Published: 28th March 2020
Here's why Abinas Nayak, winner of the MasterChef India Season VI, wants you to try out Odia cuisine
Odisha-based Abinas Nayak is on top of the world and from there, he wants to ensure that everybody gets a taste of Odia cuisine. We find out about his motivations, his dreams and all his future plans
No amount of puttu (cylindrical rice cakes) or appam (another type of dosa) could satiate Abinas Nayak's craving for ghar ka khanna (homemade food) while he was living in Thiruvananthapuram, when he was working at Infosys. Home for this 27-year-old is Berhampur, Odisha, which he left when he was in class VII. So while in Thiruvananthapuram, he befriended YouTube and watched back-to-back videos, MasterChef ones nonetheless, and slowly began his experiments with food. "I had never cooked anything in my life until then," recollects Abinas. From cooking in a small shared kitchen in Thiruvananthapuram where he first impressed his roommates with the dishes he whipped up to impressing the star judges of MasterChef Vikas Khanna, Ranveer Brar and Vineet Bhatia and winning Season VI, Abinas' audience is growing leaps and bounds. In fact, he just returned from Bali, where he recently organised a pop up restaurant named Dinner on the Coromandel Express. If you are wondering what's next for Mr Masterchef, he tells us that he has many plans — a book, a show, even a restaurant — but for now, he is in Bhubaneswar relishing his favourite cuisine and waiting for the coronavirus pandemic to (hopefully) run its course.
The competitive reality show was aired on Star Plus from December 7, 2019 to March 1, 2020
Time for a flashback
After acing his academics and extracurriculars at Gandhi Institute for Technological Advancement (GITA) in Bhubaneswar, where he pursued Electrics (do you mean Electronics?) and Communication Engineering, he went on to work at Infosys which took him to different cities like Thiruvananthapuram and Hyderabad. It was in the City of Nizams that he started experimenting with cooking even more. "I experimented every day and what my friends really appreciated was the way I used to style my food on a plate," shares Abinas. He participated in and won Hungry For Haldiram 2018, a cooking contest, and that was when he realised that he was capable enough to make a mark in the culinary field. "But it was not just any cuisine I was interested in, I wanted to spread the word about Odia cuisine," says Abinas and to date, he hasn't forgotten his purpose.
Abinas savouring food | (Pic: Abinas Nayak)
Until then, Abinas was aware of his potential but what shaped his idea of food and gave him direction was the 2019 LokiCooks Fellowship. Started by Loki Madireddi, a popular contestant of MasterChef Australia, this fellowship grants the winner a prize of AUD 5,000 (not paid in cash, but can be utilised to pay for things that might help them achieve their dreams) and mentorship from Loki himself. "He did not just mentor me, he also gave my thoughts much-needed direction. He also instilled in me confidence I was in much need of," says the food stylist. Yes, food stylist, a skill he honed while watching MasterChef videos on repeat. "Maybe subconsciously, I was preparing myself for the show," he says, thinking out loud. It also helped that he painted a lot as a child. And when he stopped that, he "started treating the plate as my canvas and all my artistic abilities started reflecting on the plate. Food is no less than an art," says the chef with a smile.
He intends to document the Odia cuisine in the form of a book or a show, so that, "It stays forever and people can refer to it easily when need be"
When reality hit
Now, all of Abinas’ MasterChef journey is well documented — right from the time he serenaded the judges with the Odia dish chicken besara to the finale where he whipped up a delicious three-course meal, including chingudi (prawn), ada mangsa (ginger mutton) and ending it with chhena poda, Odisha's famous cheese dessert. Got you salivating yet? You can catch it on Hotstar. But what you probably don't know is that he was selected within two minutes of his audition. "I was quite surprised," he says, still sounding amused, and adds, "Whatever task I was given, I used to think to myself, 'How can I feature an Odia dish?'. Whenever I got the chance to prepare one, I would never leave it." As he says that with a flourish, it's a good chance to remember that it was chhena poda that helped him win the coveted title. Not to mention the `25 lakh prize that came with it.
With the coveted trophy | (Pic: Abinas Nayak)
Even now, Abinas' aim is to use ingredients to tell the story of Odia cuisine because, "Ingredients are the heroes. There are some regional dishes which feature such ingredients that aren't even available in supermarkets, if we focus on them, it encourages the producers too," he says, making a case for local cuisine. As a chef, Abinas still tends to think back to what his grandmother and mother, who continue to remain his inspiration, used to cook for him as a child. "Those old memories and flavours still come back to me," says Abinas and it is these tastes that he intends to bring back to our plates and palates.
What Abinas learnt from the judges:
Chef Vikas Khanna
As per Abinas, Chef Vikas takes inspiration from the simplest of things. "Especially the way he presents food is mind-blowing," he says
Chef Ranveer Brar
He is always about storytelling and understanding the ingredients. "He knows how ingredients are connected to our history and why," he says
Chef Vineet Bhatia
Abinas says that he is the happiest person on the show. "I thought he would be intense but actually, he is the sweetest. Whenever we would get stuck, he would help us out," he says
His favourite cuisine
The Jagannath Temple
After homemade food, Abinas' favourite cuisine is temple food. He specifically praises the prasad given at the famous Jagannath Temple. These are the facts that fascinate him:
- As per Krishna Leela, Krishna arrives at Puri to eat. "Still, it's a pity that people hardly know about our cuisine," he says
- Food is offered six times a day to Lord Jagannath at the temple
- Vegetables like potatoes and tomatoes are not used as they are believed to be foreign vegetables. "The whole meal is not only traditional, but quite nutritional as well," he says