Masterchef Australia winner Justin Narayan on his culinary journey

Born into a family of Indian-Fijian heritage, food has been at the centre of his existence for as long as he can remember.


By Anu Prabhakar

Published: Sat 7 Aug 2021, 11:08 PM

Last updated: Sun 8 Aug 2021, 9:40 AM

When Justin Narayan won season 13 of the wildly popular show Masterchef Australia this year, Twitter erupted in jokes. How can Narayan, a contestant of Indian origin, win a cooking game show when most Indian men can’t even boil an egg, one person tweeted. We posed the question to Narayan during our interview with him on Zoom. “I think it is quite funny. My dad would be one of those Indian men,” he chuckles. “But times are changing, you know, and it was fun to be a part of the show and buck the trend.”

With friendly, smiling judges and crackling camaraderie between contestants who forever encourage each other, it’s often easy to forget that Masterchef Australia is ultimately a fierce cooking competition that’s peppered with some very tough challenges. In the season’s grand finale, the then 27-year-old Narayan wooed the judges with his recreation of Chef Peter Gilmore’s dishes — shaved southern squid with koji butter and shiitake custard, and the dessert golden crackle — and won the coveted trophy and $250,000. He was up against two other finalists — Kishwar Chowdhury and Pete Campbell — with whom Narayan enjoyed a bromance so strong that in the finale, Chowdhury quipped that she was a ‘third wheel to one of the greatest love stories that unfolded over here’.

Competing against such good friends on a public platform must be hard, but Narayan says it helped that the show created a positive atmosphere, regardless of whether one won or not. “Yes you do want to win and yes, you do want to do well. But I guess we all wanted each of us to do the best we could and keep putting our best foot forward. I would also be so excited and pumped for him (Campbell), like I was when he made it to the grand finale. That’s what’s so great about sharing a good sense of mateship even though it was a competition.”

‘Meal times were always special’

Once in, Narayan was surprised by how ‘real’ the reality show was. “I thought it would be a bit more smoke and mirrors or something but it’s all very real. That was really cool. What you see is what you get.”

During the competition, the youth pastor ensured that he was in a good mental space by sticking to a ‘good routine’ that included journaling, sleeping well, reading and studying cookbooks, practicing his cooking skills, tasting different flavours, relaxing on his days off and catching Friday night football matches on TV. “The routine kind of stuck and I continue doing that now,” he says, adding that he realised he was quite capable of handling the high pressure and stress that came with participating in such a show. “I also learnt to appreciate some of the people in my life and world, after being away from them for so long.” The newly-wed is also grateful for one very specific skill that he’s picked up from the show: how to maintain a clean kitchen while cooking. “I don’t know whether I am as thankful for it as my wife is now,” he smiles.

Highs and lows

Born into a family of Indian-Fijian heritage (Narayan says three generations lived in Fiji and he is first-generation Australian), food has been at the centre of his existence for as long as he can remember. “My thatha (grandfather) was an orphan and didn’t come from much,” says Narayan. “But he got into carpentry and built a very successful business. We were able to migrate to Australia and continue the business here. My parents were quite well off ... but the business went down and we lost things ... It was quite a journey growing up especially with dad’s health and things like that (Narayan’s father’s health took a turn for the worse during the competition but he is doing better now).”

Through all the highs and lows, food was a constant, comforting presence in his life. “Meal times were always really special where no matter how much or how little we had, mom and grandmom always put incredible effort into the food,” he continues. “We always had tasty food on the table and I never felt like we lacked anything … there were some incredible moments over meal times. These were some special times growing up so that was central to my upbringing.”

Dual cultural exposure

Narayan was exposed to both cultures early on — at home, his mother would rustle up chappatis, dal, chicken curries and chutneys and for big family events, they would make a Fijian ‘lovo’. “You dig a big underground oven, get a whole goat or lamb or a few chickens and wrap it up in banana leaves. The spices marinate … You put it in the oven and put hot rocks and let it cook for the whole day,” he elaborates, adding that they used to incorporate root vegetables like taro in their diet which were consumed as bhajias.

Although he has roots in Chennai in south India, cuisine from that region was not something his family was well-versed in and so that was reserved for their outings to restaurants where they often dug into idlis and — his favourite — masala dosa and coconut chutney. “My family made whatever was available in Fiji so I guess the cuisine kind of changed depending on what was accessible, what was around and what mom was able to get her hands on. I guess that’s the real cool thing about food — you see the continual progression of it,” he explains.

“What I am doing is definitely not authentic Indian food but it is authentic to me, my experience, what I ate growing up, who I am and where I am in Australia. I want to keep being able to present food like that on a scale that people will hopefully enjoy.” Still, it took him some time to completely, and openly, embrace his Indian roots outside the coziness and warmth of his home. Like other Indian kids raised abroad, he wasn’t thrilled about carrying an Indian lunch to school and insisted on sandwiches to try and fit in — or at least, not stand out.

“My mom would pack roti, potato curry or vegetable curry and wrap it up. I insisted on a veggie sandwich with tomato sauce, jam or Nutella,” he remembers. “It’s crazy to see how much I have changed, how proud I am to be able to do all this on such a national scale, how much Australia and the world have changed and how much more open and accepting of different food and cultures we are. I think most kids these days have a different experience.”

The turning point came when he moved out of his parents’ home in Sydney at 24 and moved to Perth. “I missed my mom’s food,” he recalls. “I would find myself on the phone, asking her ‘how do you make the chicken curry’. I had no choice but to learn how she made her food. For me, it was just a reminder of home and I liked that nostalgia and comfort. That’s when I really started to appreciate it. I didn’t care what anyone else thought at that stage — it was just like, ‘This is the food that I want to eat. This is the food that I really miss’. All my friends and family loved my food and kept asking, ‘Can you make it again?’.”

Narayan says he is grateful for the kind of space that Indian food has on the global stage but hopes to shed more light on it as he expands his knowledge, especially on the country’s regional cuisines. “There is so much to learn — this will be a lifelong endeavor of mine. When borders open up, hopefully, I can make a trip to India and get some hands-on experience.” A trip to Dubai, he adds, is on his bucket list. “My wife has been there and she loved it.”

Soon after the competition, media outlets reported that Narayan plans to work for the Mumbai-based NGO Vision Rescue and open a food truck. However, apart from hinting that he would love to create content for the online space, he remains tight-lipped about future projects. “Conversations are happening … I still feel like I have a lot to learn when it comes to running a service in the kitchen and prepping for the masses. Hopefully, I can keep on travelling and learn more about food.”

Fun fact about Justin:

Justin Narayan had acted in a 2018 short film called Rash Decision, where he played a young man who has recently returned from his honeymoon with a mysterious rash. The comedy was screened at the Tropfest film festival and was also a finalist in the Changing Face of International Film awards.

More news from Newsmakers