370 ANGELA DAY: Masterchef winner Deena Naidoo. Pic taken at Monto Vino restaurant in Montecasino. 250712. Picture: Bongiwe Mchunu

For four months, Deena Naidoo had to keep it a secret that he had won the title of SA’s first MasterChef. It was really hard to do.

He didn’t even tell his children. “They are a bit young to have to carry a secret like that for so long,” said Naidoo when I met him last week at Montecasino’s MondoVino Restaurant, where he was revealed as the winner of MasterChef.

He won prizes to the value of R8 million, including R250 000 in cash, a car, a culinary course in Italy, a customised sommelier course and the opportunity to redesign and run the MondoVino Restaurant in association with Tsogo Sun management for two years.

In the finalé of the show, Naidoo cooked off against Sue-Anne Allen for the title.

They had to prepare a mystery box starter, complete a main course invention test and take part in a pressure test of reproducing judge Benny Masekwameng’s deconstructed milk tart.

This tricky dessert consisted of a thin pastry layer topped with an apple cinnamon gel, a layer of creamy milk tart filling and an apple and basil mousse with a spun sugar spiral on top. Both competitors faced setbacks and challenges during the preparation of the dessert. Allen burnt her pastry and had to re-do it.

Unfortunately she wasn’t able to get the spun sugar garnish done.

Although Naidoo didn’t follow the directions for the apple jelly – he cooked his apples without the core or skin, which contain the pectin needed for the dessert to set – he still managed to get the complete dessert on the plate with the spun sugar decoration.

The judges loved the taste of his milk tart filling, describing it as light and creamy with lots of flavour.

In contrast, the judges thought Allen’s filling wasn’t quite cooked through.

The scores were very close, but in the end Naidoo was declared the winner.

He’s not quite sure how he’ll be involved with his restaurant in Joburg when he lives in Durban.

But he is keen to meet as many people as he can to share his enthusiasm for cooking. “I don’t just want to meet people in my restaurant,” he said. “I want to go out and meet ordinary people and share my passion for cooking with them.”

This passion started early.

“I grew up in Chatsworth in Durban and I remember clearly that at the age of seven I prepared masala spiced lamb chops.

“From that day on I was always on the kitchen counter helping my mom.”

She was his role model and inspiration, said Naidoo.

“I learnt so much from my mother. Right up to before she passed away about 10 years ago, she would cook with such enthusiasm.”

Another woman to whom he gives credit is his wife Kathy, who supported him when he told her he was going to enter MasterChef.

It was going to be a financial struggle for them because he would need to take off work for more than two months.

“I didn’t enter the competition for the prizes – it was all about following my heart and doing something for myself,” he told me.

I was curious about why he hadn’t chosen cooking as a career if he had always been keen on it.

“In those days cheffing was not a financially secure career to choose, so I decided to keep it as my hobby and went into the IT business.”

Naidoo said he believes his IT training and analytical mind gave him an edge in the competition.

It kept him focused.

And he always adhered very strictly to recipes that were given to the contestants to prepare. Other contestants might have thought they could improve on the recipes, with dire consequences as it turns out, but Naidoo knew that by following them to the letter he would have the correct end result.

This saw him emerge victorious from many difficult challenges.

One was when he had to duplicate an intricate cake made by pastry chef Lorraine Meany. Although the cakes of other contestants fell to pieces, Naidoo’s was almost perfect.

The highlight of the MasterChef experience?

“Being able to meet my culinary hero Michel Roux Jnr and cook his dish was a moment that I will never forget,” he replied without hesitation. “I was able to replicate his dish almost perfectly for which he complimented me, and this was confirmation to me that I was on the right culinary journey.” - The Star