with CE about their fondness for the city, working together as a team and their plans for Tour de India. Excerpts.
What were the factors that you considered while curating this menu?
Natasha: We wanted to present delicacies that would resonate with Chennaiites, by incorporating some local condiments. The first course had garlic podi as an accompaniment and the fourth course had a peanut chutney. Secondly, we shortlisted the most demanded items from our fans on social media platforms while keeping in mind our strengths. Abinas was good with kebabs, millet cake was my forte and Rudy’s speciality was bao. That’s how all the elements sat well together on the balanced menu we offered. Rudy: We’ve been planning for the food pop-up since last year. All this while, people have been seeing us on MasterChef and through live sessions on social media. So this was the opportunity to get on the field and give our best so people can relate to us better.
Tel l us about your team dynamics.
Natasha: We stayed together for four months during MasterChef. We are aware of each other’s strengths, weaknesses and specialities. Most importantly, we all know how the other person works under pressure. It was the trust factor that helped keep our nerves in check inside the kitchen.
If you were to create something unique with a south Indian ingredient, what would it be?
How would you present it? Natasha: I would love a dessert with curry leaves. A combination of curry leaves and chilli icecream would be fabulous. Abinas: I would make a barbecue sauce with podi and ghee, and dress it on grilled wings. Rudy: Rasam is a personal favourite. A dim sum with rasam instead of the usual soup would be something fun to attempt.
What do foodies expect these days?
Rudy: When I’m giving my cuisine, I share a brief description of what went into the making of a delicacy so that they can relate to it. Sometimes even they ask for it as each palate is different.
Natasha: People are aware of the ingredients and methods of preparation, with exposure to so much that’s available on social media. So I would prefer going around, checking on them and getting their feedback directly. It’s similar to the tasting session we had on MasterChef. People who eat our food here are the judges.
Abinas: While the technical aspect of food can be ignored at times, the emotional aspect is important. It’s your food that’s going to bring people back their memories of having eaten them from the hands of their grandmother or elsewhere. You need to explain to them for their better understanding.
What were your lessons from the pandemic-induced lockdown?
Natasha: I put out a 21-day recipe challenge. Online cooking classes kept me busy. Most importantly, I was able to promote my business, House of Millets, on social media.
Abinas: I opened a dessert bar in Bhubaneshwar. I also came out with an e-book titled Masala by Abinas.
Rudy: I had to shut down my restaurant Dallay in Chennai. I singlehandedly started taking orders for
home delivery. It was time to explore different business models.
What do you like about Chennai and its food scene?
Natasha: I love the idli and sambhar, and Murugan Idli shop. We also went to Kappa Chakka Kandhari.
Biryani too is definitely on our menu. Although we have a packed schedule, I’m sure we can spare
some time and there’s no compromise on food.
Rudy: The food scene in Chennai is multicultural but underrated.
Rudy: Tour de India is an important milestone in our career. We plan to travel around India and have food pop-ups. Next on the list is a two-day festival in Kolkata in February. I also want to take our Indian cuisine to a global platform.
Abinas: I’m working on opening a restaurant. It’s also a dream to promote Odisha’s cuisine.
Natasha: I want to make my glutenfree cakes to be available everywherein the country.