He's the lovable former police officer who captured hearts across the nation when he was crowned winner of the 2018 series of MasterChef Australia. Now, the Singapore-born Aussie kitchen whiz has stepped out of the reality TV frying pan and into the fire, running his popular restaurant, Gaja by Sashi. So, with the Diwali holiday just around the corner, we caught up with the inimitable father of two to find out what he's been up to since his silver screen debut, and how he'll be celebrating this year's festival of lights.
Five minutes with Sashi Cheliah
What is your favourite thing to cook for family?
Lamb biryani – that is one of our house favourites.
How did you get into cooking?
I was born and raised in Singapore and, coming from a very traditional Indian family, they don’t allow boys in the kitchen. I was always the curious one – I liked to see what my mum and aunt were doing and how they cooked so I used to sit in the kitchen and watch them. It wasn't until I was probably 14 or 15 that I actually tried cooking for the first time.
What would be in your dream kitchen?
I actually just built a new place in Mt Barker, in Adelaide, and the kitchen is massive. It has a five-burner stove, 900mm oven, induction cooktop on the side and a big island bench. Space is very important to me - I need a lot of room for my spices.
Must-have cooking appliance/utensil?
I don’t use a lot of fancy equipment. I still like simple, old-school cooking so I would always have to have a wok, saucepan and pot.
Three ingredients you always have in your fridge?
Chilli, lemongrass and coriander.
If you could invite anyone to dinner – who would you have?
I have always wanted to meet Indian actor Kamal Haassan. I have already met my other idol, Gordon Ramsay. It was amazing. Getting to cook for him was the best moment in my MasterChef journey. My sons were quite taken with Nigella (Lawson) so i'd like to invite her, too.
Chocolate or vanilla?
Chocolate. I love chocolate.
Tea or coffee?
Favourite Diwali memory growing up?
Diwali is massive at home. We always start the night before, preparing and decorating the house, making sweets and biscuits - like pineapple tarts and sweet crepes - and preparing the curry paste and all the condiments for the following day.
How will you be celebrating Diwali this year?
I like to start the day with a very good breakfast and a prayer. On Diwali day everything must be new. It's a celebration of good over evil, darkness over light, so we buy brand new clothes, do prayers and start the day with sweet food. My family is a very big family. There are seven of us – siblings alone – plus a very big extended family, so it's always a big day of cooking and eating. We usually take turns to go to relatives' houses and there can be as many as 60-70 people. But they come in waves – they don’t come all at once!
Tell us a little about Gaja by Sashi.
Gaja is my very first food venture. We're only two and a half months in but I have already learnt a lot about business. I have never been in hospitality before and the food industry is not as easy as I thought! But serving people is something I have always wanted to do and the love that people are showing and the support I have had so far – I really appreciate it.
What is your cooking philosophy?
My mottos are 'less is more' and 'flavour, flavour, flavour'.
Best cooking tip you ever received?
Your mood reflects on the food you serve. If you are happy, the food will be delicious. I am always telling my guys that the environment in the kitchen should always be happy.