My Thali Days

Masterchef Australia finalist, Matt Sinclair dishes out a food truck in Australia, inspired by the tastes of south-east Asia and the way people eat in India.

Written by Dipanita Nath | Published:September 4, 2016 12:06 am
Highway on my plate: Matt Sinclair in Masterchef Australia. Highway on my plate: Matt Sinclair in Masterchef Australia.

Matt Sinclair is, to use a term from Masterchef Australia season 8, feeling pretty stoked. He has gone to the top of the show, baking, toasting, frying and pickling, as well as blasting with liquid nitrogen, crystallising and dehydrating his way through a maze of challenges. In one of the most competitive kitchens of the world, the 28-year-old former coffee roaster stood out for causing “a riot in the mouth” (according to Gary Mehigan, the English-Australian chef and one of the three judges). A week after Masterchef Australia stopped airing in India, Sinclair is back at the fire — this time on his food truck called Ten Piece Cutlery, which is inspired by the taste of south-east Asia and the way people eat in India.

“It’s my dream, it’s what I want to do. The truck is called Ten Piece Cutlery, which means you eat with your fingers. We shouldn’t be afraid to ditch the cutlery and use our hands,” says the Masterchef Australia runner-up over phone from his home in Noosa, Australia. Sinclair recalls the moment he tried eating the Indian way and begins to laugh. “It was a culture shock in the beginning,” he says. He was in Jaipur in 2011, at a restaurant that served thalis. “I decided that I was going try eating with my hands,” he says. He watched the Indian diners “use the bread to collect the vegetable and then go from there”. “I probably didn’t have the best technique. It’s strange when you do it for the first time. But, it is something special to eat with your hands,” he adds.

On the food truck menu are school prawn taco with gochujang mayo and wombok, tamarind glazed beef brisket with vermicelli noodles and grilled whiting with Chinese barley salad and sichuan or chilli dressing. The fare is “simple, honest, street-style food for markets and festivals”. A truck, much like the pavement stalls in India, offers casual fare that is fresh and packed with big, punchy flavours. Unlike restaurants, it doesn’t send out pretty morsels. “You eat it standing around and aren’t afraid of being dirty,” says Sinclair.

His fondness for south-east Asian food grew from the three months he spent in Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia with his then girlfriend, now wife, Jess, in 2009. Two years later, when he was working as a bartender and landscaper in Canada, Sinclair decided not to accompany the other boys on a trip to Central and South America and visited India instead. “I spent a few days in a meditation centre in Dharamsala. It woke me up to a different perspective of life,” he says.

The food was another eye-opener. “Everywhere, there were different things popping up. There were more styles of food than I’d seen in Australia. I ate a lot of paani puri, masala dosa, gulab jamun, thali; things I hadn’t tasted before,” he adds. At a dhaba in Jodhpur, he picked up the skills of making biryani, palak paneer and roti. On Masterchef Australia, which encourages contestants to explore their own stories as much as flavours, Sinclair expressed his India experience through dishes such as lamb koftas with onion jam, hummus and coriander yoghurt that he served with naan made with greek yoghurt and olive oil.

It was also on Masterchef Australia that Sinclair first tried his hands at running a food truck. He prepared bourbon and ginger beer glazed barbecued chicken, which had a charred and crispy crust, and juicy bites. If the judges found a flaw, it was that Sinclair had given them “a humongous hunk of chook” that was difficult to eat standing. “I think my thinking comes from generosity,” says Sinclair. His chicken, nonetheless, did what it was meant to — the judges got their fingers dirty and announced Sinclair’s team the winner of the challenge. “Working this space in the food truck, with the plancha roaring hot, it is loud, noisy and incredible. I don’t want to be anywhere else right now. This is the greatest feeling on the planet,” Sinclair gushed during the challenge.

The attitude answers why he feels his place is in a food truck, though he has displayed the skills of a fine-dine chef. He has carved mushrooms into artistic shapes, balanced flavours like a “true original” (according to food critic and judge Matt Preston) and is among a handful of contestant in the Masterchef Australia history to have outdone a top professional chef in a cook-out. Marco Pierre White paid Sinclair the highest compliment. “I have gone in front of lots of chefs over the years. Very few of them did I ever believe. I believe you,” said the British legend, who has made chefs such as Gordon Ramsay weep.

More than any other contestant, Sinclair put his own story out there when he cooked. The roasts he served were a hat-tip to his grandmothers and his great-grandmother, who gifted him a love for cooking. The Masterchef fires put out, Sinclair remains the most-watched contestant on social media. More than 50,000 followers on Instagram discuss his every post. Ten Piece Cutlery became possibly the most famous Australian food truck in the world even before it rolled out. As the dishes start coming, Sinclair promises that it will be him to the core — warm, generous, casual and fun.