MasterChef India: Her cooking is worth a crore!
Rajul Hegde interviews Pankaj Bhadouria of Lucknow, the first-ever winner of MasterChef India.
Wife, mother-of-two and chef par excellence -- that's Pankaj Bhadouria for you.
This 38-year-old teacher from Lucknow had faith enough in her culinary skills that when an opportunity to star on the cooking game show came up, she gave up her job to focus on what she does best -- whip up a storm in the kitchen.
In an interview with rediff.com, Pankaj tells us all about her experience participating in MasterChef India, her spectacular win, what it was like interacting with celebrity judge and host Akshay Kumar and oh, yes -- she also has a couple of recipes to share with readers!
How does it feel to be India's first MasterChef winner?
It feels wonderful! It's as if I have carved a place for myself in the history of reality television by becoming India's first MasterChef. Having stormed a male bastion doubles the joy!
From teacher to MasterChef, what has the journey been like for you?
The journey has had its ups and downs. When I had to quit my job to particpate in the show, I was very upset. It was not just because of the uncertainty ahead, but also because I loved teaching and my students very much. Unknowingly, I would slip into 'teacher' mode and Akshayji would pull my leg about it! My training as a teacher helped me sail through many difficult moments. I was always able to finish a minute or two before time. I was systematic and could plan my work well. The discipline of the class was transferred to the kitchen. I could manage to work easily under stress and pressure. All these things helped me on my journey to winning the title.
Image: MasterChef India host and judge Akshay Kumar presents Pankaj Bhadouria with the prize cheque of Rs 1 crore
'Somehow, I could not see myself living with the regret of not trying out for the show all my life'
What made you decide to try out for the contest?
We were enjoying our summer vacation when we first saw the promo for the show, where Akshayji invited amateur cooks to participate. My kids got very excited and told me to go for it. They were the ones who motivated me to test myself. I had always been very passionate about cooking. I love trying out new things and experimenting with food. When this opportunity came my way, I thought it is only once in your life that you get an opportunity to fulfill your dreams. I could either take it with all the risks involved or not take it and regret my decision. Somehow I could not see myself living with that regret all my life, so I auditioned for the show and was selected.
What was Akshay Kumar like as a judge? Any nervous moments, memorable incidents you would like to share with us?
Personally, I feel no other Bollywood celeb could have done a better job than Akshayji in judging the show. That he knew a good deal about food was evident from his comments and it was obvious he could cook well on Day One itself, when he made the Khiladi Sizzler before us. But what impressed us even more was that he is a wonderful human being. He was there to help anybody who was in need. He was very humble and we never felt like we were working with such a great celebrity. He was just one of us, playing pranks with us and that was what won our hearts over.
There were definitely some moments when I was very nervous. I remember when at Boot Camp, I reached the top 10 but was not able to make it to the top five -- I felt extremely unsure of myself. But when I got to know the challenge in the next task, my confidence rebounded with double the speed!
Image: Pankaj's family turned up to support her on the sets -- it was her kids who insisted she participate
'I am humbled by all the love and affection, but I must confess that I am loving every minute!'
What, according to you, impressed the judges most about you and your cooking?
That is a question best answered by the judges themselves! I guess my discipline in the kitchen, my innovative line of thought, my ability to learn quickly and plan well did the trick for me.
How has MasterChef changed your life?
Life has taken a complete about-turn after winning. Earlier, my life revolved around my school and my family but now my horizon has definitely broadened. Along with the money has come a lot of name and fame. It has now become difficult for me to walk 10 paces in a mall without somebody or the other coming up to me for an autograph or to have a picture clicked! I am humbled by all the love and affection that has come my way, but I must confess that I am loving every minute of it! I also realise the responsibility I carry on my shoulders, being India's first MasterChef and pray that I am able to fulfill it and make my mark in the culinary world.
What do you plan to do with the winning amount (Rs 1 crore)?
Hand it over to hubby dear to take care of the mean matters! He has always handled the finances and I refuse to be bothered by them. I am so used to putting my demands before him and getting them fulfilled that I don't plan to change that at all. He will make the required investments and make sure that we have a good time and everything that we need.
Image: Pankaj interacts with the Khiladi during the show
Pankaj's best MasterChef recipe: Sweet Brown Chicken with Hot Garlic Noodles
Which of your dishes did the judges like the best? Can you share the recipe with us?
That would be Sweet Brown Chicken with Hot Garlic Noodles. Here's how to prepare it:
For Sweet Brown Chicken
- 200 gms boneless chicken breast (cut into strips)
- 2 tsps soya sauce
- 2 tsps oyster sauce
- Salt to taste
- 1 tsp black pepper powder
- 3 tsps sugar
- 2 tsps sesame oil
- 1 tsp cornflour (dissolved in a little water)
- 2 tsps refined oil
For Hot Garlic Noodles
- 250 gms noodles (boiled)
- 7-8 cloves of garlic (finely chopped)
- 2 tbsps Szechwan sauce
- Salt to taste
- 2 tbsps refined oil
For the Vegetables
- 1 tbsp refined oil
- 1 tbsp garlic (finely chopped)
- 1/2 tbsp ginger (minced)
- 1 small: green zucchini (cut into cubes)
- 1 small yellow zucchini (cut into cubes)
- 5-6 broccoli florets
- 1 red capsicum (cut into cubes)
- 1 yellow capsicum (cut into cubes)
- 1 cup tomato puree
- 1/2 cup vegetable stock
- 1 tsp soya sauce
- 1 tsp oyster sauce
- Salt to taste
- Black pepper powder to taste
- 1 tbsp cornflour slurry
- 1/2 bunch pak choy (Chinese cabbage)
- Marinate the chicken with 1 tsp soya sauce, oyster sauce, salt, pepper, 1 tsp sugar and 1 tsp sesame oil for 25-30 minutes.
- Heat remaining oil and toss the chicken well. Remove.
- Caramelise remaining sugar and add the chicken, remaining soy sauce, then toss.
- Add the cornflour paste to add the final glaze and remove.
- For the hot garlic noodles, heat the oil in a wok, add chopped garlic and saut till pink. Add Szechwan chilly paste and saut for a few seconds.
- Season the sauce and then add noodles to it. Toss noodles well till they get well-coated with sauce.
- For the vegetables, heat oil, add garlic and ginger and saut for a few seconds. Toss in green and yellow zucchini and broccoli and saut for two minutes, till vegetables soften.
- Add red and yellow capsicum and saut another one minute.
- Mix in tomato puree, stock, soy sauce, oyster sauce, salt and pepper and bring it to a boil. Add cornstarch slurry and simmer it. Finally add the chopped pak choy and remove.
- To serve, put noodles in one half and vegetables in the other half of a bowl. Place some chicken on the noodles.
Image: Hard at work: Pankaj goes to work on MasterChef
'It was the worst kitchen disaster I've ever faced!'
What are the top tips to ensure you never go wrong with a recipe?
To ensure that you never go wrong with a recipe:
- Ensure that you clearly understand it.
- Have all the ingredients required close at hand.
- Plan your workflow well.
- Use the quantities stated.
- Keep tasting as you cook and never serve anything at the table that you have not tasted yourself.
Which is the worst kitchen disaster you have ever faced?
We were in Mumbai, at a friend's place when I decided to cook a paneer dish for them. After I had finished, I switched off the gas and left it in the cooking pan itself. My friend and I decided to go to the local market and hoped to be back in an hour's time. Meanwhile, my hubby stayed back at home, waiting for a friend to return from the office. About 20 minutes after we left, he called me to say that he could smell something burning in the kitchen and asked what he should do. I realised that instead of switching off the gas burner, I had reduced the flame and my Paneer Butter Masala was burning! It was very embarrassing indeed and nothing short of a disaster for me.
You have always been experimenting with recipes -- what is the worst thing you have ever prepared?
As a teenager, I was once trying to make chocolate brownies and I thought of adding my own 'twist' to them. I don't know where I went wrong or what I did, but they were crumbling away and had acquired a peculiar burnt flavour! That day I swore I would never be overconfident and follow a recipe to the tee.
Image: Pankaj is delighted with the fruits of her labour -- but she says it's not always easy!
'I'd love to have Smt. Pratibha Patil and Shah Rukh Khan over for dinner!'
If you could invite five people to dinner, who would they be?
The list would be headed by my dear departed parents -- for them to come and see that their love for food still lives strong in their daughter. My list would also include the first lady president of the country, Smt. Pratibha Patil and Shah Rukh Khan. And I would love to invite Akshay Kumar to sample my food once again.
What kind of food do you love cooking? Which is your favourite recipe from MasterChef?
I am a little partial to Chinese food and my favourite recipe from the show would be our winning recipe from the Oriental Challenge -- Hot Garlic Noodles with Sweet Brown Chicken.
Which is your favourite cuisine when dining out?
I enjoy eating Chinese food and Mughlai food and Punjabi food and South Indian food and...the list is endless! I just love food and eating out!
What is the most common kitchen mistake people make?I believe it is not tasting the food before serving it. If only they would do that, they would be able to avoid many a disaster at the table.
Image: Guest judge Farah Khan interacts with Pankaj on MasterChef
'Lucknow, besides its food, is also known for its 'tehzeeb''
What is the difference between cooking at home and on a professional level?
The difference lies at various levels. Presentations, portion size, colours, textures matter a lot at a professional level. These are things we usually ignore while cooking at home.
What advice would you give amateur cooks or people who want to appear on the next season of MasterChef?
I would like them to understand what they are venturing into. They should also be able to think out of the box and be innovative.
What was your experience like in Mumbai, since you come from Lucknow? What did you think of the people here?
Lucknow, besides its food, is also known for its tehzeeb. So one thing that I missed in Mumbai was the language! But I found the people of Mumbai very simple, very friendly and ready to help anyone and everyone. I was surprised to see how safe women are on the roads even late at night.
Image: Moment of truth: Pankaj faces off against first runner-up and fellow Lucknowi Jayanandan Bhaskar
A Lucknowi specialty: Hariyali Tava Fish
Can you share a famous Lucknowi recipe with us?
Lucknow's famous Mughlai food needs to be experienced before one tries a hand at preparing it. Here the 'saalan' or the gravies are very smooth, like silk. The play is more on flavours and aroma. Different cuts of meats are used for different preparations. Cooking is treated like an art and recipes are zealously guarded and have been passed down through generations. Here is one of my personal favourites, which is highly appreciated.
Hariyali Tava Fish
- 250 gms boneless fish fillets
- 50 gms coriander leaves
- 4-5 green chillies
- 8-10 mint leaves
- 50 ml lemon juice
- 1 tsp cumin seeds
- 1 tsp aniseed (saunf)
- 1/2 tsp mustard seeds
- 1/2 tsp fenugreek seeds
- 1/2 tsp nigella seeds(onion seeds)
- Salt to taste
- 1 tbsp oil
- Clean the fish fillets and marinate with a little salt and half the lemon juice.
- Clean the coriander leaves and the mint leaves. Make a fine paste of coriander leaves, mint leaves, green chillies and the remaining lemon juice.
- Rub the paste over the fillets and marinate for 15 minutes. Dry-roast the cumin, aniseed, mustard, fenugreek and nigella seeds in a pan till golden-brown. Cool and dry-grind to a coarse powder.
- Heat a nonstick pan and spread half the oil. When the oil heats up, put the fish pieces on the pan. Press each piece on the pan. Sprinkle the dry roasted powder on the fish. When the sides start turning white, turn the fish fillets over. Cook for a minute or till the fish is done and remove.
- Serve with onion rings pickled with vinegar.
Image: Winner's circle: Akshay Kumar presents Pankaj with her medal