An economics consultant who chose to pursue his passion in the Indian culinary industry, Chef Sadaf Hussain, talks about his life with MasterChef India, opening a pop-cafe in New Delhi, besides exploring the explosive aromas of the Indian cuisine. To him, food isn’t a way to create recipes, but to build a connection. He’s going all in, and taking up all risks to pursue his profession and passion. Read this exclusive interview with him on his journey so far.
Highlights of the episode
- Understanding that you do not need to learn cooking from culinary school to be great but that passion and observation is the key.
- It is important to open up to new things get out of comfort zone and explore people, culture and make friend.
Quotes and takeaways
- “When you enjoy everything, everything becomes your work and life”
- “If I liked something, I always question myself what is so difficult about it that I can’t do the same thing?”
- “Passion is energy. Feel the power that comes from focusing on what excites you.”
You used to try your hand in the kitchen as a child. What and when was your first motivation to become a chef? As a child, did you ever think of becoming a chef?
As a kid I really wanted to be the fattest kid in the world. I started noticing how people cook food and this made me curious to learn how to do it myself – this was my entry into the world of cooking. I remember that the first thing I ever made was तोरी (snake gourd) and chapatis, when I was 10 years old and since then there’s been no stopping me! In our family we always often used to talk about food, the famous food joints in and around the country, the recipes or any other food trivia.
The different spices that mix to create the aroma and aura around food makes me drool. I always wanted to be a chef because of all this inquiry into food.
You work as a consultant with Public Policy institutions, you write and give talks on Economics during the day and in the evening, a consulting chef, working with multiple restaurants to curate new menu and new dishes. How do you balance your work life and find the balance?
I think when you have such varied interests where you enjoy doing everything, then the balance comes automatically. I am always hungry to learn new things, I enjoy doing and understanding the details of everything. Hence, when you enjoy everything, everything becomes your work and life. You give time to yourself, your work, your passion. It is not that difficult. You just need to set priorities and a check list.
You have many other feathers in your cap such as being a food stylist, blogger, photographer, graphic designer, traveler, etc. Which is your favorite one? How do you find time to pursue all these hobbies?
Isn’t it fun when people ask you what all can you do and you say oh, boy I am Superman, I can fly :D. I just like the feeling of doing anything and everything. If I liked something, I always question myself what is so difficult about it that I can’t do the same thing? I also get bored quite easily and hence to keep myself motivated, I need to keep finding new opportunities.
I love travelling and writing. Travelling exposes you to so many new things and a new world. I always push people to travel and see the world, get out of comfort zone and explore people, culture and make friends. I advice people, pack your bags and leave, you never know what is waiting for you.
Writing is another one such habit I have picked up recently. It also helps me understand and explore people through their writings and work. It is very interesting to understand the authors and put yourself in their shoe. Reading and researching makes you learn something which is even beyond your imagination. Ofcourse, you should travel, but carrying one book with you won’t harm, and if you are carrying a book then why not a camera or cellphone to capture all the lovely moments.
You were one of the most talented chefs in MasterChef India. How was your experience?How did you handle the pressure of expectation and performing on merit at the same time?
I was telling someone that my experience in MasterChef Kitchen was gorgeous and unreal. I come from a small town in Jharkhand, where I’ve never learnt cooking professionally. People from small town usually have small dreams, and I was no different, but when MasterChef happened in my life, I started seeing big dreams and believing more in myself and my passion for food.
I remember the first day of the shoot I was so nervous standing in front of all the three judges. I have always followed their work but seeing them in reality, was an unbelievable experience. It was surreal.
MasterChef taught me “go all in” and take risks. Mentors and the crew taught me to be humble. Take pride in your work but never let ego come in between. I used to cook as if that is my last cook in the kitchen because once you have the fear of losing something, then only you can push your boundaries, feel the pressure and give your best.
And if the pressure is too much then you might have noticed me dancing and singing in the middle of my cooking. Trust me it helps and specially when you can sing decently well!
What is something that MasterChef has taught you which you would always carry with you all over your life? How according to you teamwork and other qualities has its importance in a life of professional chefs? What are the few qualities you cherish the most?
As I mentioned earlier what I have learnt from Chef Kunal and Chef Vikas and Zorawar Sir is to stay focused and be humble. It doesn’t matter how great you are because just one bad day is enough to throw you off the grid. All my friends from the show taught me how to work better as a team and team work is what takes you far in life. If you are in a kitchen it doesn’t matter who you are, but if your team does well your food will do great.
I can’t pinpoint one moment; it was the whole experience. I used to get up at 5.30 and run for 5-6 kms (I used to run from my hotel to Juhu beach), spend time with self, come back, shower, grab breakfast and leave for the shoot at 9. Our day usually used to get over by 9. This was a routine we used to follow. This was fun and made so many friends. At times, I miss that life.
What is your favorite cuisine/ dish? Do you think a particular cuisine inspires your creations?
I love making Kebabs. I think kebab is so versatile and every city and country have its own version. It could be spicy, dry, moist, or it could have big chunks or be soft and melt in your mouth texture. I love Indian cuisine. The dishes we have, the techniques, flavor and aroma we have are unparalleled. Nowhere in the world you will find usage of so many spices in one dish and you can taste every masala separately.
You also had a pop-up café, Bread and Better. Tell us a bit more about it.
There was a time when I used to cook frequently and take the leftovers to my office and serve them. They all used to love my food and hence one day I thought it will be great if people will actually pay for the food. This was the time when a friend of mine, Manasi and I started this small concept café.
We were perhaps the first one in Delhi to run this pop-café. The concept was not just to serve people good food but also to help them socialize and get rid of phones and laptops for a bit and just enjoy the dish and real people’s company. We never approached restaurants but took over friends’ houses to make the concept more casual and friendly.
You have won thousands of hearts through your dishes. Can you tell us about your best experiences so far?
Have I 😊? I remember before MasterChef happened to me, I was travelling to Madhya Pradesh and went in to a small village near Khajuraho. The elder ladies of the family welcomed me with Poha, chai and a small packet of Parle G biscuits. I loved their friendly gesture. Then they went in to their kitchen to cook me lunch and I got super interested in learning the rustic way of cooking and the dishes that they were making. I asked their permission to make rotis for them while they prepared the curry dish, and they allowed me to do so. I made them masala roti with Bajra and whole wheat flour. The tradition in their family was to give cash to someone who cooks good food for the first time in their kitchen. They gave me Rs 20. I still have that note with me. This is why I always say I don’t cook to feed people but to connect with them on a deeper level. Just feeding people is very superficial but adding story to your food helps you connect deeper.
When you started out, did you have any mentors in your journey? How have their work influenced yours?
I have never learnt cooking from any culinary school because of lack of resource , and hence I was left with only one option, which was to observe others and learn from them, be it from some cooking show on TV or online, or observing the cooks of small dhabas or panipuriwalas. I travel extensively around the country and abroad, and I love to explore the food wherever I go, be it street food or at fine-dining restaurants. Then I try to find the history and story behind that food and recreate the same.
There are so many new and old chefs and food personalities who have inspired me to cook and create dishes in the kitchen. This list ofcourse starts with Grand Chefs Imtiaz Qureshi, Sanjeev Kapoor, Tarla Dalal, Salma Husain, Madhur Jafery, Dr. Pushpesh Pant, Chef Kunal Kapoor, Chef Vikash Khanna, Chef Atul Kochar, Chef Massimo Bottura, Heston Blumenthal. I must stop or else I can keep going on and on…
Many youngsters are inspired from you to become a chef. What would you like to say to them?
Call me to your school/college and I will teach you a few dishes. If my food has inspired people, it is just because of sheer dedication and passion. Be passionate in whatever you do and invest yourself. Don’t do something because you have to but do it because you want to. I love this quote by Oprah Winfrey “Passion is energy. Feel the power that comes from focusing on what excites you”.