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Cook for your life! Masterchef Shipra Khanna’s path to freedom through the kitchen

By: Reading Time: 3 Minutes
Next Article The chef and his army

The clock is slowly ticking down. Two minutes left, and nowhere near all 100 dishes are ready. A young woman and her rival are whirling through a tiny show kitchen, as chaos rages all around them. The overambitious moderators shout words of encouragement over the audience’s loud cheering. It’s a whole new level of kitchen stress. Fry, season, garnish. Everything has to happen fast now, because time is money. On this cooking show, in fact, it works out to about €100,000. The last few seconds tick down, and then… silence.

Confidently, the young woman presents her tandoori chicken, a classic in her native country. The powerful blend of chili, paprika and turmeric delights the 100 discerning jurors – this is how Indian food is supposed to taste. After a short consultation session and an unbelievably long commercial break, the judgment falls: Masterchef India, a spin-off of the well-known American cooking show, has a new winner! Her competitor offers polite congratulations, though it’s clearly a painful defeat for her. The crowd goes wild; the moderators are practically ecstatic. Only the victor seems calm and collected. Which makes sense, because Masterchef India’s newest winner came to the show with one firm resolution in mind: no more crying.

Shipra Khanna has done enough of that. At the age of 29, she was the brilliant winner of the culinary battle of master chefs and cooking saved her life.

From masala to Masterchef

Shipra Khanna beat out twelve other contestants to win the second season of Masterchef India in 2012. Today, she’s one of the most beloved public figures in the country, and certainly its most popular female TV chef, with numerous cookbooks to her name. Her Instagram account shows that she’s as good with fashion as she is with daal and rice. Hashtag blessed, right? Not always. Khanna’s past was filled with the same suffering that many Indian women experience: she was married at a very young age, and spent years with a husband who was both physically and psychologically abusive.

Besides her two children, her only comfort during that time was escaping to the kitchen to do culinary experiments. It would sound completely kitschy if it weren’t true. Her daughter was born physically handicapped, so she can only eat at home, and she needs to keep her weight low at all times. Necessity is the mother of invention, and it’s also how Masterchef Shipra Khanna was “born”: the young mother started getting creative, inventing healthier versions of her daughter’s favorite fast foods, putting new twists on Indian classics and perfecting delizioso Italian cuisine.

Then, one day, her husband attacked her father during an argument, and Khanna decided she had had enough. She left and never looked back – which resulted in a long, bitter custody battle.
Amid all that emotional chaos, her mother sent in an application to Masterchef India on her behalf. The rest, as they say, is history. Ironically, it was her husband’s antiquated concept of gender roles that ultimately led to Khanna becoming a star on the culinary scene: what started out as a form of therapy soon developed into her sharpest weapon. Shipra Khanna cooked her way to freedom.

You Khanna always get what you want

Despite her difficult past, Shipra Khanna doesn’t want or need sympathy – far from it, in fact. Masterchef isn’t something just anybody can win, whether in India or anywhere else. Even so, it seems like she’s always having to justify herself in interviews. Yes, it’s a lot of work. Yes, she fought hard to get there. One interviewer asked her why she never considered becoming a Bollywood star since she was so pretty. Because Bollywood isn’t mainly about cooking and eating, she replied. Touché. Indeed, her talent really would be wasted in Bollywood – and what talent it is, too! Her specialty is Indian food with a modern flair, and every dish she makes – from saffron rice to papaya-glazed chicken – is a testament to what her national cuisine is all about (which, in case there was any doubt, is a LOT more than just insanely hot chilis and cilantro).

So opening her own restaurant would be the next logical step, right? India‘s most glamorous chef seems to think differently. (And yes, she was officially awarded that title.) Shipra Khanna’s too busy running seminars, writing articles on brain-boosting foods, and giving Ted Talks on food-related subjects, particularly on child nutrition. She’s sure she’ll open her own place one of these days, but for now… well, she was silent for many years, and now she’s got a whole lot to say. Khanna is a woman on a mission, and that mission is a lot bigger than winning a cooking show or looking great on Instagram. Her goal is to help develop a new awareness about food, a passion that goes beyond eating for pleasure. And she knows that the keys to success are unshakable belief in your own abilities and the courage to keep reinventing yourself – especially in the culinary world.

Feed your girl child – of curry and courage

Among all her public appearances, one event stands out in particular as evidence that Shipra Khanna belongs front and center on the culinary stage. Ted Talks on food-related topics aren’t necessarily an unusual occurrence, and of course Khanna’s a chef… but no, she’s so much more than that. Her Ted Talk, Feed your girl child, offers an unvarnished account of the many setbacks she experienced on her road to success, of the cancellations and discrimination she faced because people refused to take a female chef seriously. She pleads with parents to teach their daughters the importance of self-respect from the very beginning, and to make sure they know they aren’t inferior to their male relatives. She’s not accusing anyone, except perhaps the outdated conventions that ruled her own life for so long. And yes, feel-good mantras like “You can do it. No matter what.” can ring hollow after you’ve heard them for the 10,000th time – after all, willpower alone is no guarantee of success in everything you do, right? No lie, though: when Shipra Khanna says it, you’ll believe it. Ultimately, succeeding is about having an innovative idea and keeping the faith that it will work. In other words, that carrot cake with garam masala Khanna made on Masterchef India wasn’t just a weird-sounding dessert. It was a plea to open your mind and keep on discovering new horizons… culinary or otherwise.

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