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'Dream big and work hard'

Friday, December 21, 2018

That’s the advice MasterChef Australia finalist Ben Ungermann has for those who want to make their mark, says Menka Shivdasani

Ben Ungermann, MasterChef Australia finalist for 2017, was in Mumbai last week, causing considerable excitement on his whistle-stop tour that involved a city a day. Before arriving in Mumbai, he had been to Kolkata and Delhi, and one of the items on his agenda was to work out some business plans for a new venture. “I can’t tell you what it is as yet,” he said, smiling the famous smile that made him so appealing to television viewers around the world. The ‘Ice Cream King’, as he became known on MasterChef, certainly thinks that India is a foodie destination worth exploring; this is his third trip to the country so far.

 “You guys are so used to spice,” he said to this writer, taking a break from making a Johnnie-Walker infused ice cream at KOKO on December 14. “In India, there are layers of spice that give the food intensity. I’ve made dishes that are very European, where the focus is on the produce—they are completely different styles. My dream is to take India’s flavour and use it with European cuisine.” Ben says he is ‘deconstructing’ and ‘recreating’ traditional Indian flavours and adding a European twist—for instance, using them on ravioli. “Indian cuisine is complex and I have a lot of respect for it,” he says.

Ben, who was working as a shoe salesman until MasterChef, was always interested in food. “Everyone who comes onto MasterChef says their grandmother taught them to cook, but in my case it really was true,” he explains. His grandmother was from Holland, and growing up in Australia, Ben watched her in the kitchen. In his late teens, he learned to make shortbread, and eventually got quite accustomed to feeding the entire family traditional Dutch meals. All the while, he was dreaming of MasterChef, which he watched every season, “but then I’d chicken out”, he said. Finally, in Season 9, he worked up the courage to apply.

Cooking on MasterChef was, of course, a whole different experience. “There is so much time pressure,” he recalls, “and  there are five or six cameras on you at all times. If you make a mistake—say, you burn something—the crew will tell the others on the walkie-talkie and you will suddenly have the camera right on you. You can be a good cook but that’s only 60% of what’s required; the remaining 40% is being able to deal with that pressure.”

What about those bits in the show where participants talk about their experience? “The storytellers sit you down and start reminding you of everything you did while you were cooking,” he says; naturally, this adds to the stress!

Ben, who says he had never dealt with such pressure before, eventually learned a way to use it to his advantage. “I used the nervous energy to work more frantically,” he recalls. Once, while working on a Heston Blumenthal challenge, he managed to replicate a 115-step Lamington recipe, not once, but 40 times for 40 people. “It was the sort of thing for which he would usually have five or six chefs and they would have all day,” Ben recalls. “I did it single-handedly.”

Ben also realised that while the pressure and plating techniques were important, in the end, what mattered was flavour. “You just had to put up amazing food,” he says. That rule doesn’t change, not even when you cut yourself badly while cooking, as Ben did during the finals; if such things interest you—and it is not a pleasant sight—you can watch that video online.

So what’s his advice to others brave enough to apply for MasterChef? “Fail in the kitchen,” he says. “If you make mistakes and recognise them, you will be a better cook. And dream big. Two years ago, I was selling shoes and I wasn’t passionate about that. You need to dream big and work hard, and if you love what you are doing, it’s not work!”

Ben in Mumbai

Ben Ungermann had a busy schedule in Mumbai. On December 14, he was at KOKO, doing an ice cream masterclass with Johnnie Walker Gourmet Experiences. Ben made a Johnnie Walker-infused ice cream and this was followed by a drinks-led menu with appetisers curated by chef Eric Sifu and mixologist Dimi Lezinska. The pop-up menu is available till the end of the month.

Then, on December 17, he announced Season 4 of World on A Plate at Out of The Blue, by pledging to raise 1,00,000 meals for the HUG foundation. At the event, top chefs like Chef Vicky Ratnani, Chef Rakhee Vaswani, Chef Jason from Xico, Chef Kaustubh from The Winerack, Chef Ajay Chopra, Chef Anaida from SodaBottleOpener Wala and many more came together to provide a gourmet experience to 25 children. The chefs were paired into four teams where they took a mystery box challenge to serve their best dish to these children. The best dish, which was voted for by the kids, earned its creators the 'Orange Apron Award'.

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