The best part about making mistakes in life is that, if you take it the right way, you can learn and grow from it. Most of the time, mistakes are the starting point rather than the end. I was given a wonderful opportunity in Masterchef Australia – the number one cooking competition in the world. Making top 24 was the most exciting feeling in the world. Then I stumbled, made mistakes and didn’t make the best of the opportunity that I was provided. But it does not change the reason I went for it in first place.
The main reason for joining Masterchef was to go down the path of self-discovery and creativity. I have cooked at home for the last few years but I was looking for my identity as a cook. What kind of food excites me or motivates me as a cook and what are my strengths and weaknesses? Unfortunately it was cut short but it gave me time to think about the kind of food I have been cooking all along. Throughout the whole process observing the judges, guest chefs and other amazingly talented contestants, talking to them, seeing them in action has definitely given me a lot to reflect upon.
As far as the creative process goes, I currently work in the highly demanding corporate world. It’s a lot of hard work, day in day out. I love what I do and people tell me I am good at it. But I was feeling something is missing and I realised it was the excitement and joy of creating something. Cooking gave me that creative satisfaction. I still remember the first time I made soufflé or fresh pasta or ice cream from scratch. It was exciting! It was exhilarating! I felt like an artist trying to draw on a blank canvas. For me to be able to share that joy and excitement with others especially with the people we care about is the essence of food.
In my daily life I don’t get much time to focus on food. As part of the Masterchef experience I have bought so many books (my wife is complaining how much space I am taking up at home), read a lot of articles and watched a lot of documentaries. From my limited knowledge and exposure, I have realised the kind of food that stands out from the rest, gives satisfaction to the cook and his/her customer, is the kind of food that has soul. By soul I mean – flavours, techniques and most importantly memories.
Till now I have mainly cooked dishes based on other’s recipes. I have come up with few dishes of my own. But these are also focused on what’s out in the market, what’s current and what most people can understand. Things like Molecular Gastronomy excite me. But there are thousand other doing it. I can make a killer ice-cream but so can a thousand others. Amidst all of this how do I find my own identity? How do I find soul for my food?
If we have to put our cuisine in the menu of a modern restaurant, we have to refine it
The answer was in front of my eyes all along. I just needed a trigger point. My Masterchef experience has been just that. It’s digging into my memories, it’s exploring food that I have grown up eating from my childhood.
One of the best chefs in the world, Massimo Bottura (what an inspiring man!) talks about how his best food comes from his childhood memories. I guess when we look for inspiration; we look at our own lives, we look at stories from people in our lives. Or we look at history and what’s happening around us.
So what’s next for me? Everyone I meet nowadays asks me this question. I have thought about doing more work experiences or opening up a small gourmet ice cream business or even taking a business risk by opening up a restaurant. But also I don’t want to give in to the pressure of doing something for the sake of ‘doing something’. First I want to up-skill myself, whether in the form of formal trainings or casual work experience. But what I really want to do is play with flavours that I have grown up with and use it in a different way.
Bangladeshi cuisine is not renowned around the world in general. Normally people won’t go around looking for a Bangladeshi restaurant other than the ones that hail from the land or have somehow experienced the magic of our food. It constantly gets mistaken with Indian cuisine abroad (Indian cuisine has its own identity issues in western world). The uniqueness of our cuisine is mostly unknown to the rest of the world.
It’s not only about the curries we cook or the red lentil soup or Kacchi Biryani. It has so much diversity and uniqueness varied between different regions of the country. Our use of mustard oil in our bhorta’s (predominantly mashed veggies or fish), how we have our shutki (Dried fish) or how we cook a delicious slightly bitter curry with meat and Shatkora (dried oranges) are just little examples of it.
The problem is, we can’t just introduce our cuisine to the rest of the world in its crude form. Please don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with a flavourful, warm and hearty meal. It’s finger licking delicious. But if we have to put our cuisine in the menu of a modern restaurant, we have to refine it. We have to use techniques that the rest of the culinary world have developed over hundreds of years and re-introduce our flavours.
So for next couple of years of my food journey, I will mostly focus on exploring Bangladeshi cuisine. I will be experimenting with flavours, techniques and presentation (that’s going to be the most challenging one). I want to share my journey with you – not only the success stories but also the failures. Through the process hopefully I will be able to share my food with you, whether in the form of a pop-up restaurant, recipes, stories, pictures and videos on my social media. Whether I will be successful or not that’s a different story, but I will give it my best shot. May be it will inspire some of you to bring a change.
I will finish with a small story. When I first shared the news of being in the Masterchef top 24 with my cousin (she has been brought up abroad), she immediately responded – “Please tell me you didn’t cook curry and rice at Masterchef!’ As if it was a sin. When I told her that I cooked a modern dessert, she was happy. You could see that she wasn’t proud of our cuisine. Deep down maybe I wasn’t too.
What I realised is that we have lost a generation (or two) in terms of Bangladeshi food. We haven’t tried to stay relevant for them. They can’t walk into a refined Bangladeshi restaurant with their friends and enjoy the soul of our food. Let’s change that, we owe it to them!