Over the past decade or so, the show has indeed become a household name across Pakistan. Renowned chefs Gary Mehigan and George Calombaris, along with food critic Matt Preston – the food trinity adjudicating the show – have become global gurus, while unearthing superstar chefs from within their country.
This year turned out to be the farewell for the trio. Masterchef Australia 2019, the 11th season, also crowned the youngest winner in the history of the show.
22-year-old Larissa Takchi, a restaurant manager at her family’s Wildpear Café in Dural, Sydney, took home the title. Takchi, who comes from a large family of Lebanese heritage, showcased her propensity to merge Middle Eastern and Australian flavours throughout the series.
This penchant for experimentation and merging traditional and unorthodox flavours gradually became Takchi’s strength on the show, with some of her finest dishes coming in the lead up to the finale.
These included, according to the judges, some of the finest desserts cooked on the show: Lemon Creme Fraiche and Cucumber; Parsnip Ice Cream with Caramelized Pears; and Lemon Parfait with Black Olive Madeleine and Poppy Seed Cream.
Takchi, however, saved her best for last with her now iconic Szechuan Pavlova giving her a perfect 30/30 score, and more crucially the win over Tessa Boersma and Simon Toohey in the Grand Finale, crowning her Masterchef Australia 2019.
Since the win, Takchi has been back at her family’s Wildpear Café, planning to take forward what is already, at the age of 22, a glorious career in food.
This week she was kind enough to take time out for a brief interview with The Friday Times.
K.K. Shahid: How does being the youngest ever Masterchef Australia winner feel like? How has your life changed since winning the title?
Larissa Takchi: It still feels like a dream winning Masterchef! Being titled the winner is crazy, but being the youngest winner ever in the history of Masterchef? That was just mind blowing! To be honest I was quite intimidated winning the title, I wasn’t sure where it was going to take me. But I have to say it’s been a crazy ride since. Working in TV shows, cooking demonstrations and cooking magazines is all what my life is about. It’s a lot of fun.
KKS: You were among the last six in the second audition to make the final 24 for Masterchef 2019. Gradually you grew strong in the competition, and became a contender in the latter stages. When did you start to think that you could actually win the trophy?
LT: That’s a hard question because I was always so insecure and my own harshest critic. I guess it took me a while to figure out what I was really good at. Obviously I’m young and new to the industry so I hadn’t set any preferences down pat. The judges really helped mentor me into the cook that I am today, they taught me to cook with simple ingredients and to make simple dishes. I guess that’s what’s key! Keep it simple but with a little edge.
KKS: Masterchef Australia shows a lot of camaraderie among its contestants even though you’re all competing for the same title. How does that work? How does the show that is aired for the TV audiences differ from the competition that you experience while contesting it?
LT: As a viewer you would think there was a lot of drama that Masterchef isn’t showing you. Well you’re wrong! This show is exactly what you get; it’s all about food and teaching one another about food. The support from your competitors is what gets you through this competition. We were in a unique situation and there is no one else that understands what we had to go through. I’m so glad I had the other contestants there every day.
KKS: Unlike other contestants, you rarely looked flustered, stressed or overly emotional throughout the season. Is being cool and calm, generally, a personality trait of yours? Does it help in the kitchen?
LT: Haha people do recognize that in me which I find hilarious! Of course it was an emotional rollercoaster ride but I had to keep kicking myself back into reality. This TV show is a mental game as much as it is a cooking one. You’re away from your family for months on end, you’re stripped of all your independence and you’re working relentlessly every day. But at the end of the day, you can’t have your emotions get to you and I knew that. My mother passed on that trait and I’m forever grateful.
KKS: You got the title of “dessert queen” early in the competition, but it was in the last few weeks that you really started creating your dessert niche by combining traditional sweet flavours with savory ingredients. Where did the inspiration for that come from?
LT: Well I guess that’s my creative side kicking in. I love playing with flavours and exploring what works. Although I’m very conscious of not pairing flavours that are just plain offensive. There is a fine balance to what I do and that’s why every week I was scared that I would take it that step too far. However I find my happy medium and the judges really loved where I was going with it. Also I’m in a competition and I had to give something to judges that the other contestants couldn’t.
KKS: You were lauded for merging Middle Eastern cuisine with Australian food. Have you ever experimented with traditional Pakistani desserts like Kheer (rice pudding) or Gajar ka Halwa (carrot halwa)?
LT: Of course I love Middle Eastern food because I’m Lebanese and proud. I have made rice pudding before with Middle Eastern flavours and it was damn delicious!
KKS: Are there any Pakistani dishes that you enjoy eating or cooking? Are any of them likely to feature as “Larissa versions” in your restaurant?
LT: I wish I knew more about Pakistani food – although I am familiar with the flavours, of course. I’m always up for doing a twist!
KKS: What are your upcoming and future plans?
LT: Future plans are to work on my brand as Larissa Takchi or as “Larry”. Which means I’ll be very public with all my cooking and my life. Down the track I would love to open up my own restaurant in Dural in a farm-to-table-style setting.
KKS: What would your advice be for any aspiring young chef, especially in the Middle East and South Asia?
LT: Believe in yourself and keep cooking!