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'It's a huge honour winning MasterChef'

By ANITA AIKARA
Last updated on: August 02, 2021 07:53 IST
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IMAGE: Justin Narayan celebrates with Esther, his wife (then fiancee), and parents soon after wining MasterChef Australia Season 13.
Photographs: Kind courtesy Justin Narayan/Instagram and MasterChef Australia/Instagram

Justin Narayan, 27, looked up to international chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver as a child.

Through the MasterChef Australia Season 13 competition, he leaned towards his family, especially his mother, for inspiration.

Justin says his mom is his biggest inspiration and hands down the best cook he knows.

"She's taught me a lot about cooking, but it's how and why she cooks that's taught me the most about life," says Justin, a youth pastor in Australia.

Citing some of the lessons he learnt from her, he shares, "To serve people no matter who they are and where they come from.

"Even if you don't have a lot to offer, you still have something to bring to the table.

"When you make mistakes there's always time to fix them, and that no matter what life gives you, everything can be turned around, used for good and bring people together, even the stuff that you think can never be."

Throughout his time in the MasterChef kitchen, his Indian and Fijian heritage remained at the centre of his cooking. 

From starting to cooking at 13, inspired by the memorable meals cooked by his mother and patti (grandmother) to now cooking for his wife Esther, Justin tells Anita Aikara/Rediff.com about his MasterChef journey, why he was nicknamed Captain Consistency, the trip to India he took in 2017 and how he plans to help transform the life of slum kids in Mumbai.

Congratulations on winning MasterChef Australia Season 13 and marrying your sweetheart Esther soon after the competition. Looks like 2021 is meant to be your year.

It definitely feels that way. 2021 has been a fun year and hopefully this is just the start.

You got on Instagram this year itself. What took you so long?

Honestly, it was because of MasterChef. I thought it'd be a fun way to connect with people watching the show.

I don't know what took me so long to get on Instagram.

For me, it was quiet daunting as it is a brand new world with new use of skills.

I'm not big on technology, but it is definitely something I am learning about more.

Did having a social media presence help in your MasterChef journey?

I don't know if it particularly helped me in the journey, but it did give me a chance to connect with more people.

That is something I am passionate about doing, so in that regard, it definitely did help.

On the competition you once quoted Vin Diesel saying, 'It doesn't matter if you win by an inch or a mile.'
Does that phrase have even more meaning for you now given that you inched out finalist Pete Campbell by a point to win the title?

I like MasterChef because everyone leaves a winner.

It creates such a great platform for people to do what they want to do with food.

You'd have seen so many past contestants who haven't won the show yet have gone ahead to build their food dreams.

I got a little bit more money than him (Pete), but in terms of opportunities and what lies ahead, I think the world is big and bright for everyone.

IMAGE: Soon after the win, Justin posted some advice for his fans on social media.
'Back yourself. Go hard and hopefully you'll surprise yourself,' he shared.

Your win was such a proud moment for Indians across the globe.

It was a huge honour to represent my culture on a stage like that and win the title. It is massive; something I don't take lightly.

I want to continue to build upon that and keep putting my culture and Indian food on the map.

I'd like to do something significant in the food space and hopefully this is just the beginning.

Do you think your sense of humor and your casual, easy-go-lucky attitude helped you through the ups and downs along the MasterChef journey?

I am glad my attitude came across as quite casual, but I definitely do want to have fun in whatever I do in life.

One of my values, regardless of what happens in life, is that you can definitely control how you respond to it.

I always want to respond by trying to be grateful and making (the experience) fun and enjoyable for the people around me.

That's something I tried to do on the show and was able to pull off.

It also helped with my food and cooking as I ended up enjoying the experience more.

IMAGE: His mother's version of Chicken Jalfrezi.
The chicken was marinated in onion, garlic, ginger and then charred.
It was served with a tomato-based curry sauce and naan.

There was a turning point in your MasterChef journey when you went from being extremely casual to being really thoughtful and focused?

Well, all I wanted to do in the MasterChef Kitchen was to produce really good food and be at the top of the pack.

It was frustrating not being there and (judge) Jock Zonfrillo could see me struggle.

He knew there was potential in me and it was a little bit frustrating for him to watch.

After that point, I decided to do justice to the decision the judges had made at the start of the competition -- of giving me an apron and a shot at winning the title.

I had told them I'd work hard and unfortunately at that point in the competition, it wasn't showing on the plate.

But from that moment on, I made the decision that I'd make sure I did everything I could to make the results matter on the plate.

I would study a lot and practice new techniques post my day in the kitchen.

Why the nickname Captain Consistency? In hindsight, do you think being consistent helped you win the title?

Jock (Zonfrillo) was really kind to give me that nickname.

Being consistent definitely helped, but my goal was to consistently get better.

I just wanted to keep learning, progressing, trying to handle the pressure well, but at the same time having fun.

Right from the time you first walked into the MasterChef kitchen to lifting the trophy, how have you changed as a cook? And a person?

As a person, hopefully not too much, but in all the right ways.

My food has changed dramatically. I am a little more confident in my food and my cooking.

I'm still having fun so I am glad that hasn't changed.

I have definitely learned so much in terms of skill and knowledge -- just being able to execute ideas I have in my mind as I have the techniques available to back them up.

You did showcase a couple of Indian dishes along with a chicken curry and Chicken Jalfrezi, the recipe of which belongs to you mom.
How can one forget the fancy twist you gave Dal Bhat. Which part of India do you draw your inspiration from?

I don't know if it is a part of India that inspires me or just the food I grew up eating, which has South Indian roots.

Over time that (the food he grew up eating) changed with the influence of growing up in Fiji, and later Australia.

It is kind of the progression of what would have started in South India. That's where I trace it back.

Could you talk about the Indian flavours you grew up with?

During winter, we would have Dal Bhat with pickled chillies and a chutney.

Summer was about yogurt (curd) rice with more onions and a little bit of salt.

Something that would feature regularly are the curries, roti and chapattis.

I was very fortunate as my patti (grandmother) is a very good cook and so is my mom's side.

Both my parents have South Indian roots, but the last couple of generations were born and raised in Fiji.

You can trace my patti's roots back to Chennai, as for my tata (grandfather), he was an orphan so it is a little difficult, but he is still South Indian.

What is the food you love to keep going back to?

It is so funny that now that I am married, moved out of home and have my own place, it would be my mom's chicken curry, dal and chutney.

That would be the stuff I find comforting right now.

IMAGE: Justin gave a fancy twist to Dal Bhat in the MasterChef kitchen. 

Between Esther and you, who has taken over the cooking responsibilities?

Right now, I'd like to think of it as a joint venture between Esther and me, and hopefully we'll share the load equally.

I do find myself cooking a lot more, but that's because I enjoy it.

You began cooking at the age of 13. Who was your inspiration back then? Who is it today?

Back then it was chefs I would see on television like Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver and Heston Blumenthal. I'd try and recreate their dishes.

Today, it would be my mom and patti. It is a delight to be able to recreate one of their dishes, what they have been cooking and what I grew up eating.

My mother has always had such a generosity with her food.

I have seen her cook for people she loves, and I have also seen her cook for strangers she has never met.

She does it with the same level of excellence, love and affection.

I think that is something I have always felt really inspiring as it is her way of being able to love people and serve people.

That's something I want to do through my food as well.

You visited India in 2017. What did you like best about the country back then?

During that trip I visited Chennai, Hyderabad, Mumbai and Delhi.

I loved the culture, the scenery and even the people, who were so loving, accommodating and hospitable.

The food was absolutely insane. I loved visiting street vendors and stalls, going to people's houses and eating different things.

One of my favourite habits during that trip was waking up in the morning, going down to the corner store and grabbing some chai, dosa, idli and vada-sambar.

Wish I could still do that for breakfast. (Eating at small street-side stalls and people's homes) is the real India.

The five-star hotels cater to a Western palate and I could get the same stuff back in Australia.

One can't recreate the stuff you'll find in people's homes and it is so different. Also, it is probably healthier and better for you.

Every household would have their special spices or a unique way of cooking something. It is their specialty.

IMAGE: Justin would love to one day have a food truck or restaurant featuring the Indian flavours he grew up eating.

Tell me about your friend Biju Thampy, founder of Vision Rescue. How do you plan to support the work he does in India?

So Biju started out by just feeding children in Mumbai's slums. He would cook and feed them.

It kind of progressed more and more, and he realised just feeding children was a short term solution.

So he started to employ teachers and now he educates them.

He is setting up centres in slums where he feeds and educates the children and gives skills and jobs to their parents to try and run the family. He has helped thousands of kids now.

I am chatting with Biju and still need to formulate a plan of going forward.

Whatever venture I step out into in Australia, be it a restaurant or something like that, I'd love a small percentage of the proceeds of the income (from the food or from a certain dish) to go towards Vision Rescue.

Eventually I hope I can get over there and do something to keep highlighting his organisation or to help fund and support eliminate all the slums we see in India. That would be my ultimate goal.

What about talks of an Indian food truck?

My initial idea at the start of the MasterChef competition was to do a taco style food truck with Indian flavours.

That is something I'd still love to do. My taste have changed and progressed a fair bit through the competition, so it would be fun to do something in a similar vein.

Any tips for MasterChef aspirants? Especially on how to handle pressure in the kitchen?

I would just say enjoy as much as you can.

There is a lot of pressure and stress that comes into the kitchen, but it is a once in a lifetime opportunity.

So try and take a moment to enjoy it.

Your food journey has just begun. What's in store for you next?

I am still figuring it out. I'm planning to keep learning, working with some great chefs and produce.

I would love to start creating some content in the Australian entertainment space.

Hopefully it is something that highlights some really cool chefs and inspires people to cook.

You can watch MasterChef Australia Season 13 on Disney+ Hotstar Premium and Disney+ Hotstar VIP.

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ANITA AIKARA / Rediff.com