Winner of the first-ever MasterChef India, Pankaj Bhadouria, was a fan-favourite since the start. She wasn’t coming from a hospitality background. In fact, she was a school teacher who quit her 16-year-old ‘stable’ job to participate in a reality show that was to change her life forever. 

She was the great Indian dream, and we left no stones unturned rooting for her. In her final dish, she impressed all three judges and created history. Ever since then Chef Pankaj has hosted several cooking shows, and written many cookbooks, with one on its way. “Indian cuisine has so much to be explored, so I am working on bringing some of our culture, food, and its stories to the forefront. Let’s wait till it unfurls”, is what she had to say for her upcoming cookbook.

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In a freewheeling chat with Slurrp, Pankaj opened up about her journey, fond food memories, culinary academy, and more. Excerpts.

Q. When did you start cooking? Tell us about your journey

A. I started cooking at the age of 11, all out of choice. Both my parents were excellent cooks. In fact, my mother had learned cooking from my father and my grandmother after she got married. People waited for parties at our home for the food and its presentation would be excellent. That is what inspired me. I felt cooking good food was definitely something great for not only did you get to eat good food but also it got you lots of praise so it was something I had to learn and that I did, watching both of them cook together and then later, of course, assisting mom in the kitchen.  

Q. A few words on your culinary academy

A. My culinary academy was a dream project - a baby of my love for cooking and my experience as a teacher. As a young girl, I had been unable to pursue a career in a professional kitchen because it was not quite ‘acceptable’ for a girl then. But I wanted to provide a platform for all young boys and girls, who dreamt of becoming a chef, a platform from where they could take a flight to shape their careers. I wanted to be there with them, to ease any issues they may be facing, counselling their parents personally, ensuring proper placements for them, and giving them the channel that they needed.  

I am very proud to say that the ‘Pankaj Bhadouria Culinary Academy’ will be celebrating its 10th anniversary in August this year. Not only do we get students from Lucknow and other parts of UP, but many of our students come from places like Haryana, MP, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Delhi, West Bengal, Meghalaya, Assam, Mumbai, and even Nepal. From our first batch of only 12 students to five batches of around 70 every year, we have come a long way, and placed more than 4,000 students in the industry. This has helped so many become entrepreneurs, and set up their own restaurants and bakeries.

Q. How did life change after MasterChef India?

A. It took a dramatic turn - name, fame, and moolah, it brought in everything. But more importantly, it became a stepping stone, and opened the doors to a whole new world. It gave me an opportunity to explore myself as a chef. I reached out to people through TV shows - I’ve done about 14 of them so far, authored five books, set up my culinary academy, and further reached an audience of over eight million on social media. I have been invited all over the world - the US, the UK, Japan, Dubai, Oman, Sharjah, Abu Dhabi, and many more countries. All this has been possible after all the hard work that came in winning MasterChef.

Q. How easy or difficult is it for you now to find inspiration to create something new in the kitchen?

A. Life is the biggest inspiration for me. One doesn’t have to find time for inspiration, it strikes anytime like an idea. And every day I am in the kitchen, shooting, teaching, and experimenting. So there are plenty of opportunities around.

Q. Social media loves you. What is your trick to keep them so happy and excited about your work?

A. Thanks. Social media is a very good way of connecting to people who love you and admire your work. I just try to be very regular with what I am sharing, keep a tab on what people like and what they don’t like and so work around that. I believe if you are honest in your approach, real and share your true self with them, they will love you for real.

Q. What is your comfort food?

A. Believe me, my comfort food is a simple khichdi.

Q. Your fondest food memory

A. Queuing up outside the first international pizza outlet that opened in Connaught Place, New Delhi, with our father. It was the month of December and we had to wait for 45 minutes! But that joy of having that pizza is still fresh in my mind.

Q. Last dish you prepared that you were really impressed with

A. I don’t think I get impressed with anything that I do. I always feel I could have done it better or made some improvements. So, I do not get satisfied so easily. 

Q. Your favourite travel and dining destination in India or abroad

A. There are so many of them, so it will be difficult to say. But I do love the Tunday Kababi in Lucknow.

Q. One celebrity you would love to cook for

A. Let me name three - the Dalai Lama, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Amitabh Bachchan.

Q. If you had to choose just one meal for one week, what would it be?

A. Easy. Dal-chawal and achar.