She eats and sleeps food that’s how you can describe MasterChef 2015 India runner-up Neha Deepak Shah. She has always been inclined towards flavours, and creating them her way. Having spend a large part of her life in Mumbai, and with time her culinary passion evolved and then at the age of 25 she became the first runner’s up position on MasterChef India Season 4.

She adds that her passion to cook stems from her passion to eat good food and when she is not cooking or eating, one can find her either traveling, clicking, or reading, and researching on worldwide culinary trends.

 In a quick chit chat with HTSlurrp she opens her heart out about her life, passion and favourite Delhi eateries.  

Tell us something about your growing up years? How much influence did food had on you?

I grew up in Mumbai and as a kid I have always been very fond of food. Also my mum has always been an amazing and was much ahead of time. Or even 28 years ago she would make some fancy dishes and hence I always experimental foodie in me. And whenever we had any part, my mom would tell us to make one dish and that my Crown moment. Food is something that is very very close to me. On weekends when we used to out, I would always ask her dad what or where are we eating as my concerns would only want to know the plan for lunch or dinner and everything. I wanted to make sure that food is not missed and yes Tarla Dalal cookbooks were my go-to, also due to the fact that my mother literally had some tons of cookbooks oj the shelf and those were my go to, noy any novels. Cookbooks were my best pals.

What inspired you to pursue culinary arts as your career?

I am actually a food technologist and was super inclined towards food, but I was very good academically and it was thought that I would turn into becoming a engineer or a doctor. But life has other plans. I studied food technology and was working as a food Technologist for nearly 5.5 years and then MasterChef just happened. I was also close to the food Industry in general. Also the most therapeutic thing for me was to actually go back home and cook. With MasterChef auditions happening I thought I should give it a try as I thought one should give this a chance in life and take a break. All my travel definitely inspired and made me believe a more strongly that I want to pursue culinary arts as a career. I was my trip to Melbourne where I tasted a lot of food for the first time and that is when I realised that is an ocean and there is so much to learn. 

Did you always plan want to be on the MasterChef platform? How did that groom you?

Masterchef was never a plan. I moved to Delhi in 2010 and I was working with Dabar at that time. I was very young and I had some wonderful colleague who were very motivating. Since I grew up in Mumbai I would miss all this food from the city, so this Bombay girl was missing her food. So slowly I started cooking and experimenting but I had no idea about quantity. So, the only way to know this was by calling your mum, aunt or so. So, I definitely like started cooking in learning and even read blogs and get inspired.  I was always charged up to try new recipes and while in the process in ended up cooking with lots of food because like I said I had no sense of measurement. So then I started carrying this food back to office, that's the easiest thing to do and people in office started tasting and appreciating. One of my colleague walked up to me and said there’s MasterChef India happening and you must definitely go.  over there is a show like master chef and our ok maybe I should go and then she applied for me and yes she did push me to it. MasterChef surely groomed me and also made me believe in myself a little more. It made me take a culinary art as a career a lot more seriously. It definitely the stepping stone what I am doing now. It was Neha in the making all can say. 

Tell us something about your restaurants? 

Post MasterChef it was a very different time. There was lot of attention and glamour that was around me and most people started telling me to open up a restaurant. So, my cousin and me started a restaurant in Jaipur as I felt it was a good market. We partnered and started Meraki kitchen and then later Café White sage. The restaurant actually opened I 2017 and then I got married in 2018. But now that I stay in Dubai it’s kind of difficult to travel up and down regularly. 

Meraki showcases food from different parts of the world, while Café White sage is a farm to table concept and good to see my babies doing so well. Our product of hard work has come out well.

What is your idea of innovation when it comes to food?

Innovation is all about a being creative without tampering the real essence of dish. It’s important to keep the integrity of the dish. I have seen a lot of these glamorous restaurant where I feel the real essence of the food is lost amidst all the drama. I am a firm believer that your flavours have to be intact, but you can still innovate. And yes, you can still choose do things differently. I love fusing flavours and as Indian’s we are very capable of making very Indianized and I feel there’s nothing wrong with it as ultimately, we are all cooking for ourselves. We have managed to nail the Chinese and Italian flavours too. I am not a trend person, that doesn’t excite me as I feel that’s a phase and I choose to be classic then a phase. 

As a chef what do you feel is biggest strength?

Me I feel that my biggest strength is my versatility.  I am a vegetarian and even stayed my choice. You cannot lable me as a particular chef who is just good at one thing because I think I've travelled in now and I live in Dubai which is like a melting pot of cultures. I have been exposed to a lot of cuisine and also love to experimented a lot. Apart from being a good baker I cook very nice Mexicana and Italian and just everything. I am also very hard working, when it comes to just nailing thing. I am a perfectionist. It matters to me a lot. I need to be satisfied myself with the output. 

What are the three kitchen spices that you can’t do without?

For me it’s Chilli. I love chillies, it’s such a flavourful fragment, then comes cumin in all form be it roasted, powder or anything. And last is Dhania in genrral both the fresh greens and the powder. 

What three tips you will share for those who want to cook smart, quick and be creative

Prep and planning is the most important thing. If you open my fridge it’s always very organised and most things are kept in boxed like my chopped garlic, coriander and so.. A messy fridge makes it frustrating for me.

Be creative- It also important to keep your sauces ready rather than buying from market. Make your plate look coulurful and present food well. Food that looks pretty it anyway lightens up your mood.  

Play around with flavours- try to infuse in something new each time. Something like a pizza samosa it’s much creative. 

What are you best Food hotpsot in Delhi?

I love street food and junk food and when we talk about that I love the small momo shack - Prem momo shack in Malviya Nagar and their paneer momo’s are just something I just can’t miss. Then come KB chaat in Karol chaat – their Moonglet is a killer laden with butter also their crispy aloo chaat

Chandni chowk is another hot spot, the Paratha wali gali. My cousin lives there. The food there during the winter season is amazing specially the Love Dualt ki chaat and the fresh made nankhatai that the street vendor sells.  Also, right opposite Kedar masala wala there’s a golgappa wala is epic. These spots can’t be missed. I have not eaten them for more than 2.5 years and I really crave for the. Also I miss the Delhi ke chole bhature and the crispy jalebi from Haldiram at Manesar, and yes not to miss the Bombay style pao bhajii at Lajpat Nagar.