The Adelaide Women’s Prison in the suburb of Northfield is reported to have been left shaking for a while on May 7 last year. No, it wasn’t some dramatic prison riot or the inmates taking over the proceedings. It was their collective reaction, laced with delight and excitement, to Sashi Cheliah, one of their beloved prison officers, winning the apron to enter the MasterChef Australia kitchen for Season 10. And they kept cheering him on, as the 39-year-old went on to become the first Indian-origin contestant to be crowned champion in the internationally-renowned cooking competition.
When we meet him, Cheliah is on the periphery of the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), satiating tastebuds with his own twist on Indian street food. His pop-up stall, Gaja, is one of the many set up on the vibrant Yarra Park grasslands as part of the Indian Summer Festival that’s being celebrated alongside the annual Boxing Day Test. And on this day it’s the MCG that’s shaking with energy as Virat Kohli holds court within its enormous confines. Right outside, Cheliah is holding his own as people queue up not just to savour his ingenious delicacies but also to pose for selfies with the latest celebrity of the culinary world. Cheliah indulges them all, but not for long. It is service time and he’s back to looking as busy and wired as we’re used to seeing him on TV as he shepherds his troops.
It’s this part of the job, leading a team on a mission, which he insists on enjoying the most. After all, he has done this for more than half his life. Over the last six months, he’s undertaken “pressure tests” with and against contestants whom you’ll often hear say, “I’m in a world of pain”, with that typically nasal Aussie twang on TV. Cheliah was originally trained for far tougher pressure tests — of life-and-death variety. Before he moved to Adelaide six years ago, the corrections officer was part of the elite Black Ops Force in Singapore.
“We are hand-picked, undergo selection, rigorous training for a week, followed by another round of one-year training. It’s a long process. After that, based on the threat level — terrorism, kidnapping or high profile VIPs’ security — we are called in,” he says.
Joining the police force might have seemed a natural progression for the self-confessed “adrenaline junkie” but his original dream was joining the army. But his mother would have none of it. The Singapore-born Cheliah, whose grandfather moved there from Madurai, jokingly puts it down to his Indian heritage.
“I wanted to be in the commandos. I wrote the exams and went for selection. But my family wasn’t in favour of me taking that up because of overseas missions. My mother was always very protective. She wouldn’t allow me to ride a motorcycle, she wouldn’t let me swim,” he says.
Being the thalai pillai (firstborn son in Tamil) in a family of seven children brought its own set of responsibilities. It was his mother and aunts who played a role in Cheliah’s early interest in cooking even if he wasn’t allowed to join them very often in the kitchen. “I enjoyed cooking, but then I was not allowed to cook much. But I have a gift. If I see something, it registers in my mind and I start doing something out of it,” he says.
Cheliah also admits his elite training in Singapore and his role in managing stress and people at the prison played a critical role in his success on the TV show, despite being the oldest contestant of the season. “My previous jobs helped me manage stress better. I didn’t have the anxiety separation from family. I was able to delegate and focus. I’m more task-oriented. This is from my training back in the day. I was the oldest, but I had the stamina to keep up with anyone,” he says.
Though Cheliah has still got his job at the prison, he admits that “food is my work now”. He plans to take his love for food back to his roots. Cheliah has been to India only once — as a child on a temple visit to Tamil Nadu with his parents — but now plans to go on a countrywide trip soon with his Masterchef winner’s apron in tow. He also plans to use food as a tool to give back to his community, starting with finding rehabilitation opportunities for some of the prisoners he has been in charge of. “I want to give a second chance to the people who have been in prison. I will actively look to hire those who have realised their mistake and moved on,” he says.
Cheliah’s love for cooking might have changed his life now, but it has also played a significant role in meeting his wife, Rebecca, about two decades ago. “I met her at one of the many barbecues I used to do in school,” he says.
It was Rebecca who insisted on moving to Australia about six years ago, and it was she who pushed her husband to put his cooking credentials to the test in front of the world. And Cheliah, who had quipped, in an earlier interview, about how spending seven months of the MasterChef journey felt like “being in a prison”, admits to have become a prisoner of his own device at his own home. His wife and children now want him to showcase the skills and techniques that won him the most celebrated chef’s title for their sake. “Adhu nariya kekkaranga (they keep asking a lot). We’re moving to a new place, and this time I have designed a home kitchen where there is more space and can also be used for filming,” he says.