By Kukilkalyani Borgohain

“Nayan, your journey from the hidden kitchen in your bedroom to the vastness of the Universe. You make us all believe that if we are honest, work hard, focused, learn, train nonstop, and stay calm… the victory is ours. Presenting to you the winner of 1.4 billion hearts and MasterChef 7. Bless you, Nayan,” wrote Vikas Khanna, renowned Indian chef, restaurateur, cookbook writer, filmmaker, and one of the judges of MasterChef India.

Khanna was looking for an Assamese home cook when he stumbled across Nayanjyoti Saikia’s Instagram page and was greatly delighted, prompting him to visit his home in Assam. Upon assessing his culinary skills, he invited him to participate in MasterChef India Season 7.

Saikia emerged victorious and won the title of MasterChef after a difficult audition process and the three-month competition journey.
On this significant triumph, he responded that he still considers it to be a dream because he couldn’t believe what he had achieved even after winning the show. Considering Tinsukia is a small district, he never imagined that he would be able to participate in a contest as huge as MasterChef, much less win.

He further claimed that he now had a responsibility to share his cuisine and culture with the masses, with the hope that the youth from Assam and the North East would get the chance to compete in MasterChef and display their abilities.

This is important because the people in the region, he believes, have a very strong love and preference for cooking.

Referring to how his passion was ignited, he shared, “My culinary journey began at home,” adding how being born and raised in a large family was beneficial. Saikia was fascinated by the women who prepared meals at home, gaining knowledge from seeing them prepare meals.

A childhood fascination revolved around the preparation of delicious cuisines – how seemingly uncomplicated items combine to produce an entirely new flavour – piquing his curiosity in learning more about and understanding the food sector. “This greatly stoked my interest in researching and investigating the food industry,” he added.

People would typically assume that Saikia has a background in cooking, but unexpectedly, he is a mechanical engineer.

The conversation steered towards how he managed to combine dual roles.

It was in his second year of engineering when he started preparing meals for himself. Living in a hostel in Guwahati had its challenges, one of them being the distasteful mess food. While out shopping, he would see a wide range of foods that he had previously only read about in novels. Eager to experiment and use them, he would cook in his free time… be it after work or on the weekends. This went on throughout his engineering career.

Then came a time when he lost interest in the field; his love of cooking had taken over.

Apart from being a chef, Saikia is also known for being a kitchen gardener. His keen interest in gardening as a child never left him. That said, it was the pandemic-induced global lockdown that prompted him to start his own kitchen garden. Considering it was difficult to get ingredients, he decided to cultivate non-locally accessible herbs and vegetables.

His kitchen and pantry were both located in his bedroom. It doubled as his studio as well, where he recorded films and took pictures of the cuisine he made.

This was his private space where he could read, think, and feel at ease. Looking back, he said, “Now that I reflect on it, I find myself shocked, wondering how I was so energetic and optimistic.”

Saikia dealt with preconceived notions too; it only made him determined.

He started a side business…baking while attending engineering school. His cakes were popular, with Saikia earning a solid wage that would cover his own expenses.

Unfortunately, people, including some of his father’s friends, had negative comments… going to the extent of reminding his father how he worked hard for his son. “You worked so hard to turn him into an engineer, only for him to become a mithai wala,” Saikia recalled.

Though these comments initially offended him, he eventually chose to ignore them, asserting that his knowledge and self-confidence made all the difference, allowing him to exceed their prejudices.

Speaking on his relationship with North East cuisines throughout his MasterChef journey, he said how one thought worried him – what if he showcased regional and North East dishes and the platform wouldn’t like it – their strong flavours don’t always suit many people’s palates.

He initially approached with caution while attempting the diverse cuisines of the region.

The journey in MasterChef was not without its humorous adventures. Saikia employed the incredibly heroic substance, axone, in one of the episodes. Everyone enjoyed the fish fry dish he redesigned and made as a result. This gave him more confidence.

There was no looking back as he began to use North East components in the majority of his dishes, whether they were South Indian or French pastries. Whenever he could, he used to gently add this influence and… in the process, stay rooted in his experimentation.

He said, “I find it to be rather humorous now that I think about it,” recalling how he made coriander ice cream to illustrate his point about its funny taste.

Truly, Saikia’s journey has paved the way for others to follow their passion.

He urged youngsters to explore and learn new things, saying, “The world of food is so enormous, it can never be fully understood. Instead, read books.”

He reiterated that reading boosts knowledge. After all, it is not enough to just know how to cook; one also needs to know how to pair foods. “We can only have natural ideas after reading about food pairings.”
When reading articles by renowned chefs, he never followed a recipe because doing so hinders aspiring chefs from forming a distinct identity. Instead, he suggested that young home cooks maintain their unique identities.

Now that you know about Saikia’s journey as a chef, are you inspired? To all the home cooks out there, a MasterChef might be brewing in you, too. So, follow your heart!