Do Goan star fruit zucchini lasagne, star fruit daliya waffles, fish curry ravioli, quenelle khichdi keema khatta with a tuile, instead of a regular papad, sound familiar? Then you have heard of Zeeshan Ahmed from Hyderabad. For the uninitiated, however, Zeeshan was the only participant from South India to reach the Top 21 in the ongoing MasterChef India season 6. While on the show the young man recreated the Hyderabadi cuisine with an added twist to it.
While speaking to us, the 28-year-old chef elaborated on his initial tryst with food. “I am a civil engineer by profession, but I took up cooking full-time in 2015. A few months later, I started ‘Fitmeals’ in Hyderabad, a setup focusing on healthy eating. Now, we cater to various sportspersons and Tollywood celebrities,” he says.
MasterChef India season 6 happened when one of his friends who’d relished Zeeshan’s experiments with food suggested that he try his luck in the reality show.
The ride to the Top 21
Making it to the Top 21 was clearly not an easy task. Zeeshan had to compete with two lakh participants over 12 rounds before that. “The first three rounds were in Hyderabad and the rest, in Mumbai. With every round, the group got smaller, and the competition, tougher,” he reminisces. Getting to Top 21 from Top 150 took Zeeshan over two months, including rigorous training and intense competitions. But in the Top 21, Zeeshan was the only one representing South India. “So on the show, I decided to showcase the lesser-known Hyderabadi delicacies in my healthy and fusion style,” he adds.
The show judged participants not only on their cooking skills but also on their overall personality and screen presence. “Everyone in Top 21 was a brilliant cook, but what mattered was their behaviour in front of the camera — the TRPs they raked in-because audiences can’t taste the food but can relate to the cook,” explains Zeeshan.
Out, not down
The “boot camp” days with Michelin star chefs will remain closest to Zeeshan’s heart. “Those 21 days helped us through our weak points. They took individual care and helped me with my weakness in pastries and baking. I learned a lot,” he shares.
On the show, Zeeshan made traditional dishes with a twist, which the three judges — Vikas Khanna, Ranveer Brar and Vineet Bhatia — loved. Reminiscing about one of the tasting sessions, he says, “One group contest needed us to choose a surprise pantry by a judge. I chose my favourite chef Vikas Khanna’s pantry. That’s when I first saw and worked with a starfruit. The judges appreciated my idea of making starfruit crisps and zucchini lasagne with starfruit waffles but criticised me on the quantity of salt used,” says Zeeshan with a guilty chuckle at the memory. “But I’m into healthy eating and consciously use less salt in my food. And despite their warnings, I used less salt in those dishes, which resulted in my early exit from the competition.”
Back home now, Zeeshan is rooting for his friends Abhinas and Natasha, hoping they’d win the title. “I plan to come back stronger next year. Now, I know how the show works and how well I need to groom myself — that will give me a fair chance,” he concludes....