Meet Pankaj Bhadouria, India's first Master Chef & a teacher from Lucknow
We often come across stories of people who are inspiring beyond belief, stories that not only motivate us but bring us a hope for more. Knocksense is trying to bring out stories of local achievers, of people from the city who have done the unexpected, made a name for themselves or have just given others hope. We’re bringing you stories from ordinary people who have done extraordinary things and made Lucknow proud.
Known to most people as the winner of India's first ever MasterChef, Pankaj Bhadouria recalls her journey in this interview as a young teen. From how her epicure father introduced her to the world of food, to becoming a TV show host and one of the most recognized chefs in the country, here is the journey of Masterchef Pankaj Bhadouria .
With a Punjabi father, a Bengali mother and Lucknow to call home, Pankaj celebrates the cultural mix she was born into.
"My association with food started at a very young age, for both of my parents were excellent-excellent cooks; my father was one of the most extraordinary cooks I've come across in life. So the very idea that food can give you so much appreciation is what invited me to the kitchen."
Born and brought up in Delhi, Pankaj lost her father at the age of 13 and recalls the time he would take the family to a monastery just so that the family could enjoy 'momos' that were a not-so-common treat in the days. When the first pizza chain was launched in CP, Delhi, Pankaj and her family waited in a line for 45 minutes to have their first bite of Pizza.
After the loss of her father, Pankaj moved to Lucknow, her maternal home and thus began her journey of exploring and learning the Awadhi cuisine.
It was this acclimatization and passion for refined food which prompted Pankaj into being an ardent hostess, an excellent cook and later, a celebrated Chef!
Among the first to be married in his group, Pankaj's husband Charu Samarth was the only one with a home theater and as luck would have it, his friend circle hung out watching movies and enjoying "bhabhi ke hath ka khana". With appreciation about her food pouring in from all corners and a family that would boast of her culinary chops, Pankaj honed her craft and polished her skills. All of this, while balancing her full-time career as a teacher at CMS and playing the role of a mother of two.
When MasterChef India's first ever television advertisement rolled out countrywide, it was her kids that prompted her to try out her luck.
"When my kids told me to try my hand at the show saying, mumma aap toh bohot achha khana banate ho, I thought this is what every child says to their mother and thinks about their mother. Yet, I also thought this is something I can do. I wanted to take my galaouti kebabs for the audition, but it was Charu who pointed it out that we're in Lucknow and half the city would be carrying biryani and kebabs for the contest".
Pankaj decided to chuck the traditional way of serving kebabs and went with the sophisticated French chicken roulade which she then stuffed with galouti kebab as an ode to the city. The poppy-crusted chicken roulade was something she had borrowed from the Bengali food and culture.
The fusion chicken roulade helped her enter the Top 100, after which she sent in the recipes of a French inspired crown biryani as well as a deep fried chicken served in a Chinese curry and a ring of fiery noodles; the latter of which helped her get into MasterChef Top 40.
After entering the top 40, Pankaj was told that she would have to stay in Mumbai for 3 months if selected in the top 12. The story of Pankaj being refused the leave and told that she would have to pick between her career and her passion, is a story we're all familiar with.
"Quitting a 17 year old job is a hard decision, but I believed that I had to take the leap of faith. Risk is an inevitable part of life and I felt that this was a risk worth taking, hence I said ‘No’ to the job. I feel it was this toxicity, this determination to prove myself that drove me to do so well in the Bootcamp."
Everyday was a new experience and came with a new challenge after that, and the rest is history. Pankaj recalls being flooded by a sense of calm during the finale. It was once again a chicken roulade, a drunk chicken log this time stuffed with rice and mushrooms and cooked in red wine, a cranberry cheese souffle, a dill and salmon salad as well as a green salad, a combination that won her the coveted MasterChef hat and a lifetime's worth of fame.
Pankaj won an honour high enough to make her a household name. Unlike other reality show winners, who fade out of public memory, Pankaj managed to remain in the public eye. With a television show to her name and a lifelong teaching career to get inspired from, Pankaj did what came the most naturally to her- teaching how to cook.
On combining two things that she had been the most passionate about, Pankaj established her culinary institute which she takes great pride in. Not only does the institute offer courses for amateurs, they also run 4 professional batches a day. With students pouring in from Bhutan, Siliguri, Madhya Pradesh, Kerela, Gujarat, Rajasthan even Mumbai, Pankaj is now a full-time chef and a culinary teacher.
With the changing city and the changing palate, Pankaj finds people to be more experimental with what they're eating these days. She is convinced that the rigid palates of the Nawabs are finally turning for good.
To the budding chefs, Pankaj says, "Choose the profession only if you're sure that this is what you want to do. Standing in front of a furnace and sweating isn't a glamorous thing; it requires a passion that burns as bright as the fire you're cooking on. It is a lot of hard work but at the end of the day, the profession is also one of the most rewarding ones; all the appreciation and the blessings go a very long way."