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Meet the chef of Chennai's newest Asian restaurant

MasterChef Australia Season 10 winner Sashi Cheliah opens a restaurant serving the unique Peranakan cuisine with bold flavours

Chef Sashi Cheliah
Chef Sashi Cheliah

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There’s a lot on Singapore-born, Adelaide-based chef Sashi Cheliah’s plate right now. Apart from travelling the world and showcasing his culinary skills at pop-up restaurants, he opened the doors of his much-anticipated restaurant Pandan Club at T Nagar in Chennai this week. He was the winner of MasterChef Australia Season 10 where the judges nicknamed him 'king of flavours.' The globe-trotting chef has roots in Tamil Nadu, and his grandparents hail from Madurai.

Last week, he was in Mumbai with World On A Plate, an international food festival, to curate a special dinner at Nawab Saheb, The Westin Mumbai Powai Lake. Cheliah spoke about his earliest food memories, challenges in the ever evolving restaurant business and growing his own vegetables in the near future.

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You are launching Pandan Club in Chennai. Why did you choose this city, and what can we expect from the menu?
Though Chennai has a massive traditional food culture, the city is also open to experimental food and flavours. Pandan Club will be serving Peranakan cuisine, which will be a first for India. Peranakans are people from China who adopted Malay culture. So the food has Malay flavours with Chinese fermentation. People will be extremely intrigued by the dishes we will be serving using ingredients never seen or heard before in India. Some of these include buah kelauk which is fermented black nut, candle nut a relative of Macadamia nuts, gula melaka a type of palm sugar, calamansi a citrus fruit and fermented soya bean paste. There will be unusual flavour combinations such as chicken wings with shrimp paste. Basically expect a lot of bold and umami flavours. We also have some cocktails, with lemongrass, pandan leaves and blue pea flowers.

Who are the people you are partnering for this project?
You need a strong team in place when launching a restaurant overseas. We are a team of six people - two of my partners are from Singapore and three from Chennai itself. One of the partners, Sandesh Reddy, from Chennai is a very popular restaurateur.

What are things one needs to keep in mind while opening a restaurant in 2022?
The restaurant industry has been one of the worst hit by the pandemic. So restaurateurs have to be more cautious than ever before about their spending. While attention to detail and giving a great experience to the customers will still be a priority the frivolities are now being phased out. So no more flying in ingredients from Europe or Japan if the cuisine doesn’t demand it. Sourcing locally is the need of the hour. All the pottery at Pandan Club is from Pondicherry while the teak wood furniture too is locally made.

There’s a huge focus on Asian flavours and food around the world. What’s driving this?
There was a time when people only thought of Chinese food as Asian. Now that is changing and people are veering towards Thai, Indonesian as well as Vietnamese cuisine. There’s a lot of experimentation happening within Asian food. This cuisine is getting extremely popular the world over due to the freshness, aromatics and bold flavours. There is a kick to the dishes and people simply love it.

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What’s your food philosophy?
I’m all about flavours and it’s something that I pay a lot of attention to. My cooking is very rustic and bold on spices. Having said that, I believe food should appeal to all five senses. Besides tasting good, the dish must also look and smell good.

The last two years have been one of the toughest for the restaurant business. How was it for you personally?
It was definitely a tough time. We had launched our restaurant Gaja By Sashi in Adelaide only four months prior to the pandemic. To have to shut and reopen was very stressful. But there were a lot of learnings too. We streamlined most of our processes and cut back on unnecessary luxuries. Labour was a massive issue for us in Australia. In fact we were down to the basics with just four people on the job and me on the floor doing everything myself. We also launched Gaja Express a delivery only service in Adelaide, Australia.

What are your earliest food memories?
It’s watching my family cook and eating my mother’s lamb biryani made with traditional spices, as well as lemongrass and pandan leaves. The strongest push was when we migrated from Singapore to Australia. I was craving Asian flavours which just weren't the same as we relished growing up. This worked as a catalyst to fuel my passion for cooking. Later in life cooking became a stress buster after sweating it out in the prison. The smiles that my food brought was what never let me stray away from my passion for cooking.

What’s a typical meal at the Cheliah home?
Back home we are big on flavours. There is no concept of delicately spicing or flavouring our dishes. Usually it’s a blend of dishes such as South Indian rasam, Malaysian sambal and Chinese stir fry. Simple and fuss free yet so flavourful.

What’s the one tip you would like to share with people who are starting to cook?
It’s more of a philosophy rather than a tip, but I would say if you don't try, you don't know what you are missing.

What’s the food scene in Australia today? How popular is Indian food there?
Indian food is a staple for take away in Australia. They love Asian flavours but with a modern Australian take to it.

Are your sons Marcus and Ryan as passionate about cooking as you are?
Marcus loves eating and Ryan enjoys cooking and baking. He was also in Junior MasterChef in Australia.

What’s the biggest food trend you see coming? 
Sustainability is the biggest trend right now with chefs even growing their own vegetables. At Pandan Club we are in talks with a local farm to grow our own vegetables, even the ones we are importing right now. No wastage is another trend I see getting bigger and bigger. At Pandan Club we even turn the chicken skin into a nibble. The bones go into the stock while fish is served as a whole, never filled.

From a prison guard to a MasterChef winner, television host, restaurateur, cookbook author…What next?
I don’t mind exploring new opportunities. The adrenalin gives me a great rush. In the future I want to get into food production in a big way and also launch my own line of merchandise. After all, chefs should look great even when they are cooking!

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