(August14, 2021) Once upon a time, Sashi Cheliah was a gun toting super cop: first, he joined the military and spent two years as a commando, and then he joined the Singapore police force where he specialized in counter terrorism in its elite Special Tactics and Rescue (STAR) unit. But when he was not chasing the bad guys, it was the aromas and flavors from his kitchen that held his heart. A move to Australia and a subsequent job as a prison guard didn’t do much to dull his love for cooking. That’s when Masterchef Australia happened. Sashi went on to shine in the show and became the first Indian-origin contestant to bag the title after his Thai-inspired sambal prawn dish won the perfect score from the judges in the finale.
Now, the cop-turned-chef is living his dream: he runs Gaja by Sashi his restaurant in Adelaide where he serves some authentic Asian cuisine that is inspired by seasonal and local produce. When he’s not cooking in the restaurant and striking up conversations with his diners, he is pottering around his home garden, putting together Sashi’s Secret home chef kits and posting on Instagram.
Journey to the top
Hailing from a Coimbatore-origin family, Sashi was born and brought up in Singapore where he attended Swiss Cottage Secondary School before he graduated from ITE College, Yishun. Following this, his love for adventure drove him to join the military where he worked for two years as a commando before joining Singapore Police’s elite STAR unit. For 13 years he worked with the unit that specialized in tactics, rescue operations, counter terrorism, kidnappings, and high profile protection in riot policing.
In an interview with The Hindu, Sashi said, “I enjoyed what I did in the Force, but if I’d continued in that line of work I would have missed out on my children’s childhood. We moved to Australia for better work-life balance,” he says. In Australia, he worked as prison guard, but his love for cooking and the kitchen continued to tug at his heart strings.
Sashi had grown up watching his mother, a café owner in Singapore, and his aunts prepare large family meals: it was the essence of his growing up years. He’d always loved hanging around the kitchen as his mother whipped up delicious Indian meals.
Masterchef Australia innings
In 2018, he finally decided to take the plunge into the culinary world and auditioned for Masterchef Australia where he was selected to participate. On the show, his cheerful demeanor, team spirit and flair for cooking had him rack up the popularity points amongst the judges, contestants, and audience alike. He earned the moniker King of Flavors in the Masterchef kitchen and in an interview with Zee, he said he’d gotten his sense of taste from his mum,
“We are big on flavors back at home. There is no concept of delicately spicing or flavoring our dishes. Apart from love, we are generous when it comes to portions of ghee or pistachios. We don’t like playing conservative in the kitchen!”
When he won the Masterchef Australia Season 10 title, the world erupted in joy as their favorite chef emerged victorious. As his sambal prawn and fish curry with cumin rice (that he made to honor his aunt) bagged him top honors, Sashi walked away with the trophy, prize money and a whole lot more.
Sashi had always wanted to open his own restaurant and Masterchef Australia just happened to open many doors for him and pave the way to a future full of flavors. Within the first year he began hosting pop ups in Melbourne that were very well received. But Sashi wasn’t satisfied, he wanted to consolidated his plans for Gaja, his dream restaurant. His dream finally came true in 2019 when Gaja by Sashi opened its doors to rave reviews. With its Asian-inspired food that was an explosion of flavors and testimony of Sashi’s technique, Gaja was soon booked out for the first three months. However, the pandemic played spoilsport soon enough. In an interview with Travel and Leisure, he said,
“Being a new business, I had put everything on the line. I had no investors, and it was a family-owned business run by my wife and me. So we took a big hit. It was devastating to close the doors on March 23. The biggest problem was uncertainty—we had no idea how long the restaurants would stay closed.”
When most restaurants adapted by offering takeaways and deliveries, Sashi shied away. He didn’t want to compromise on the integrity of his food or the Gaja experience. They closed the doors for the first six weeks and the Australian government’s JobKeeper program helped him retain his staff. Eventually they began doing small scale takeaways, but thankfully the government soon began allowing dine-in with limited numbers and Gaja began getting back on its feet.
While Gaja offers two menus that focus on local and seasonal produce, they also bring in Sashi’s signature twist to the dishes. For instance, on a visit to India a couple of years ago he discovered vada pav. This found its way into his menu, except the milk bun was replaced with brioche and Sashi added some pickled carrots for texture and acidity.
For now, Sashi Cheliah is focusing on adapting himself and his restaurant for a post-pandemic world where budgets and menus will change. Until then, he is happy living in his beautiful home in the hills in Adelaide where he loves to unwind with his wife and kids over backyard barbecues and kitchen experiments.