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When Nandini Anant arrived in the United States 7 years ago, she did not even know how to boil rice. The New Jersey resident taught herself to cook watching food shows on television and experimenting on her husband. After a stint in the pharmaceutical industry, Anant opted to be a stay-at-home mom to her two daughters and continue her culinary adventures. This year, she auditioned successfully to be a contestant on Master Chef, the competitive cooking reality show that airs on FOX.
Master Chef is judged by chef, television personality and restaurateur Gordon Ramsay together with restaurateur and vineyard owner Joe Bastianich and Chef Graham Elliot.
What is Gordon Ramsay really like? He seems terrifying on TV.
Going into the competition I was freaked out. He [Ramsay] seemed so intimidating. It came as a shock that all three judges were very nice to me. Gordon Ramsay is more of a flirt. Behind the scenes he wants to get the best out of everyone. I think [his attitude] is just an act. I did not see him be rude to anyone.
Tell us about the audition process. What did you need to do to be able to get in front of the judges?
In November 2010 I heard about the open auditions for Master Chef in New York City from a friend. I preregistered to get in line on a Sunday morning at the Flatotel, which is where the auditions were being held. I went in at 6 a.m. in the morning because I didn’t want to stand in line. I managed to get in the first batch, though the room was packed by the time the auditions began. I believe there were 50,000 applicants countrywide who auditioned for the first open call.
For the audition they ask you to bring the best dish that you can present. I went with my favorite paneer dish, Paneer Pasanda. I stuffed the spiced paneer in a red bell pepper with the cap on.
There were about 30 of us in the first batch. We were given three minutes to plate our dish. It was a bit nerve-wracking but I managed somehow. A chef from California came around tasting the dishes. She sampled mine and said “You cooked curry for me!” She found it delicious, and talked to me about my background. In 10 minutes they had made their decision. Out of my batch of 30 six got in.
But the dish is not enough to get you on the show. After the initial tasting I had to go through a producer interview and an on-camera audition. That narrowed it down to three in our batch.
Then they asked me to do a home video about me and my family. I sent it to them and they informed me that I had passed that level as well. I guess you need to be able to talk in front of the lights and be entertaining. Around February I found out I’d been selected to be in the top 100 participants who present their dishes to the final judges and was flown to Los Angeles for the finals.
Your signature dish was Spicy Egg Curry with Cashew Peas Pilaf and Pomegranate Raita. What made you pick this particular dish?
I was born in Kerala and grew up in Cochin. Egg curry is a staple in Kerala. My mom made it a lot and it was a memorable dish. I figured it would be a new concept since people out here cannot imagine egg in a curry. I felt Gordon Ramsay would absolutely like it.
You write in your blog that you did not learn cooking till after you were married. How were you able to replicate your flavors when you never cooked it yourself?
In India if you tell your family you want to cook for a living, your mom will say, “Do you want to be a maid?” My mother never gave me a chance to cook. Since she also worked outside the home, my grandmother was the one who cooked for the family. Whenever I could I would stand next to her and watch her cook, watch her toast the spices and grind them. I think [my passion for cooking] was always there, buried in me. When I came here, my mother sent me my grandmother’s recipe book and I tried to replicate the dishes she used to make.
Is your food informed by your experiences in the United States? Are there fusion elements?
Very much. Cooks in the Indian restaurants here are so cream-and butter-intensive. Given the obesity epidemic in the United States, mine is a healthier vegetarian concept of cooking. My message is moderation and balance. Instead of cream, use milk—it will give you the same effect. I also do a lot of baking. If you want to eat healthy you can always add some olive oil and spices to vegetables and throw them in the oven and you will get the same effect [as pan frying them]. I also throw in nuts like walnuts. My sauces are usually yogurt-based with basil and cilantro. I am also experimenting with tempeh and seitan which are good substitutes for meat. [Seitan is a form of wheat gluten that is finding popularity in vegetarian restaurants because of its meat-like consistency.]
You quit your job as a microbiologist because you couldn’t bear the thought of your family eating store-bought or frozen food. Did you think at the time that cooking could be a potentially new career?
When I got my job as a full-time microbiologist, it was crazy. The house was a mess, I had no time to cook or clean. We lived on frozen food for three years. I had to sit back and think about why I was going to work; I felt the job was not worth the opportunities missed for spending time with my family around a good meal.
As far as my future is concerned, I’m a very determined and positive person and I feel I can make the best of what I have. [When I quit my job] I was not thinking of cooking as a career but I knew I would be creating good food memories. I don’t want my kids to be carrying mac and cheese and frozen peas to school. I cook every single day for my family. People think I am crazy but if you enjoy something it doesn’t feel like work.
Take us through the process of creating a new dish.
Generally, with vegetables you tend to think you will quickly reach a saturation point but I find that there are so many avenues to vegetarianism. Whenever I step into Whole Foods the selection just blows me away. Every time I go there I find a new vegetable. I bring it back home, research it a bit and try to make a new dish out of it. In the early years I had no idea what an avocado tasted like. I got it home, did some research and made some homemade plantain chips with guacamole and served it to friends. They loved it!
Who were your biggest inspirations as you learned to cook?
70% of the credit should go to my husband. He challenges me every day. He loves to entertain, loves to experiment with dishes, especially with lentils. He makes a great Dal Makhani! He also exposed me to a variety of cuisines when we were newly married. Every Friday we would head out to New York City and taste a new cuisine and try to figure out what was in those dishes. I would come back home and experiment with what we had tasted.
I see him and get inspired.
I was a very skinny as a kid. Eating was just a job to finish. But every person should have a love for food. It breaks all barriers and is a single language that everyone speaks.
Do you feel your vegetarianism is holding you back from experiencing the gamut of tastes?
I don’t think so. I am very principled against killing of animals. I feel as a vegetarian you have so many options. Why should you force yourself into eating something that looks very unappetizing ? I think I will stand out in competitions because I am a vegetarian.
When I walked into the Master Chef arena to present my dish to the judges the one question that everyone had was how a vegetarian could even think of entering the competition. I said my aim was pass on the message of vegetarianism through the platform of the show. There are so many acceptable meat substitutes that can compensate for the protein.
They asked me how I would manage further along in the competition if they presented me with a meat ingredient. I told them that I would work with the dish because I am a creative person. But I wouldn’t taste it. A cooking show like Master Chef is not going to change my principles.
Does your journey on Master Chef continue?
I am not at liberty to tell you right now. You will have to watch the show!
Where do you see this culinary journey take you?
I think right now, I would love to do a book on quick dishes that the busy working person can prepare when they get back from work. My baked cauliflower dish takes just about 20 minutes. The book would have healthy fusion vegetarian concepts.
Every Wednesday night I invite my friends over. They come straight from work and I cook their requests. We watch a movie together and have a good time. That has led to catering opportunities. I do lot of catering for people. I organize parties. I do bake sales at my kids’ schools. So in the long run I would definitely like to open a restaurant.
Will you share one recipe with us that symbolizes your Indian American food journey?
Definitely. My Baked Cauliflower with Pecans in a Cilantro Yoghurt Sauce got a wow from Chef Ramsay on Twitter! Enjoy.
Baked Cauliflower with Almonds and Mint
Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO)
1/2 head of cauliflower
1 large onion
3 cloves of garlic
5-6 mint leaves
1/4 cup slivered almonds
1 teaspoon cumin powder
1 teaspoon coriander powder
Pinch of turmeric
1 teaspoon cayenne powder
1 teaspoon lemon pepper powder
1/2 cup low fat or Greek yoghurt
2 teaspoons lemon juice
Salt to taste
Mint leaves and dried red chili
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
Cut the cauliflower to small florets. Take a bowl and add 2 teaspoons of extra virgin olive oil. To this add all spices, salt, cayenne and whisk well.
Take a baking pan and transfer the almonds and cauliflower florets. Drizzle the oil mixed with spices onto the florets and toss well so they are evenly coated. Place the pan in the oven for 20 minutes.
In a bowl add yoghurt, salt and whisk in the lemon juice and 1/2 teaspoon EVOO. Add some mint leaves and mix well.
Chop the onion lengthwise and finely chop the garlic.
Heat a pan add some EVOO, add the chopped garlic and onions and sauté till onions caramelize a little. After the baking is done, transfer the cauliflower and almonds from the baking pan to the pan that has the onions and garlic. Transfer to a plate and spread the yoghurt over it. For garnish place a sprig of mint and a dried red chili.
Vidya Pradhan is a freelance writer who hosts the weekly radio show Parent Talk on KZDG 1550 AM. She also runs the community blog Water, No Ice and was the editor of India Currents from June 2009 to February 2012.