Metro Atlanta native and owner of Decatur’s Tava Indian Bistro Farhan Momin advanced to the top 10 of FOX’s “MasterChef” this week, moving the 25-year-old dental student one step closer to the $250,000 grand prize.
Next week, he and the other remaining nine contestants will be serving 100 dishes to hungry airmen in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the March Air Reserve Base before competing in a Tag Team Challenge.
Atlanta’s Camerron Dangerfield and local resident Lindsay Haigh made their “MasterChef” debuts this season as well, but only Haigh and Momin earned the coveted aprons.
“I may not be your next MasterChef, but #CookingwithCAM will reign for a lifetime,” Dangerfield wrote on Instagram following the season nine premiere.
Haigh made it to the top 17, but was eliminated in July after a Salisbury steak showdown.
Before the May 30 premiere, we spoke with Momin to learn a little more about his love of cooking and what it means to represent his culture on national television.
When Farhan Momin was seven years old, he’d play assistant to mom in the kitchen, given the responsibility of cutting up fresh vegetables — with a kid-friendly knife, of course. Now the 25-year-old Duluth native, a dental student, is in the running to be the next “MasterChef.”
“I still can’t believe it,” Momin said.
He appeared Wednesday, June 6, on the second episode of “MasterChef’s” ninth season, which premiered at 8 p.m. on FOX.
For the first time in the show’s history, celebrity judges Joe Bastianich, Gordon Ramsay and Aaron Sanchez handed out eight aprons to castmates to mentor throughout the competition, part of the first-ever “Judges Do Battle.”
During the two-hour premiere, the home cooks battled it out for a spot in the top 24. Momin started off along 40 contestants, each itching for the $250,000 grand prize and the legendary title of MasterChef.
On Aug. 15, Momin made it to the top 10 after a poorly seasoned, disastrous halibut dish.
But after heeding Bastianich’s much-needed advice, he wow’ed the judges and escaped elimination.
“The cook on the fish is a triumph. It’s flaky, it’s light. That is on another level,” Bastianich said. “You are taking your ability and sensibility with spice and beginning to understand basic fundamentals of cooking, and that is a one-two punch that will knock out a lot of contenders in this kitchen.”
When asked what he’d do with the prize money, Momin said he’ll probably be donating most of the cash to his parents’ retirement fund to thank them for their lifelong support.
“I want them to go enjoy their lives,” he said of his parents, who immigrated from India to the United States in hopes of establishing a brighter future for their children. “It’s the least I can do.”
But even if he doesn’t win big, Momin said the opportunity to chase his passion and cook for some of his culinary idols has been spectacular and humbling.
“I want anyone who feels trapped between having to choose to be a successful professional or chasing your creative dreams to know you can do both and be successful at both,” the fourth-year Midwestern University dental student and Emory University alum said. “You just have be willing to do the hard work.”
As the child of Indian-American immigrants, Momin watched his parents and older siblings stay busy, often working for the family restaurant business. That taught him to be self-sufficient at a young age, he said.
What started with a sweet desire to help his mom out with dinner after a long day at work quickly turned into an exciting (and tasty) hobby.
Instead of watching cartoons, Momin was soon glued to the Food Network and Cooking Channel, curious about the science behind the recipes. Alton Brown’s “Good Eats” was a favorite of his.
At North Paulding High School, Momin experimented with molecular gastronomy as executive chef for a team project, part of the school’s culinary arts program. The culinary class, he said, helped serve his creative process with food.
“Growing up in rural Georgia, all my friends were predominantly American,” Momin said. “They didn’t really understand Indian food.”
So, he thought to himself, “How do I make Indian food relatable?” Since then, Momin focused on using familiar food concepts, such as a sloppy joe sandwich or a pizza, and then adding a flavorful twist for a tasty culture shock.
He calls his nihari sandwich, which features the popular north Indian and Pakistani stew between buttered buns, the “Indian version of a sloppy joe or pulled pork sandwich.” The portability and familiarity make the entree more approachable to people who may feel intimidated by Indian cuisine.
The contemporary dish, along with Momin’s other signature dishes, such as the butter chicken pizza, can be found on the menu of his family’s Decatur restaurant, Tava Indian Bistro.
In June, while promoting his blog, “Farmo Cooks,” Momin held two sold-out pop-up events at the restaurant. He took familiar Italian concepts (think classic tortellini pasta) and gave the dish a kick of smokiness manufactured with a popular Indian smoking technique called “Dhungar.” The final dish, which included seekh kebab, looked Italian on display, but one bite delivered a flavorful Indian surprise.
But not all of his attempts at fusion food have been successful. One of the first meals he ever cooked, which he put together while fasting for Ramadan for the first time, was a total disaster.
It was an over-fried chicken sandwich overcome with spices and crumbling breading.
“But I had starved all day,” Momin said. “So I was still proud of what I put together.”
Ironically, that once-disastrous entree evolved into the chicken sandwich Momin presented to “MasterChef” judges at the start of the season.
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