Meet chefs Aarthi, Kaushik and Harish, judges on MasterChef Tamil

Hosted by Vijay Sethupathi, the first season of reality cooking show ‘MasterChef Tamil’ has three renowned chefs as the judges.
Chefs Kaushik Shankar, Aarthi Sampath and Harish Rao along with actor Vijay Sethupathi
Chefs Kaushik Shankar, Aarthi Sampath and Harish Rao along with actor Vijay Sethupathi
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“It takes me back to my Aachi’s village,” chef Aarthi remarks as she savours the rooted flavours of the Nanjil Meen Virundhu. The deep-fried prawn with the prawn head infused in the dish and bursting with tropical freshness emerged as a worthy competitor too. Adding a pop of colour, the one-of-its-kind creamy Pongal cheesecake scented with cinnamon and honey was served with glazed pineapple. Watching the premiere episode of reality cooking TV show MasterChef Tamil, one can imagine how the aesthetically plated dishes – a visual treat for viewers – might have tasted in the studio.

Produced by Innovative Film Academy & Endemol Shine India, the first season of MasterChef Tamil is hosted by popular Tamil actor Vijay Sethupathi. The first episode aired on August 7 on Sun TV. The Telugu version of the show, which is hosted by actor Tamannaah Bhatia, also premiered recently. Based on MasterChef Australia, the show is part of MasterChef India.

Renowned chefs Aarthi Sampath, Harish Rao and Kaushik Shankar have been roped in as the judges for the first season of MasterChef Tamil. Aarthi is known for winning the popular American cooking reality show Chopped. She has also managed the Rainbow Room at the Rockefeller Plaza in New York. Harish has over 22 years of work experience as a head chef, having worked in several well-known restaurants including ITC Grand Chola and Sheraton Park, and specialises in south Indian food, while Kaushik is the founder of Eatitude, who has collaborated with several food and beverage brands in the country.

Explaining that MasterChef Tamil is unique, Aarthi tells TNM, “As a state, we take so much pride in what we serve. Even if we take the example of Biriyani, comparisons are drawn between Chennai versus other TN regions.” In addition, the other two judges mention how the show has reached the Tamil diaspora across the globe. With the commencement of the show, there is hope that the spotlight will be turned on traditional Tamil recipes as well as contemporary innovations.

Skills honed over the years

Be it Aarthi, whose affiliation with various art forms sowed the seeds for her interest in cooking; Kaushik, who started cooking at the age of five and never turned back; or Harish, whose passion for cooking has only increased since the time he started cooking with his mother and grandmother, all three chefs point out that they gained expertise over their craft after years of learning, un-learning and practice.

From making tortilla chips in Mumbai as a young girl in her mother’s kitchen to tasting authentic tacos in Mexico in recent years, Aarthi explains how she relied on cookbooks, experimented and learnt to cook international dishes with the limited resources that were available at her disposal. “In the initial days of one’s career, one cannot expect to visit a country in order to research its popular dishes and cuisines,” Aarthi says.

Chef Aarthi Sampath on the sets of MasterChef Tamil. Image Credit: Instagram/ Aarthi Sampath

Harish also emphasises the need to master the basics. “I’ve been to sea with fishermen and eaten the food served at their house to understand the dishes in detail, and later incorporated it into my kitchen. It is important to have a clear understanding of the basics and then move to experimentation,” he adds.

As for Kaushik, fondly known in culinary circles as the ‘Mad Chef’ from Madras, experimentation and innovation has been an important part of his forte. “Way back in college, I wanted to showcase south Indian food but with modern presentation. I prepared a dish with moong dal and banana halwa in kozhukattai maavu on a sauce of coconut and jaggery. My chef asked me to drop out from the competition but I didn’t. They called me mad but the dish went on to bag a prize at the college as well as at the national level. The title Mad Chef came about around that period,” he recounts.

Their advice to contestants as well as to others trying to carve a niche for themselves in the culinary world is fairly simple – ‘It is not possible to turn a chef overnight, it’s rather a painstaking process that takes years of practice.’

Tracing the etymology of the term ‘Chef’, Aarthi observes how the term is synonymous with ‘Chief’, indicating how the position can only be attained with gradual growth up the ladder. “Food is really only 20% of what a chef does. Consistency plays a key role,” she remarks. Illustrating the same with an example, she shares, “I cannot serve exceptional sambar, idli and chutney one day, and meddle with its quality the next day. In addition, the chef has to look after the costs as well as the smooth functioning of the kitchen.”

Kaushik quips: “Turning a chef does not happen by accident. We’re our worst critics at times. However, I’d advise people not to lose their cool. I’ve often noticed people get worked up while cooking, when they are under stress.”

Judging a reality cooking show

As fancy as the chance of being a judge on a reality show sounds, the chefs share how their decision to come aboard was spontaneous and difficult in equal parts.

Chef Kaushik explains that he had no qualms in accepting the offer. “I’m lucky to have been at the right place at the right time for this to happen. Except for the first few seconds of the conversation when I thought it was a prank call, it’s been fun all the way,” he says.

As for chef Aarthi, it was not the production banner, star host Vijay Sethupathi or the co-judges, but the thought of being a judge on MasterChef Tamil that was enough for her to instantaneously accept the offer. She recounts that although she was initially approached to be a guest judge, the showrunners later proposed that she come on board as a judge.

“When I got the call, I instantly said yes. There was no hesitation, I did not know what Innovative was, I did not know Vijay Sethupathi was on board or who the other judges were. Just the word MasterChef was enough for me to say yes. I was going to leave everything behind but I had no reservations. Not even for a second. Whether I knew the language fluently or not wasn’t a concern for me, I said I’d learn,” she shares. Speaking further about the reasons for signing up for the project, Aarthi explains, “There’s no other chance for me to reconnect with my own land, be close to my parents and also give back what I’ve learnt. I’ve been away from my country for so long. So, I was not ready to miss the chance, come what may.”

Unlike Aarthi and Kaushik, chef Harish shares that it was not an easy decision for him to make. “I’m still not able to completely process the fact that I’m part of the show. I was the last one to come on board. I still don’t know how we shot the show and how it is already on TV,” he states. While noting that it was harder to take the call since it was a televised show, Harish adds that he is thankful for the way things turned out.

Speaking to TNM about their duties as judges, chefs Aarthi, Harish and Kaushik underline that while they understand that the contestants haven’t pursued culinary courses professionally, they are expected to blend different elements – be it conceptualisation, taste, creativity or presentation of the dish. Kaushik mentions how bidding farewell to some of the contestants has been difficult, but he points out that it is how the show is designed. “I don’t think it is possible to sugar-coat the criticism. It’s an important part of learning,” Aarthi adds.

Harish adds, “Even among the three of us, each specialises in a different criterion. Aarthi and Kaushik look at the presentation and thought process behind the dish while I evaluate the dishes based on taste.”

Working with the star host

“It’d be safe to say that after being fans of Vijay Sethupathi the actor, we all have turned fans of Vijay Sethupathi the person,” Kaushik says, on working alongside the popular actor. Speaking on similar lines, Harish reveals how he was stunned when the Kollywood star who needs no introduction humbly introduced himself during his first meeting with the judges. “When we entered the hall, we didn’t expect to see Vijay Sethupathi seated in a corner looking at his phone. Seeing us, he got up and said ‘Vanakkam’, my name is Vijay Sethupathi. I’ll be hosting MasterChef Tamil,” an awe-struck Harish tells TNM.

Aarthi adds, “VJS does everything within his power when someone on the sets is not doing well. He also helped us when we were perplexed in front of the camera in the initial days of the shoot,” she says.

Chef Harish Rao alongside actor Vijay Sethupathi on the sets of MasterChef Tamil. Image Credit: Instagram/ Harish Rao

Chef Kaushik Shankar along with Vijay Sethupathi on the sets of MasterChef Tamil

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