Chefs

Kumar ‘The Kumanator’ Pereira on the Masterchef Experience

They called him ‘The Kumanator’ – whether it was figuring out how to cook a giant ostrich egg or making a Lebanese baklava without a recipe, Kumar Pereira was your man. When the genial 62-year-old became the oldest competitor ever to make it into the top 12 of Masterchef, Australia, he did more than break the age barrier – he transcended it.

As the Sri Lankan-born designer and teacher survived test after test, his popularity grew incrementally. (The ‘Kumar From MasterChef Appreciation Society’ on FB alone has nearly 20,000 fans.) Now nearly a year to the date from when he first auditioned for the cooking competition, Kumar has found his life transformed by the gruelling six months he spent on the sets of Masterchef. It’s an experience he’s glad he had, Kumar tells me, but it’s not one he’d care to repeat.

Sally, Kumar’s wife (left) wept to see him lose

“I had absolutely no idea this could happen,” Kumar says. It’s early on a Sunday morning and he’s looking relaxed in a t-shirt and shorts. We’re at his brother’s house off Havelock Road – but it turns out I’m not the only one who has managed to track him down.

Fans have been calling him at home and Kumar says he’s been approached out on the street as well. “I thought I could escape it here,” he says, ruefully. “They do warn you when you’re selected, they tell you your life is never going to be same, but you still can’t quite imagine it.”

When Kumar sat down to apply for Masterchef 2011, it was to find that the application form, with nearly a 100 questions, was more akin to a Myers Brigg personality test in its attention to detail. (On his list of adventurous things he had done before, Kumar included having sailed across the Atlantic in his 30s in a small boat with three others.) Excited to receive an audition call, Kumar was told he would have to bring along a cold dish of his own making.

He chose to go with a delicate amber jelly saturated with herbed tomato essence, flavoured with lemon grass and coriander and topped with blue swimmer crab meat and green mango. The dish, which included a dusting of chilli flakes and a hint of fish sauce, was served up in a martini glass. It won Kumar praise from the judges and an invitation to come back for a second and final audition. This time, however, he would have to cook in front of the panel.

At home, Kumar stepped out onto his own modest little vegetable patch and surveyed his options. (“I try to grow my own herbs and vegetables and nothing gives me greater pleasure that going out and picking stuff fresh from the garden and then deciding what to do.”) In the end, using what he had grown himself, he would create a lovely Japanese inspired salad with fresh broad beans and herbs.

Serving it up on a bed of soba noodles, he layered the final ingredient on top of both: thinly sliced pieces of seared tuna, crusted in three peppers (black, white and Sichuan), with a bowl of miso broth ladled out on the side.

His second audition was a success. Kumar was in the car park afterward when he received an SMS confirming he had made it through. His first thought was to share the news with his wife Sally. Leaping out of the car, he cut his forehead on the edge of the door. “I was just so excited,” he says now, smiling as he traces a line on his brow.

In the months that followed, Kumar would find himself immersed in the competition. He and the 50 other competitors (who had been chosen from approximately 17,000 applications) were separated from their families and put up in a hotel. From there, they would make the trip to the Masterchef sets, beginning as early as 5 a.m. on some days and going on till as late as 10 or 11p.m. It was far from what he was used to. Even now, Kumar won’t accept the label of ‘chef’ – his training he will tell you has been entirely in design (his design credits include the Discovery, Pacific, New Woman and Serendib magazines, among others).

Though he does most of the cooking at home, it was always incidental. Still, when it came to the competition, having lived in the U.K, in Hong Kong and in Australia, Kumar had the advantage of a diverse culinary palette to draw from. Now, on the show, he found himself having to create with unfamiliar raw materials, often working under less than ideal conditions. (For one challenge, he made a ‘net’ out of an ostrich egg and stuffed it with roasted vegetables – while struggling with a small two burner stove, out in the open on a windy day to do so.)

If there was one thing he welcomed, it was the feedback the judges provided. “I was there to learn,” he says, explaining that for him the highlights were those chances to really talk to and watch some of the world’s greatest chefs in action.

As for his fellow competitors, Kumar’s fondness for them was reciprocated. He was under no illusion, however – everyone was in this to win. They would be ruthlessly winnowed down to 24 and then to just 10, before a victor would be chosen. “It was a very strange bubble you were living in,” says Kumar, who lost 10 kg in the heat of the competition. Under intense pressure, 60 to 90 minutes would be all the time Kumar had to create a new dish. Whether it was breaking down the carcass of a lamb or learning how to gently “poach” meat in foaming butter, Kumar says he had to keep an eye on the clock.

“Often if you weren’t disciplined enough, you ran out of time,” he says. “That’s what happened in the last round.”

When Kumar was blindfolded and asked to identify the ingredients he tasted off a terrine, he found himself almost paralysed. Staggering through he managed to name four things: apples, parsley, stock and pork meat. Kumar then had to use these to make a dish. His herb crusted pork tasted good, but its presentation was underwhelming, leading to his elimination from the show.

Cooking up a dish: Kumar on the show

She wept to see him lose, says Sally, adding that she was incredibly touched to see how the other finalists missed her husband. “If we hadn’t known what was coming, it would have been really hard,” she says explaining that they were spared the ordeal of a live broadcast. “As it was we cried after the elimination episode.” That her husband made it that far doesn’t surprise her – “he was always the best cook that any of us knew,” she says, but admits to being taken aback by his popularity. She’s even had to field some of it herself and was amused to see her marriage of 26 years described as “Kumar’s spicy romance” in one article.

Kumar is still riding the momentum from all the publicity. A series of recipes accompanied by beautiful sketches he made himself has been snapped up by a publisher. Included in it will be Kumar’s recipe for whole fish stuffed with a spicy cashew nut filling, cooked in banana leaves as well as his Sri Lankan ‘sushi’ which uses kiribath for a base. Kumar, who compiled the set night by night after long days of shooting for Masterchef says it was initially intended as a cooking manual for his two sons. Now, it’s a key pillar in his new career after the show.

On his first trip home in eight years (he migrated when he was 17), he’s also scoping out venues for his culinary tours which will begin in March next year. But all this is a bonus; Kumar has already achieved what he set out to do: “I went in there to prove something. I wanted to show my kids that you could be 62 and still do something new with your life.”

Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on October 3, 2011. Words by Smriti Daniel.

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