MasterChef UK Quarterfinalist & our very own Global Account Director, Ajay John, tells us about his love of cuisine and his experience in the competition.
Below is our candid interview with Ajay where you can find out what it takes to make it onto MasterChef UK, why he once donned the nickname “Mommy”, and whether cooking and account management have anything in common.
“We all think it’s quite incredible that Ajay was able to take part in MasterChef UK! Of course, we knew of his passion for the culinary arts but I think he surprised all of us when he broke news that he made it onto the competition. I was quite excited to watch all the episodes as I’ve always liked MasterChef UK but, more importantly, I wanted to support Ajay on his journey. The fact that he had the courage to follow his dream sets a great example for the rest of us. It’s truly wonderful when our people are able to pursue their personal interests in such ways – learning and growing in the process.”Wojtek GurgulCEO, PGS Software
When did you first discover your love of cooking?
Ajay John: I’ve been cooking since I was a kid, maybe even as young as 4 or 5 years old. At that point, I would help my Mum in the kitchen making Indian pancakes (dosas) and other simple things. For example, we used to make fried puffed breads and I would cut them into funny shapes and make them fun to eat. When I was growing up, I always wanted to be a chef. My Mum didn’t let me pursue that career option though because growing up to go into culinary arts meant finishing with a diploma, not a graduate degree. In India, back in the day, having a graduate degree was very important. I couldn’t pursue that opportunity at that point but I’ve been interested in cooking since I was quite young.
Do you remember the first dish you ever made?
AJ: The first time I really cooked an entire meal was when my parents were away and I had the house to myself. I was in college and had a few friends over, got some beer. I made a chicken curry, Indian style macaroni, and some vegetables. That was the first time I cooked for 12 people. I grew up in southern India, in Madras, (currently, Chennai), so normally one would use ingredients from that region such as curry leaves, black pepper, fennel, etc., to flavour the dish and that’s also what I did.
What do you enjoy most about cooking?
AJ: Everything, I think! For me, cooking is like a detox. It’s always been a detox. When I had stressful days at work and when I had a few stressful roles in the past, cooking was always the enjoyable part of life. I get most of my inspiration from my Mum, who was a really awesome cook and a great hostess. She always cooked for people and was very welcoming.
When I was in college in the US, we used to cook for ourselves and I always made sure that all my friends ate and, because of this, they used to call me “Mommy” [laughs]. We were poor students so cooking at home was something we did a lot. So, yeah, that’s how I got that nickname.
Even today, whenever I host a party, which could be as far as 3 weeks away, I’m already thinking about the menu. It starts early on, from the ideation phase and the shopping process of trying to find the best local, sustainable, and seasonal ingredients, which is quite important to me, and is a big part of my cooking. Finding these ingredients on time, prepping them. I enjoy all of it.
Are there any regions around the world that inspire your cooking?
AJ: Of course, I make a lot of Indian inspired dishes. But, having travelled a fair bit across the world, you tend to notice that the ingredients you grew up with are used differently in different regions and, sometimes, they’re used better in a different region. I try to incorporate as much as I can from what I’ve learnt from my travels into my cooking.
Do you have an interesting example of an ingredient that you’ve seen being used in a different culture that you were using differently in your cooking until you saw this other way of doing it?
AJ: One of my creations is a Guinness goat curry dish. Goat is quite a popular meat in India and I had figured out that Guinness and its caramel flavours had the potential to make that dish a whole lot better. Guinness is also a great tenderiser. I have also learnt new cooking techniques from my travels that I have used to make Indian dishes better. For example, the way I cook my fish today.
Can you tell me a bit about the whole process of becoming a MasterChef UK contestant and what inspired you to join the programme?
AJ: I’ve been watching MasterChef UK for many years now. I used to always play out these scenarios of Greg and John (the judges) interviewing me or questioning me about my food, or having to do those specific challenges. I’ve always played it out in my head when MasterChef was on TV thinking like “Oh, I wish I could do that!’. It takes a lot of courage to apply though; it’s not easy, because if you get on it, millions of people are going to see you. For some, the thought of that could be quite daunting. So, yeah, I always wanted to apply, and never did – I finally got the courage to do it last year.
To apply, you have to go through many questions – almost like responding to an RFP. They ask questions much like the ones you’re asking me during this interview – e.g. what inspired you, who’s your favourite chef. You fill out the form and you have the option of doing a video, which I chose to do. I filmed myself preparing one of my original dishes.
A good 6 months later, I got the call when I was in the US on holiday. When I came back, I went through an intense round of job application-like interviews. You basically go through a bunch of questions and then they invite you for an audition and a tasting. You cook food at home and then you take it over, plate it in front of a camera and you’re quizzed while you’re plating. Then you leave and wait to see if they get back to you.
In the end, they select 56 people to take part in the show. What I learnt in hindsight was that about 6,000 people apply, and only then 56 people are chosen to participate in the competition. So, as you can see, getting to be one of the 56 who participate in the televised competition is already a great achievement.
What kind of dish did you make for your MasterChef UK video submission?
AJ: It originated from a very simple dish – as simple as rice, potatoes, and lentils, which we eat on an everyday basis. I just decided to take it up a notch. I took these ingredients and turned them into an arancini style dish, dressing the dish with vegetables and equal parts crispy and fluffy fondant spiced potatoes. In essence, it’s just stewed spinach, rice, pickled carrot, and potatoes but done in a completely different way.
Who’s your favourite chef?
AJ: I admire many chefs. One of my favourites and the one who I mentioned in my application is Masaharu Morimoto, Iron Chef Japan – he’s just mind-blowing. His ability to be creative and elevate simple ingredients to spectacular dishes is amazing. He was one of the first chefs to do modern Japanese cooking, which I adore.
What have you learnt during your journey on the show? Were there any interesting challenges you had to overcome?
AJ: You learn every day – and that’s also my personal philosophy. To always look out for things to do, things to learn, and things to improve. I learnt a lot on MasterChef UK. I thought I was a good cook but there are, of course, people who are better than me. By being a part of the competition, I’ve learnt how to plate better, manage my time better, and appreciate my diners’ needs better. For example, you shouldn’t finish too early when you’re there. Finishing too early can result in certain things becoming thicker or colder. What happened to me was that my sauce thickened and when I was plating it, it didn’t flow how it would have flowed if it had been warmer. I learnt a whole bunch of things like that. You also have to learn to be very patient in the competition because it’s television and what you see for just a few minutes can take an entire day to shoot.
Was the programme scripted in any way?
AJ: Absolutely not. No prompting. Nothing. Completely real. You’re there and it can at times be a bit brutal – if you make a mistake, you get told off in front of all the cameras, in front of everyone. Even during the auditions, they ask you how well you handle stress and criticism – likely because it can get to be quite brutal.
What advice would you give to others seeking to pursue their own personal hobbies?
AJ: My advice is: “Do it”. You live one life. And, I say this to everyone all the time – you only live one life, so if there’s something you want to do, just go ahead and do it; and don’t be scared, because every time you try something new, you learn from it or you will see another door open. This may sound quite “preachy” and philosophical, but it’s the truth.
Would you say there are any similarities between cooking and Account Management?
AJ: It’s almost the same job [laughs]. I honestly think every cook can become an Account Manager. I’m not so sure if this goes the other way but yes, anyone who cooks has the potential to do great at account management.
If you think about it, what is account management? You get to know your customer, what they want, and you prepare a plan, which you then deliver to make sure your customer is happy. You have to have a vision of the future and you have to plan for what you need to do. And, that’s also what a chef has to do. A chef has to know who’s coming to dinner, to know what to cook in order to satisfy them – that’s the same as when an Account Manager has to know what the customer needs to solve their problem.
When prepping a meal, you buy the vegetables in time, you cut your vegetables and your meat, and you keep them ready. Similarly, in account management, you plan your steps, you tell your team what they can expect to keep them ready, etc. Even serving a meal is also a lot like finishing a project – you strive to make the end consumer happy! And, last but not least, you’ve got to do both of these things with heart.