'I Needed To Go On That Journey': Kishwar Chowdhury On Life After 'MasterChef', Believing In Her Food & The Power Of South Asian Cuisine

The Bangladeshi-Indian cook continues to make her mark after placing third on the cooking show three years ago.

MasterChef Australia star Kishwar Chowdhury

Kishwar Chowdhury. Image Source: Supplied

It’s been three years since Kishwar Chowdhury’s life completely changed when the then-printing business owner entered the MasterChef Australia kitchen and finished in third place. From international pop-ups to government partnerships and TV appearances, Chowdhury has since had a chance to showcase her culinary skills in various forms. But nothing’s been quite like her latest venture, doing a three-week rotation at The Crown’s Alumni restaurant in Melbourne. The limited-time pop-up kicked off with Chowdhury’s rotation that wrapped up last Friday, during which she prepared various South-Asian influenced dishes in her specially curated menu. Now fellow MasterChef alumni Callum Hann and Khanh Ong will do three weeks each. 

“Something that's been really rewarding, honestly, and touching through this process – which hasn't happened in a really long time –  is seeing families with small children come into this space,” Chowdhury tells Draw Your Box. 

Growing up in Melbourne with her Bangladeshi-Indian family, Chowdhury recalls a time when she didn’t see many restaurants featuring sophisticated South Asian-inspired food prepared by a brown female chef. To now see more brown families dining at The Crown, which is often viewed as a fine dining go-to, is utterly heartwarming for the mother-of-two. 

“When we were young and when we had a celebratory meal, we would go to our local Italian place or our favourite Chinese place, but the fact that there's these South Asian families, or any family, bringing young children and [also] MasterChef fans… they’re looking at you with very wide eyes," she says. "I realised that if that was me back in the 80s and 90s seeing a female chef and a female chef of colour, I probably would have dreamed a little earlier and dreamed very differently.” 

With entrees such as Beetroot & Feta Phuchka that’s a modern twist on pani puri, and mains like Mughal Spiced Goat & Nihari, Chowdhury’s menu at Alumni was a love letter to Bangladeshi and Indian flavours while “celebrating Australian and native produce”.

“The entire degustation is an absolute reflection of not only my most popular dishes and my most requested dishes on MasterChef and then afterwards, but a reflection of my heritage,” she explains. 

She also strived to present dishes that we don’t often see at most Indian or Bangladeshi restaurants in Australia, therefore flipping the script on what the mainstream perceives as traditional food. 

“When we think of Indian food, we think of the butter chickens and the palak paneers which is just delicious. It's comfort food, and it sort of sits in its own space,” says Chowdhury. “But I think dishes like the Goat Nihari are those very unexpected things that you don't always find on a regular menu. 

“We have a Beetroot & Feta Phuchka, which looks like a little pani puri, but with Australian ingredients… I want people to come into this very fine dining space, but also just get settled in and then start picking up things with your hand. I think the interactiveness and the playfulness and where this particular degustation takes you was really, really important,” she adds.

“When you're coming in and you've got somewhere between one-and-a-half to two, two-and-a-half hours in this space, I want you to go on a full journey across the bay of Bengal.” 

Chowdhury exudes confidence, struggling to wipe the smile off her face while reflecting on this unique menu. However, there was a time when she was less certain about the appeal of her cultural dishes. When she first appeared on MasterChef in 2021, she feared her food wasn’t “fancy enough” for the reality cooking show. 

“The Bengali cuisine that I carry with me has been passed down from generation to generation,” she said on the Channel 10 show at the time. “I’m very happy with my home-style dish, but I wonder if that’s enough for this competition. My style of food might not be fancy enough to be on MasterChef.”

“I think I needed to go on that journey,” Chowdhury now reflects three years later. 

Like many of us, she’s understandably felt conditioned to feel as though South Asian food may not be as ‘sophisticated’, particularly when French or other European cuisines are so often branded as the norm for fine dining.

“I think I needed to find myself a little bit,” she says. “I always believed in the food… but I think, and I was rightfully so in stating, that it wasn't me alone thinking, ‘Oh, my food's not fancy enough’. That's how we've been conditioned from day dot."

While many people automatically view European food as fine dining, Chowdhury says “when we look at our part of the world, there’s no sort of quantifiable measure of how difficult these dishes are to nail or cook or to even understand, or the lifetime it takes to learn them.

“So I think so much has changed since I've made that statement, because that value got deeper and deeper, but my skill set also arose. I needed to leave MasterChef,” she says.

"I needed to work under a Michelin star chef. I needed to cut my teeth in some kitchens to realise, 'No, I was on the right track – this is brilliant food, and I have the skill set'. I also gained another level of understanding and confidence to do this in a bigger and better way and go a bit more global with it as well.” 

Speaking of confidence, Chowdhury wants to encourage the next generation of South Asians, particularly in Australia, to pursue a career in culinary arts despite what their cultures and communities may say otherwise. So often a profession such as doctor, lawyer or accountant are symbolic of ‘success’, but food can play a powerful role in building connection, storytelling and joy within the community, while being a successful and fulfilling career choice as well. 

“Before MasterChef, I never saw it as a career,” she shares. “But after MasterChef, I think I saw it as something where ‘No, it needs to be done’, because there are so many people throughout my journey in the last few years that have asked me the question, ‘Was it difficult to convince your parents that you want to go into food?’ 

“For me, the answer is, ‘No, absolutely not’. It was difficult for my parents to understand why I wanted to end up on a television show when we had such a wonderful life and like, ‘Why would you want to ruin your privacy by doing that?’,” she laughs. "But that was it. I think it was the television. It was never, ever food that was a barrier to entry.” 

Chowdhury says social media has been a great platform in removing some barriers to entering the food space, and she encourages people to embrace platforms like Instagram and TikTok to showcase their food creations. She also recommends finding a mentor and getting some work experience in the field. 

“One hundred per cent get into a kitchen,” she says. “It is the most important, pivotal thing that not just changed my style of cooking, but honed in my skill set and let me do what I'm doing now.”