When people curse about your food, that usually isn’t a good sign. Then again, there’s nothing “usual” about technology-whiz-turned-MasterChef-contestant Hetal Vasavada.
So far, the lifelong vegetarian has cooked up dishes that made Graham Elliot and Gordon Ramsay exclaim in expletive-deleted rapture — most recently about her winning Beef Wellington, which she created without tasting. To find out how she pulled it off, she spoke to me from her home in San Francisco, where she lives with her husband of a year.
Learning on the Job
For most people, being a vegetarian on MasterChef would be a liability. And at times (Salisbury steak, anyone?), that’s been true. But Hetal has taken her natural ability as a student to study, watch, and learn, and it’s paying off.
It may also help that she’s not the “typical” non-meat-eater. “I know that some fans of the show don’t think vegetarians should be at all – there’s definitely negativity out there,” she says. “I want to make it clear I’m not grossed out by meat.
“As a first-generation Indian-American, it’s just cultural. It’s how I grew up — we didn’t eat meat. A lot of meat looks good to me, actually, but I no longer have the enzyme in my body that breaks down animal proteins. It’s a use-it-or-lose-it thing.”
That doesn’t mean she’s completely comfortable cooking it. “There is a fear factor for me because I don’t want to mess up. Fortunately, I’m a ‘forever’ student — I love learning. I studied a lot, but it’s hard to study every cut, so I chose beef, chicken, fish, and duck.”
Even with her preparation, she faced near-elimination with the Salisbury steak TV dinner contest, saved only by the lesser dinners of Veronica Cili and Jesse Romero. “After that, I told myself I’d never let that happen again. I tried to keep learning throughout the season.”
Another thing she’s learned: there’s a MasterChef India, which is wildly popular, especially in the village where her parents grew up. “Last year, they did an entirely vegetarian season. That would have been much easier for me! But I like a challenge, so here I am.”
A Double Disadvantage Proves to Be No Curse
It’s hard to imagine a tougher challenge for a vegetarian — even one who doesn’t mind working with meat — than making Beef Wellington, one of Chef Ramsay’s signature dishes.
To recap: Before the actual cooking started, all the remaining contestants paired off to taste examples from Ramsay’s restaurant. Hetal shared her meal with Christopher Lu, who walked her through the mechanics of creating the multi-layered dish. Next, the judges teamed up the pairs of diners to make their own versions in 60 minutes. So far, so good.
But on MasterChef, there’s always a twist. Although each cook prepared an individual Wellington, the judges asked the teams to choose one sample only for tasting.
Did I also mention that Hetal has a long-standing allergy to mushrooms, another key ingredient in Beef Wellington? Though her allergy has largely faded, Hetal didn’t dare taste the mushrooms for fear of a sudden reaction on set.
“I actually didn’t try anything on the plate,” she told me. “I just touched it, smelled it, and used my observation. When you’re in that position, you have to use your other senses.”
Despite Christopher’s expertise in cooking meat and Hetal’s double disadvantage with the meat and the mushrooms, surprise! The two friends picked her version to give the judges.
And they loved it: how it looked, smelled, and best of all, tasted. They liked it so much Gordon let out a curse at how good it was. This made the second time Hetal’s scored the “expletive of delight” from a MasterChef judge. (The first was Gordon’s “Holy #$%@!” after trying her coconut curry soup early in the season.)
The best part? “I was able to impress Gordon Ramsay curse over his own dish!”
Her next goal: Get Christina Tosi, one of her inspirations, to lose it over a Hetal-created plate of food. (Does she achieve it? We’ll have to wait and see.)
A Natural-born Cheerleader
Although victory was sweet, I think Hetal would have been nearly as happy for Christopher to win. But she admits his bragging doesn’t work in his favor, especially when his completed dish is sub-par, as it was this time.
“Chris doesn’t know when to stop talking!” Hetal says with a laugh. “He doesn’t censor what comes out. He really wanted to prove to Gordon he could cook Beef Wellington. Meat is his thing! He was gutted that we couldn’t use his.”
For Hetal, being a person who relishes her teammate’s wins as much as her own has translated into camaraderie that’s continued long after the end of taping. “Unlike many of the others, I’m not that competitive,” she says. “I’m more the cheerleader for everyone. I get very emotional when other people have bad days. There was a lot ugly sobbing!”
“We’re all close. Chris and I are really tight. We hang out and visit each other, and Kerry, too.
“And Katrina’s coming to visit in the fall. She’s such an amazing person! And Nick is now cooking at a restaurant in San Diego and we all visit him there.”
Who Needs Culinary School When You Have Two Kitchens?
Given the sound of her warm family upbringing in New Jersey, it’s probably no surprise Hetal takes an upbeat approach to life and cooking.
“Growing up, I lived in a house with two families — my own and our extended family,” she says. “We had two kitchens. I could see what both my mom and my aunts were cooking and decide what I wanted to eat that night. Then I’d help with kitchen tasks for whichever one I chose. They all taught me. I had some of the best home-cooked meals of anyone I know. I take what I learned with me wherever I go.”
Despite the fact that she gave up her job in the tech world to focus on cooking, her own family and her in-laws have been nothing but supportive and proud of her success on MasterChef’s season 6.
And why not? She’s putting her degrees in biochemistry and biomedical sciences to work in the kitchen. Baking — the most technical of the culinary arts — is her first love, hence her particular admiration of Christina, whom she credits with coaching her throughout the season with sage advice.
Unlike many of her teammates, though, she has little interest in owning a restaurant. Instead, she’d love to open a business selling mail-order cookies and eventually write a dessert cookbook blending her traditional Indian roots with modern American flair.
In the meantime, she’s happy to show MasterChef fans that by sticking to her roots, she can be the first vegetarian with a fighting chance at taking home the top prize.
Will she get there? Hetal’s not telling (these contestants are good at keeping secrets), but she did let one thing slip: This week’s episode is all about cooking rice, a natural fit for her cooking style.
“It’s a really good episode!” she assured me. “You should watch it!”
MasterChef airs Wednesday nights at 8pm on FOX.
(Image courtesy of Greg Gayne/FOX)