Masterchef India winner Nikita Gandhi: ‘Living in Abu Dhabi has had a big influence on my cooking’

The young food aficionado, whose parents live in Khalidiya, says she would like to open a restaurant in the capital.

Nikita Gandhi, centre, winner of MasterChef India 4, puts on her “golden” chef’s jacket as the show’s judges Vikas Khanna, Ranvir Brar and Sanjeev Kapoor look on. Courtesy Star Middle East
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Twenty-one-year-old Nikita Gandhi – the youngest to win the reality series Master Chef India so far – was crowned India’s top vegetarian chef on the popular show, after 11 weeks and 67 episodes of kitchen drama. She scooped the winner’s golden chef coat and 10 million rupees (Dh590,000) on Sunday, April 12.

Gandhi was born and raised in Abu Dhabi – her parents live in Khalidiya – before attending college in the United States. She flew to Mumbai five months ago to compete in Masterchef India 4.

How are you feeling?

Extremely excited. I had barely any sleep last night. I kept waking up because I was still living in a dream! I was like ‘is this actually real?’

Did you see the win coming?

No, I was not expecting to win – certainly not when I first came onto the show. But as the weeks went by, I kept getting good feedback and getting further in, and then we came to the final week. There were three of us at that point, so I thought ‘OK, now I’m in the top three, there is a chance that I can win this’.

Were you worried at any point that people might not be so willing to vote for someone who doesn’t live in India?

Yes, that was one thing that was worrying me a little bit. I thought people might not be interested in voting for me because although I’m Indian, I’ve never lived in India before. I thought maybe they would want the next Masterchef to be someone living in India. But that wasn’t the case at all.

All through the Masterchef journey, all the contestants had a huge fan following. A lot of people just loved watching us on TV. All throughout, I felt I was getting a lot of love and support from India and it all shone through yesterday.

Were people living outside India allowed to vote?

At the beginning, we were told that this season might have international voting. I was telling my family and everyone I know in the UAE that it would be online voting, so people there could vote for me. But at the last minute, they couldn’t work out the international voting system and changed it to an India-only vote. I was pretty upset. I was expecting lots of my votes to come from outside of India so it was a little worrying. But lots of people in Abu Dhabi were supporting me and sending me messages, and it all worked out fine in the end.

Did you regularly watch the show yourself from Abu Dhabi?

I was a big fan of the show before appearing on it. This is the fourth season of Masterchef and I had followed all three seasons before this one.

Who inspires you as a chef?

My mum. I think I was born with a passion to cook. There comes a certain age when all kids want to do is watch cartoons on TV. But at that age I would just be in the kitchen the entire time watching my mum cook. I was always very interested in what was going on in the kitchen. That passion grew over the years and inspired me to go on Masterchef.

Were you exposed to more styles of cooking from growing up in such an international city?

Definitely. The best chef is one who has travelled the most and experienced the most food cultures around the world. I haven’t travelled as much as I would have liked to. But living in Abu Dhabi had a big influence on my cooking, especially when it comes to finding flavours, and creating combinations of different dishes. I try to give Arabic dishes a little bit of an Indian twist. I love fusion cooking. It definitely set me apart from the other contestants that I’ve lived outside of India. I know a little more than they did about non-Indian flavours, especially Middle Eastern. And when I went to college in the US, I learned a lot of Mexican and Italian cuisine too.

What’s your favourite food to cook at home for your family?

My forte is desserts. I make savoury dishes as well but I’m known amongst my friends and family in Abu Dhabi for my desserts and I enjoy making them the most – especially eclairs, with the chocolate and cream – I made some last week that turned out really nice.

Was there a particular dish that you think won you Masterchef?

Not really. It was more about a consistent performance from day one. Everybody was focused, but I was very focused and my focus was within myself and not others. I wanted to be better each day than I had been the previous day, that’s what kept me going. And if I made a mistake, I made sure not to repeat it again. That’s what won me the title, because I think the audience were able to recognise that.

What are you planning on doing now you’ve won Masterchef?

I definitely want to make a career in this field. I always wanted to go to culinary school. I want to fulfill that wish and learn more about food, especially molecular gastronomy, which I really found attractive on Masterchef. We learned a couple of techniques on the show and now I want to do a complete professional course.

I majored in Business and Finance at university - so I would definitely like to start up a restaurant one day. Ideally I would like to set it up in Abu Dhabi. It depends on where I am in the future. But I think if I were to open one right now, it would be in Abu Dhabi.

• The repeat of the MC4 India finale is on Saturday, April 18 at 1pm UAE time on Star Plus Middle East

• Check out Nikita Gandhi’s recipes on her food blog: