What a difference two years makes. Singapore-born, Adelaide-based prison officer Sashi Cheliah, a father of two, had big dreams of becoming a chef when he signed up for the 2018 season of reality TV show MasterChef.

Never anticipating he’d win, he went on to take home the top prize with the biggest score ever recorded in 10 seasons.

By the time he joined Metricon to celebrate Diwali last year – the beloved Hindu festival of lights symbolising the triumph over darkness and ignorance – he had opened a Melbourne pop-up, Gaja by Sashi.

One year later, Sashi returned to celebrate Diwali with Metricon again. We partied in style at our Signature by Metricon Somerset show home, which is perfect for entertaining large groups. There was a cooking demonstration by the Masterchef Sashi himself (his recipes are below and they taste amazing), as well as an interactive performance from Bollywood Dancers who taught us their moves, a beautifully lit up home decorated by the team at Lumi Lighting, and Diwali candles given out to all families who attended.

 
Before the event, we chatted to Sashi about his preparations to open his first restaurant in his beloved hometown, Adelaide.

Can you believe the journey you’ve been on?
It’s like a dream. A lot of times I wake up and think, ‘is it real? So far I haven’t stopped, but my family has really supported me, and that has kept me going.

Preparing to open Gaja by Sashi must be stressful? Was Diwali cancelled this year?
Ha. No. Diwali was really good. We went over to a friend’s place and had a great time. Everything has to stop. It’s all about food, friends and family. Whatever problems you have throughout the year, for that one day you let loose and forget all about it. But I will say I’m glad it fell on a Sunday this year…

How did the Melbourne pop-up prepare you for opening your restaurant?
I joined MasterChef to gauge whether I was ready for this. Since the show, the pop-up has given me the confidence that I am in the right place, doing what I love. I also spent a year practising with events like pop-ups at cricket matches and traveling to South Africa, Malaysia, India and Singapore.

How did the pressure in the pop-up kitchen compare to MasterChef?
On MasterChef, the pressure is for an hour or two maximum. But during the pop-up, there was a queue from the minute you opened. We were serving something like 500 people a day, non-stop. On top of cooking, you have to understand a lot about the laws and rules, the safety practices. So far I’m managing to cope pretty well, thank god

Did you focus on the new kitchen design, or are you involved in all aspects of the Adelaide build?
I’m involved in every element. I wanted a venue with a big, empty space so I could create everything from scratch. We managed to get an amazing spot at 86 Pirie Street with full-height glass windows, so everyone can see everything that’s happening in the kitchen. The design concept is old colonial Singapore. 

Tell us about the thought process behind your menu?
I've kept it very versatile so that it can be Vietnamese, Thai, Indian, Chinese or Malay. I think a lot of people will be very excited about trying my duck leg Kaeng Ped Pett Yang curry. It’s the only dish I’ve taken from my time on MasterChef.



What surprised you most about the build?
Everything. Haha. When it comes to designing something on paper, it might look pretty straightforward, but actually putting that into the space. Well, there were a lot of things that didn't go to plan. We had a lot of electrical issues, and I had to do some plumbing too. That was something that I never thought I’d be involved in. So from being a prison officer to becoming a chef, now I’m like a tradie too.

Is it great to share the joy of Diwali with new people?
So much so. Last year at the Metricon event, I was blown away by how excited everyone was. We had a splendid time.

What are you most excited about in the year to come?
Of course the restaurant opening up, and I’ve also just launched a range of products available in Woolworths Australia-wide. Just today, my son brought them to school to show his friends haha.

What does your family think about you being a celebrity?
They’re coping pretty well. My wife’s been working very hard too, supporting me in the business and at the other end, making sure everything is running smoothly at home. They are very proud, and it’s nice to see the kids enjoying the experience.

Learn to cook Sashi’s tasty Diwali meals by following the recipes below.

Sashi's Semolina Pancake with Smoked Chicken Tikka
Sashi's Payasam Crème brulee

Semolina Pancake with Smoked Chicken Tikka

Makes 20 serves

Ingredients

Semolina Pancake

  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 300g coarse semolina
  • 1/2 tsp ground turmeric
  • 40g fresh coriander, finely chopped
  • 2 green chillies, finely chopped
  • 2 tsp salt
  • Vegetable oil (for brushing)

Smoked Chicken Tikka

  • 1 kg boneless chicken thigh, diced
  • 8 tbsp yogurt
  • 2 tbsp ginger and garlic paste
  • 2 tbsp smoked paprika
  • 1 tbsp salt
  • 2 tsp chilli powder
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 2 tsp garam masala
  • 1 tsp ground turmeric
  • 1 tsp ground black pepper
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 4 tbsp oil

Garnish

  • Micro coriander
  • Fried shallot
  • Finger lime

How to make the Smoked Chicken Tikka

  1. Mix all the ingredients and marinate for 4 hours.
  2. In a large pan, cook the chicken over medium heat for 15-20 minutes until the chicken is cooked through. Do not add additional water - the tikka needs to be dry.
  3. To enhance the flavour, try out the Indian smoking method – known as dhungar. Place a small metal container in the frying pan with a small piece of hot coal. Add a dollop of ghee on the coal and quickly cover the frying pa. Keep covered and smoke the chicken for 5 minutes.

How to make the Semolina Pancake

  1. Combine all the ingredients except the oil in a mixing bowl and add 300ml water to make a batter. The batter should have a thick, custard-like consistency. Leave to stand for 10 minutes.
  2. Place a flat pan over a low heat and lightly brush the surface with oil. Using a 6 cm ring cutter or mould, pour about 30g batter and spread it out with the back of spoon. Cover the pancake and cook the pancake in its steam for 2-3 minutes.
  3. Remove the ring cutter and flip the pancake over. Cook it for 1-2 minutes more, until both sides are golden in colour.
  4. Remove the pancake and wrap it in foil to keep warm while you cook the remaining batter.
  5. To assemble, place one pancake with a spoonful of smoked chicken tikka and garnish.

Payasam Crème brulee

Makes 20 serves

Ingredients

  • 4 cups thickened cream
  • ¼ tsp saffron
  • 1 tsp cardamom powder
  • 1 tbsp rose water
  • ½ cup caster sugar
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 50g ground pistachio
  • 100g boiled sago

Method

  1. In a large pot, mix cream, saffron, cardamom powder and rose water. Bring to a boil over a medium heat.
  2. in a separate mixing bowl whisk sugar and egg yolk until thick and pale.
  3. Add the hot cream mixture a little at a time to the egg mixture until well combined.
  4. Add pistachio and boiled sago to the mixture and stir.
  5. Use a ladle to pour roughly 60 mL of the mixture into ramekins.
  6. Place the ramekins into a baking tray and half fill the tray with hot water.
  7. Bake the for 45mins at 160°C
  8. Remove the tray from the oven, and the ramekin from the tray. Allow the crème brulee cool.

Sprinkle a layer of sugar onto the crème brulee and use a blow torch to caramelise the sugar on top.

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