Eight months ago, Jasdeep Sra laid in a hospital bed fighting for his life after suffering an unexpected brutal attack. Eight months ago, Jasdeep aimed to return to his 9 to 5 labour job to continue supporting his single mother and younger brother. “It was the lowest point in my life,” Jasdeep comments. The young man with everything going against him had one unlikely talent on his side: a passion for cooking.
Today the 19-year-old Surrey resident, Jasdeep Sra, is the youngest contestant on the biggest Canadian cooking show on television, “MasterChef Canada”. He made the top 40 cut with his audition dishes: Tandoori Salmon Steak and Shrimp with Butter Chicken Gravy. An unlikely choice, fitting for the young man who is anything but ordinary.
Jasdeep’s talent and passion for cooking can only ever be outweighed by the love and compassion he has for his mother and young brother.
“For me, success will be when my mother, who works 3 minimum wage jobs to support us, can sit down and not ever have to lift a single finger. For me, success will be watching my brother grow up playing sports and going to school like any kid his age and not have to worry about some of the things I did.” Jasdeep comments.
“Cooking is my passion and anyone that knows me knows I will stop at nothing to get to where I want to be. I’ll put in the work, I’ll put in the hours, I’ll my whole heart into it. I’ll stop at nothing to be the very best.”
MasterChef Canada premiers on February 14 on CTV with Jasdeep Sra and 39 other finalists from all across the country. Watch as the young Surrey man represents the South Asian community in a battle of culinary greatness.
Who was the one who encouraged him to apply for the show? How have his friends and family responded to him being on national television? What’s his take on cooking being a “feminine” trait in our community?
Find out all of this and more with Desi Today’s exclusive interview with the up-and-coming national cooking star.
I have a younger brother who is 10-years-old and a single mom at home. Growing up, because I had a single mom, we had to do a lot of things for ourselves like cooking. Having to take on that kind of responsibility is part of the reason I am where I am today.
Also, ever since I can remember I’ve always been a really competitive kid. Whether it was sports or anything else, I was always into competition so doing something like cooking to compete was a good fit for me in that sense. But I was dealing with a lot growing up and trying to get in my 9 to 5 job to pull my weight at home so the whole cooking as a career thing wasn’t really ever at the forefront of my mind.
I originally went to school for carpentry but decided it wasn’t really for me. Then went back to school to do paramedicine and I’m a licensed Emergency Medical Responder. To be honest, cooking was always where my heart was at but doing it as a career never seemed like a possibility for me growing up.
What ultimately lead you to apply to be on MasterChef Canada?
In May of last year I was involved in an incident that left me with six stab wounds and I was told I might not survive. I remember laying in the hospital bed looking outside and it’s really moments like those that you just think “I want to go home.” You know what I mean? You think, “I want to go home. I won’t let this stop me. I want to be more than this.”
Again, my mom was a single mother and she worked her entire life to support my brother and I, and I just thought, “this is how I’m repaying her?” And this goes for a lot of South Asian youth who are on the wrong path. You know, many of our parents came from India and worked tirelessly in labour jobs, or worked three jobs on a single income like my mother, to provide a better life for us
It was at that time, when I was at the lowest moment of my life that my girlfriend said “you’re injured, you’re not working, you’re not going to school, you’re not really doing anything with your life, you should do something.” She told me she saw a commercial about applying to MasterChef Canada and told me I should apply. And, of course, my first instinct was “Me? Do you think I could really do something like that?” And she said, “You’re always cooking and everything you make is so good, so why not?”
So she’s the one who ultimately encouraged me to apply. So I applied and did the audition. Next thing I know I’m on a flight to Toronto for taping.
Where did you learn how to cook?
I never went to school for cooking. It all sort of came from watching my family and experimenting with whatever I saw in front of me. You know, you’d see your dad making “bakhra” (goat) on the weekends and you would sort of watch and take it in. When I’d go to restaurants I’d paid attention to the tastes and the flavors of what was in front of me. I was always really interested in the cooking process.
My “mamma” (uncle) was also a huge cooking guy and anything he would get to cook, he would want to change it up. Whether it be regular Tandoori chicken, he wanted to make it different: to add spices, to keep the fat in the pan to cook it tender rather than crispy, just anything to make it different. I have the same cooking style today. I sort of learned by trial and error and have been always been into the experimenting aspect of the whole thing.
I remember being very young and like every other kid, I made Maggie noodles. But it wasn’t that you could just throw them into the pot. I remember trying to add different spices, or cheese, or anything to get the taste I wanted at that time. I’ve just always loved mixing things together and experimenting with different sauces and flavours.
When I make something, I have a general template of ingredients but the magic happens when I taste it and know I have to add something or if there’s something missing. Through learning, I have a pretty good handle on flavours that go well with each other or how to counteract something that’s too spicy or too sweet. Or, for example, if something is too garlic-y, it will need honey because garlic and honey are like yin and yang! Small stuff like that you pick up on and after experimenting so many times I learned a lot of different tips and tricks for flavours.
How old you were you when started cooking?
I have one vivid memory of when I was about eleven or twelve years old and I wanted to eat “Gol Gappay” and my mom said “Okay, I’ll go get some from the store.” But I told my mom I didn’t want the store bought ones. I didn’t love the taste of the store ones and they were always too crunchy and they were always so small! I was being a little stubborn and she was kind of like, “What do you want me to do?”
So what I did was, I took a computer, I looked up the recipe and I made the biggest Gol Gappa you’ll ever see! (laughs) My mom walks in and said, “What are you doing? How did you do this?” And I stood there at eleven or twelve years old, looking at the recipe, of course changing a bunch of things, and make some delicious Gol Gappay. For whatever reason, I’ll never forget that day.
To answer your question, I’ve been experimenting with different tastes and flavours ever since I can remember. But I guess I never really classified myself as a “cook” until much later.
How did you come up with your signature dish?
In our culture, it’s renowned that our main thing is: tandoori and butter chicken. But I realized that no one has ever mixed the two and I wanted to try something different.
I have another vivid memory of one time that my mamma made salmon steaks. I remember he carefully made them and pan-seared them and we had them so delicately. I have that memory in the back of my head and I still remember that day: sitting on the kitchen table and looking at this beautiful piece of food. It’s something that just sparked with me. So that’s why I came up with the salmon steak part.
The Tandoor part? Well I’ll make Tandoori anything! (laughs). And shrimp goes so well with salmon so that’s where that came in. The butter chicken sauce was sort of like the clam chowder: the butter type feel to soften everything up. So butter chicken is made with whipping cream and I am a strong believer in having a base with a kick. So a base would be any dairy product whether it be sour cream, mayonnaise, whipping cream, anything. The kick would be anything with spices so for me the butter chicken sauce was the base and the Tandoori part with the masala was the kick.
I actually decided that part first earlier and all I needed to do was decide on the meat. That’s where my mamma’s salmon steak inspiration came in. And it turned out amazing. I mean it: the sauce, the salmon, the way I cook it, it’s delicious. I want everyone to try it. I’m very proud of it.
In your opinion, what is the most enjoyable part of cooking?
I don’t want follow the book. That’s why I would probably hate about working at a restaurant. I don’t like following a recipe. I want to make my own rules. I am a strong believer that “It takes a good chef to get the exact measurements but it takes a great chef to not look at the measurements once.”
That’s the way I’ve always sort of lived: living by my own rules. That’s the way cooking especially has always been for me. When people eat my cooking I want the flavours to come out by my hands. Some of the things I mix together, people think I’m crazy but I can guarantee it will be delicious!
For most young boys, your dad will likely be your role model. My dad wasn’t around to raise me so the whole “role model” thing is tricky for me. My dad and I don’t have a bad relationship now but I can’t really say he was any type of role model for me growing up.
I guess my “cooking role model” would be my mamma. He never really sat me down to teach me the skills but I watched him a lot and just absorbed everything he did. He was playful with his cooking and tried different things which definitely encouraged me to do the same.
To answer your question, the whole idea of me having a role model to look up to just makes me want to be the best possible role model for my brother. I did get into a really bad situation when I was younger and I didn’t mean for it to happen but I still took ownership of it. And I’m glad that my brother could see me go from my lowest lows and now see me at my highest highs. Even though that experience almost killed me, it’s probably one of the most rewarding experiences because I learned so much from it. Today, I just want to set the best possible example for my brother and give him everything I possibly can.
How has your family shaped who you are today?
One of the biggest things that has shaped me as a person is seeing my mom’s struggle. My family is my mother and my brother. My dad was never really there and everyone kind of left us out to dry. My mom is hands down one of the hardest working people I know. She grinds away at three jobs working minimum wage. I know her potential is so much higher than that but the stress of the single mom life can really take a toll on a person.
I want to work hard to make sure that one day my mom won’t have to lift a finger. I want to work hard to be successful for her. I want to get us out of the basement we’re in an into a house. I want my mom to get to relax and I want to pay for my brother’s school. That will be the definition of success to me.
Look at Surrey: it’s definitely not the poorest city by any means but look at all the crime and the kids who are committing them. Punjabis, they work hard and these kids have castles built around them. But still they take it for granted. Still, they go down the wrong path.
I want to be a role model for these kids. Whether you have everything or nothing. Especially to those kids who have nothing: I want to say that there is something out there for you. Whether it be work or something else, each person has a passion and you just have to go out and find what that passion is. You can’t be afraid to take risk and you can’t be afraid to grind for it. I mean, look 70% of the world hates their jobs and dreads waking up to go to their jobs. I was no different, but if you take those risks and put in those hours, there will be a brighter day.
What do you think sets you apart from the other contestants on MasterChef Canada?
Well, first and foremost, I have my East Indian blood! When some of the other contestants looked at me, I know a part of them was like, “Look at him, he must know his spices!” (laughs). And another thing is that I’m the youngest. And being the youngest some of the others might consider me the underdog. You know what, I might not have the experience but I have the heart and the drive. And you better believe, being the youngest, I’ll be faster than the rest of them! (laughs).
So, the ethnicity, the age and just what I’ve seen in life is what makes me different. I know everyone has their own emotional road for life and what shape them. But what I’m fighting for is totally different: I’m fighting for my mom, I’m fighting for my brother. What I saw eight months ago and compared to where I am now, that’s what sets me apart.
How does its feel being the youngest on the show?
It’s a bit intimidating thinking that people on the show are double my age but I am ultimately just proud of myself. It’s like “Woah, I’m doing this at my age.” I’m competing on MasterChef Canada at 19-years-old so this just tells me where to set the bar ten years from now.
How does it feel representing the South Asian community on a national show?
It feels amazing because the amount of support you’ll get from the Punjabi community is next level. In our community, they want to see a young kid from Surrey succeeding and will celebrate it as if it’s their own son out there. That’s what makes it special. It’s the love you get from our people.
Cooking is an “unconventional” career to many people especially in the South Asian community. What made you pursue it even though it is unconventional?
That’s what got me into carpentry. No one ever really said, “You know, follow your dreams, you can have the career that you want.” So I went for the practical choice.
Mostly being from the Indo Canadian community you’re told: be a doctor, lawyer or engineer. Never a chef. They’d probably pick carpenter over a chef (laughs). It isn’t a career I was going to follow, it was a really my faith in god and me having the blessing that is my girlfriend kind of brought me here.
It’s a stereotype that needs to break. We can all cook: men can cook, women can cook. Some of the best chefs in the world are men. Anything we do in life, we can do both. I was in construction and carpentry and there was a woman in my class. It can go both ways.
It’s extra shameful that in the South Asian community, it’s typically the man that can do anything and women who are suppressed. That’s wrong. You hear about women committing suicide or parents aborting their unborn daughters. It’s just wrong. These are big issues in the world and I’m glad we live in country where women can become whatever they want to.
Culinary-wise, men shouldn’t be afraid to cook. The food’s going in your stomach! (laughs). And who knows, it might be your next thing. It was for me.
Do you have any advice for our readers?
With the younger kids, there’s so much crime going on and it’s like “you’re a kid, what are you fighting for?” Fighting for what: for drugs, for “turf”? Why are you even doing this? What’s it all for.
And it’s just sad because your parents have a life set up in front of you. It’s just a question about whether you want to take it. If you go up to your dad tomorrow and say “I want to go to school” a hundred bucks says he’ll say “Okay, I’ll put you through school.” If my mom working minimum wage at three jobs and says “I’ll put you through school” your parents will too.
My advice would just be to follow your dreams. People do the typical 9 to 5 and that was the path I assumed I had to take but you don’t. 90% of us are in our comfort zone where we got a job, stick to do it, and never tried anything bigger. Give yourself the opportunity. You think you’re good at something? Try it. Why not just try?
What do you have to lose? What, you’ll take a week off work, go to school for a little bit, why not? See if you like it, see if it’s everything you’ve ever wanted. Life is way too short. If you’re here reading this right now, you have time. We all have time.
There’s never a limit. And to the younger people who don’t have anything and even to the kids who have everything, just follow your dreams. There’s something for you to live for. It’s hard to get out of that rock bottom. You look at your parents and they’re struggling, or you don’t have parents or have single parents and you get caught up in the wrong things because you don’t think you have a choice. You can do better. You can work doing what you like.
I pray to god every morning before going to work, before going to sleep, everything. That’s just my way of saying everything that happens is because of god. There’s a reason behind everything. I’m the type of guy who doesn’t look at opportunities lightly because I believe everything that happens is purposeful.
So go chase your dreams. Just go out and do it. We’re all dream chasers.