When you meet Neha Shah, the proud owner of Firki café in Mumbai, her love for food evident. “I have been crazy about food ever since childhood. While growing up we read about how one must do what one’s passionate about… I have imbibed that all my life,” she says. Her culinary journey began because of her mother. “My mother is a phenomenal cook. We hardly order food from outside. Everything is made at home even for parties,” she says.
A food scientist, Shah loves developing different flavours and mixing them up. Her restaurant, Firki, is all about fusion food inspired by local dishes. For example, one can dig into sev puri tacos or pav bhaji fondue. “Cooking has no language. It is all about taste and innovation but that will come if you are passionate about it,” she says. A particular dish has several recipes, but how it is cooked can make all the difference in the taste. “My mother and I share recipes. So I will use exactly the same ingredients as her but her dish always turns out better.”
About her MasterChef India experience, Shah recounts how she refused to give up trying for the title despite not making it in the first three editions. “In the third edition, I didn’t even qualify, can you believe that? But I never gave up. Perseverance is very important in life,” Shah says.
So, what changed? “When I was working in Delhi, every Saturday I’d cook for my friends. I would plan out the menu through the week and do a lot of research. When the spread was laid out I’d take a lot of photographs. My food is my hero,” she explains.
Shah was apprehensive of applying for the fourth edition of MasterChef India, but decided to give it a try after her boss and friends encouraged her. What was it like to be among celebrated chefs and contestants from different walks of life? “The experience taught me many life skills. It has made me a calmer person. Believe me, I wasn’t calm when I moved to Delhi.”
A self-confessed self-critic, she says she competes with herself. “Even during MasterChef, I was my own competition. If I did a dish well, I would come back and analyse how I could do it better.”
Looking at the future, she’s very excited about the changes the country and the food industry is undergoing. “Now young kids take cooking classes and it’s so heartening to see their excitement when they are in a kitchen. Even schools today promote cooking as a hobby,” Shah says, beaming with enthusiasm. “For baking you need technical knowledge which most institutes provide, while for cooking you just need love. Food in itself is a language.”