Sandeep Pandit was born in Kashmir and spent many years of his life in Bangalore. He studied chemical engineering, followed it up with an MBA degree, and in 2016, relocated to Australia for a job in the IT sector. But what won him worldwide fame had nothing to do with his professional life. It was his amateur interest in cooking that catapulted him on the world stage.

Earlier this year, Pandit was selected as a contestant for MasterChef Australia 11, one of the most popular cooking reality shows globally. He managed to awe the judges with his culinary offerings from various parts of India, getting perfect scores in almost every round, and finally winning place among the top-10 contestants of the season. Just as he emerged as a potential winner of the show, a back injury brought his journey to an abrupt end.

Pandit had always been a fan of the show and called his experience there as a “dream come true”. And why not? Judges Gary Mehigan, George Calombaris, Matt Preston, and celebrity guest chef Rick Stein had in no time become fans of Pandit’s cooking, describing his dishes as “exquisite” and “damn good”.

With delicacies like Rogan Josh, Muji Chetin, Yakhni, Kahwa, Kabargah, Tehr and more, Pandit tried, during his time on the show, to bring the rich culinary heritage of Kashmir into the limelight. It was heartening to see how close he is to his roots, considering he was just eight when his family had to feel to Bangalore in 1990, as part of the larger Kashmiri Pandit exodus.

Masala Lobster, one of the dishes made by Pandit on the show.

But this was also when he started spending more time in the kitchen. Pandit recalled, “For me, cooking happened when I was quite young—eight years old and my mother would help me with the basics, teaching me how to cook daal, vegetables and rice. So what started as a necessary chore to help my mother, became my happy place in my then troubled world. Those years marked my beginning in this field: entering the kitchen and learning so much from not just my mother but also my grandmothers.”

Though he always wanted to take the culinary route professionally, he ended up choosing a safer career option: graduation in chemical engineering followed by an MBA. Then Australia happened, and then, one day, MasterChef.

Talking about his experience on the show, Pandit said, “It is unbelievable for a simple man like myself to have come such a long way from watching MasterChef Australia on television from Bangalore to actually becoming a part of it. Above that, I think it has been a humbling experience—I got to work with some of my heroes from the culinary industry and I’ve learnt so much from them. I feel privileged to have gotten this opportunity to represent India and Indian food on a global platform.”

Unfortunately, Pandit suffered a back injury sometime last month, which made it difficult for him to participate in some crucial rounds and challenges of show, affecting his overall performance. He said, “My back injury pretty much broke my spirit. My focus, from cooking, went to the trivialities of being careful with my back, my posture, etc. And this went on for quite a while. I was on painkillers and was given quite a few injections to numb the back pain. This took my focus away from food. This competition is of the highest of standards, and you need your mind and body working in sync to perform here. This was something I struggled with.”

Nonetheless, Pandit managed to showcase the best of Indian dishes on the show—from Kashmir to parts of South India. Judges and viewers appreciated his knowledge about the history of his native land’s food.

For Pandit, cooking is not just a hobby; he calls it his life. There are many personalities from the culinary world who have inspired him, including Vikas Khanna, Vicky Ratnani, Tarla Dalal and Sanjeev Kapoor. Pandit said, “The legendary Sanjeev Kappor Ji made me believe that I, too, could make good food. I actually felt that he was speaking to me through his show, Khana Khazana.” Among international chefs, Gary Mehigan became Pandit’s culinary hero and later his judge on MasterChef.

On the show, Pandit spoke a lot about the need to preserve traditional Indian dishes. So does he think the original flavours of Indian food are getting lost in the age of fusion cuisines? “I believe that India, which is known worldwide for its variety of spices and herbs, has some of the most diverse, regional and traditional cuisines to offer. Living in Kashmir in my early years and then moving to Bangalore, I myself came across so many dishes that I learnt and still improvise upon when I cook. In this age of fusion cooking, I believe we are getting innovative, but at the same time I hope, and more than that I am sure, we won’t forget our traditional dishes because they define our food, our culture and our love for both.”

In the future, Pandit wants to focus more cooking. “At the moment, I am looking at collaborating with like-minded food ambassadors and restaurateurs who wish to or do talk my language of food. I am hoping that I am able to continue my journey on television, which I think is a very strong medium through which Indian food can further reach new places. And in a not so distant future, hopefully, I wish to work on my own food stall, Barbeque and Biryani. And also on my recipe of garam masala. This is the recipe of my family from my early days in the kitchen, which I have also used in some of my dishes at MasterChef. Dishes that were greatly appreciated.”

MasterChef Australia Season 11 will premiere on Star World on 16 September

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