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Brent Owens: Reinventing the dosa and other stories

Cooped up in his hotel minus the ponytail, Masterchef Australia Season 6 winner, Brent Owens, talks to Ravina Rawal about discovering the complexities of Indian cuisine and his future plans.

RAVINA RAWAL  18th Apr 2015

Brent Owens.

rent Owens was squinting at me. Mostly because he was tired, but also because he was very suspicious. "Are you sure you know what AFL is?" It's never a good idea to lie, especially when you're rubbish at it, but Owens' PR entourage was glaring at me from behind him. I'd been sitting with him an hour already, and he was late for... something or the other. I just figured I'd Google that thing he said later. But he figured he should show me exactly what he meant right away instead.

From what I understood through a quick YouTube clip of Australian Rules Football (AFL!) that he insisted on streaming on his phone, it's regular footy. But they don't just kick the ball, they slap it around too. And then they start running sideways in hotpants like a bunch of squirrel-monkeys on a football field (but, as we've already established, what do I know?). He's one of them when he isn't wakeboarding, or testing recipes, or daydreaming about the packaged food business he's hoping to nail in the near future. Shocking, then, that he has time for a trip to India in the middle of all of this? "Oh, it's all work; I've come for the promo tour of Masterchef Australia Season 7. I haven't seen anything except the inside of hotels in the seven days that I've been here. And Juhu beach, where I had 90 minutes between two meetings, almost by the clock, to eat as much as I could. Then I had to go back to saying 'Coming Soon to Star Tee(h) Vee(h)' at the camera and cut chai in a single take."

I've been writing and interviewing people long enough to be able to internally choke my jugular before it thinks it's going to get away with spitting out stupid questions like "Have you been to the Taj Mahal?", "Have you considered Bollywood?" and "Bet you love chikkan teeka masala, eh?" But he said Juhu beach, and before you could say "vada pav", him and I were already discussing it like it was the goddamn Kohinoor. Yes, yes, he loves vada pav. And bhel puri. And sev puri. And paani puri. And "dohsa". And Digene (well...).

"I've realised we don't know much about your cuisine at all," he admitted. "The Australians' take on Indian food consists of bread, butter chicken, and rice. Most takeaway stores — which is what people generally eat, if they're not at a fine dining restaurant — is just the ultimate basics, which aren't really Indian at all. Beef vindaloo (not Indian), chicken tikka masala (!) (not Indian), naan bread (not Indian). So basically our take on it is completely wrong." Fascinated with the humble dohhhsa, Owens spent all morning trying to figure out how he could put a spin on it. "I want to turn it into a sweet dish. Maybe construct the whole thing in a bowl, make the dosa a perfect circle, and cover the whole dish with it... so when you crack it, you get to the dish underneath, which is...hmm, maybe masala ice cream? What do you think?" I think he loves paani puri. "I do! I'd never heard of it or tried it before, and I loved it. I think that could be adapted to be sweet as well. You could literally fill it with anything — mousse? I'll figure it out in Australia."

Fascinated with the humble dohhhsa, Owens spent all morning trying to figure out how he could put a spin on it. “I want to turn it into a sweet dish. Maybe construct the whole thing in a bowl, and then make the dosa a perfect circle, cover the whole dish with it... so when you crack it, you get to the dish underneath — I don’t know, maybe masala ice cream? What do you think?”

I have no idea why I suddenly needed to know what Owens thinks of tomato ketchup. He grimaced, shuddered, and elaborated on the other things that give him the shivers. "You know those wooden popsicle sticks? GUHHHHH! And do you have "sausage in bread" here? [I think he means a hot dog.] You know the one they top with ketchup and barbecue sauce and onions? And then they put a NAPKIN under it? BLUHHHGGGHHH. That napkin gives me crazy goosebumps. WHAT IF YOU EAT IT?" Owens needed a couple of minutes to recover and compose himself again (a good thing, because it was getting very hard for me to not laugh).

f course he's been asked a million times how his life has changed since he won the last season of Masterchef Australia, but I asked him anyway. He was being absolutely charming and lovely, but it looked like the hectic schedule may finally be catching up with him; he was starting to get a little cranky, and I thought I might get a "real" answer. He'd been on his feet for 10 days nonstop, running around meeting people over meals, for shoots, interviews, and an overload of selfies with fans who'd been spotting and stopping him. "I knew I had some fans in India, but not these many! I'll definitely come back because I love the attention!" he says, before adding hurriedly, "I'm just kidding. I have to come back because I haven't really seen anything in India."

But if hotel-hopping isn't a real perk, what is? "I get to sleep in past four o clock, which is great. That's the only reason I like it," Owens grinned. "That, and life is busy, dad is great, every day is different, which is good because I get sick of routine and I'm doing what I love to do, and I have the time for it now. With my business (for which I don't have a name yet, can you ask your readers to send in some suggestions? A simple, one-word name that everyone will know?), I'm talking to solicitors and looking at sites." Is he nervous? "Well, I will be competing with some pretty big companies, so if I don't get it right the first time, it'll be back in the bobcat for me!"

I can't be certain how, but he knew when I was going to ask him about the Masterchef Australia judges. "And you already know what I'm going to say," he laughed. "I love them all the same, and we are all best friends. Okay, don't look at me like that. I like them all in different ways: Gary's the shoulder I cry on, I'll call George to have a laugh, and if I ever wanna know stuff about food, I'll call Matt."

Enough small talk. I was almost out of time and I was going to have to get right to it. "What happened to your ponytail?" I asked for the second time in 15 minutes. "I was barbecuing in the garden, when the lawnmower went crazy and snatched it up and took half my scalp with it." I didn't blink an eyelid because I didn't want him to tell me he's joking. This is the best possible story and I just wanted to go with it. So when he laughed, I looked away, and when he said he just had a haircut because he was bored, I pretended I didn't hear him say something so dull. So here's our exclusive: Good ol' Brenty lost his ponytail to an out-of-control lawnmower.

"Hey. Where's my present?" he suddenly asked. Turns out, everyone he's met so far in India has shown up with some sort of present for him — artefacts, tea, sweetmeats, dates, dry fruit, hand-drawn cards — and he was toying with one of the most recent ones he'd been handed (tea, I think?). Seated at a table at the Hyatt Regency coffee shop, I handed him the spoon laid out in front of me on the table. Slipping it into his pocket in mock appreciation, he smirked and offered a fair exchange in the form of a reminder that made me scowl: he wanted to know how India did in the Cricket World Cup vis a vis Australia, which was my cue to end the interview and exit, stage right.

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