Art & Entertainment

Pooja Dhingra On Judging ‘Masterchef India’: The Show Is About The Home Cooks, And If You Keep That In Mind, It Will Be Great

Pooja Dhingra opens up about why she decided to come on ‘MasterChef India’ as a full-time judge, what she dislikes in her co-judges, what makes the Indian version so much more popular and who the toughest contestants are.

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Pooja Dhingra
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While Vikas Khanna and Ranveer Brar are the returning judges of ‘MasterChef India’, Pooja Dhingra is the new judge this season. She had been part of the show as a guest judge in the previous season, and her episode was loved by all and sundry. Many young girls and boys from across the world look up to her not just for her culinary genius but also for being able to master a niche category and become one of the most popular women entrepreneurs of the country.

Talking to Prateek Sur, Pooja Dhingra opens up about why she decided to come on ‘MasterChef India’ as a full-time judge, what she dislikes in her co-judges, what makes the Indian version so much more popular and who the toughest contestants are. She also talks candidly about her food mantra, her journey into entrepreneurship, the difficulties she faced trying to cater to a niche market size and her attraction towards cooking right from the age of 6.

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Excerpts:

Last season, you were on the show as a guest judge. So, what motivated you to take up the role as a full-time judge for ‘MasterChef India’?

I went there for one day last year, and it was just such an incredible experience being in the MasterChef kitchen with the chefs. And I really felt like it. So, when the opportunity came my way, I grabbed it. Because in the food world, ‘MasterChef India’ sets so many standards. And for me to be a part of it in any fashion is something that I’m really grateful for. So, yeah, I just went for it.

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How difficult is it to manage your regular work as a chef and take time out for ‘MasterChef India’? Do you have someone whom you can trust completely to look over your work while you’re shooting?

I actually have a really strong team that I’m really grateful for. I do have senior leadership in that team that takes care of everything when I’m not there. Whenever I have free time, I try to juggle both. For example, I’m in my kitchen today and working out of here and tomorrow I’ll be on set. So, I’m always connected to everybody through my phone, but I’m lucky to also have a team that has my back.

Talking about ‘MasterChef India’ this time, what is different about it?

I just feel that the diversity in the contestants is something that has really amazed me. I just feel that even the diversity and the variety of the food that is being cooked, I feel that that is really the highlight for me this season. They’re really talented home cooks. They come from so many different cities, backgrounds, regions, and they’re bringing the best of their culture to the show.

MasterChef is a show that has been done in numerous countries. So, what do you think makes the Indian version so popular?

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I feel that India itself is just so large, so diverse. Every 50 kilometres, the language changes a bit, the food changes a bit. Sometimes when I would try to explain to my friends in Europe, I would tell them, like, India is like five Europe’s put together. There’s just so much difference in language, culture, food, and just for us to see and highlight food from different regions, I feel that what India has in terms of diversity, I don’t think any other country has.

Judges have kept on changing over the years. Who has been your all-time favourite judge in India as well as real?

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I love Chef Vikas Khanna. I’m such a big fan of his. And of course, Chef Ranveer Brar as well. Both of them have been on the show for a really long time. And even before the show, outside of the show, I truly admire and respect them and the work that they do. And we’ve been friends for many years. I also love ‘MasterChef Australia’ judges. I’m very close to. Before I started shooting, I actually called Chef Gary, and I said, what word of advice can you give me? And he was very kind, and he said, the show is about the home cooks, and if you keep that in mind, it will be great. And I think that’s what we’ve all done throughout the season. It’s really about the home cooks.

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Talking about the contestants again, who do you think is the toughest one? Like, if you have favourites?

So, it would be wrong for me to have favourites. I don’t have any favourites, but I do feel that I’m amazed to see their growth journey from day one. Now, we’ve been shooting for quite a few weeks. From day one that they came to the kitchen to seeing how they all have evolved and grown as people, as well as the plates that they put in front of us (is amazing). So, it’s like a boot camp. Like, they’re there cooking every single day. We have some amazing guest chefs who come in as mentors and teach them things, and for them to understand what they’re doing wrong or maybe what we didn’t like in a dish and then come back and work on it and improve it. I think for me to see that growth journey in all of them is the most exciting and most amazing thing about the show.

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Every chef has a food philosophy. What is your mantra that you live by?

For me, it’s very simple. I feel that food is eventually nourishing and comfortable. I like to keep things as simple as possible. I also really, truly believe that happy people make happy food. We believe in our kitchen and in our homes that the energy with which you cook really passes on to the food that you make. So, for me, it’s all about when you have that first bite, what it is that you really feel, and that’s what food is like. Such great memories today. I can talk about something from a particular dish, from a particular restaurant, and it’ll just take you back to that moment in time. If I talk about, say, Ashokwadapa, for example, that’s where I grew up in, and that just takes me back to really happy times with my family. So, I believe that food has the power to transcend everything, and as long as it’s simple and it’s made with the right intentions, to me, that’s everything that matters.

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So, from what I have heard about you, you started baking when you were six. So what was it specifically that drew you to it and the same attraction that makes you enter the kitchen every day?

For me, being a six-year-old the first thing I made was brownies with my Bua and seeing simple ingredients, right. Like, we use butter, sugar, maida, eggs, chocolate, and just mixing these ingredients, that was almost like magic to me. You’re taking ordinary ingredients, combining them, it goes into the oven, and what comes out is something that is so beautiful, so magical, and has the power to make people happy. Every time I tell people I’m a pastry chef or I bake for a living, they almost have a smile on their face because it’s almost like, I’m going to give them a cake right there and then. We always have really happy memories. Cakes and desserts are always a part of all our celebrations, whether it’s our birthday, weddings. So, for me, it’s about that joy and love. And I feel like that baking kind of is such an integral, those emotions are such an integral part of baking, and that’s really what keeps me every time I enter the kitchen, it’s with those emotions and hoping to create food that makes people feel those super.

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So, is it tough for a woman entrepreneur in India, especially someone who has built a niche category as you have done?

I feel like entrepreneurship and running your business is hard, irrespective of your gender. So many challenges come your way when you’re starting a new business. There are so many things that you have to multitask, you have to wear different hats, you have to lead a team and lead people and it’s very challenging. I started my business when I was 23, and there was youth and inexperience, coupled with the fact that I was a girl trying to make a mark in a male-dominated field. So, it was challenging in the beginning, but I looked at it as a strength rather than a challenge. As difficult as it was, I received a lot of support because I was a young girl trying to do something different. From our customers to our suppliers, everybody wanted to see me succeed, so it’s all about perspective.

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What would be your advice for young girls reading this and wishing to follow your path?

I often have girls who come to me, and one thing I always tell them is to never let anybody else define what you can or cannot achieve. If there’s something you strongly believe you want to do, you must respect that and pursue your dreams. Another piece of advice I offer is to be patient because things take time. Building something significant doesn’t happen overnight, and it requires a lot of persistence. Even when you’re passionate, setbacks can be challenging. So, my advice is always to follow your dreams, but also remember that patience is key.

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