Sarah Todd became a household name in India after the young chef, during her stint in Season 6 of Masterchef Australia, prepared the Indian favourite aloo gobhi for one of her tasks. Her love for Indian food has made her travel all the way across the world and she has successfully opened three restaurants in India- Antares in Goa, The Wine Company in Gurugram, The Wine Rack in Mumbai. All of 32, Todd is balancing life on two different continents and says she is extremely grateful for the opportunity to pursue her passion for food. Ask her about whether she prefers fine dining or dhaba food in India and pat comes the reply, "Dhaba food any day!"
The only quality of Chef Sarah Todd more striking than her undying thirst for newer and better food experiences is her warmth and affability that make her instantly endearing. She is currently collaborating with PVR cinemas to design a healthy desi gourmet menu for cine goers and we caught up with her at her bustling Gurugram restaurant for a freewheeling chat:
Interviewer:What's your favourite global cuisine?
Sarah Todd: Indian? (laughs) I'll have to be honest, in terms of technique, it's definitely French. So I studied French and for me it's the base of everything. I think everyone should learn technique first and then flavours can be manipulated depending to which country you go to. I love Indian cuisine because it adds so much flavour. So even if I'm cooking a French dish, I'll add spice now. So like a slow-cooked lamb shoulder, which I would normally do with just thyme and bay leaf in Australia, now I'll add a little spice marinade and it just elevates the dish and it's a simple thing to do.
In places like France, Australia, people get intimidated by spices. They see a menu or recipe that has 10 different spices and they get confused. But it's simple if you understand the flavours. For example, simply adding cumin can elevate the flavour of carrots. So I do get a lot of inspiration from Indian cooking.
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I: Which is your favourite Indian regional cuisine?
S: It's hard to comment because I haven't been to so many places (in India).
I:I believe you've been to enough...
S (laughing): Yeah I've been to a lot (of places in India). But I have one dish from every place that I really dream of (eating). Like when I went to Rajasthan, the laal maas with bajre ki rotiwith white butter. In Goa, I love the fish curries and the fish thali there. This one place Vinayak, I eat there like, three times a week. I love it! Everywhere I go, I pick my favourite. It's hard to pinpoint one location in India, because they are just so diverse. Like the fish curry compared to a dish in Kashmir - you would think it's a different country. There's nothing similar.
I: But still if you had to?
S: I think I've been moved the most by Kashmir. It changed me when I went there, for sure.
I:What are your favourite eating spots in India?
S: Goa is the place that I've connected the most with, because I've spent so much time there. For me, the little spots there feel like home. Vinayak is one. Then again, there's a little street food truck at the roundabout, I don't remember the name of it. They serve chicken cafreal in a poi bread with cheese, salad and it's grilled on the flame. When you've had a couple of glasses of wine and you're on your way home, it's the best pit-stop. It only opens at 8 pm, after the sun goes down. I love Gunpowder in Goa and sunset cocktails at Antares as well (laughs).
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Duck kulcha with cranberries, rocket leaves and parmesan at The Wine Company, Gurugram. Sarah's love for Indian ingredients shines through in her food.
I: What is the best and the worst part of owning restaurants in India?
S: It's my first experience opening up a restaurant. India has given an opportunity that I would never have imagined would have happened. So I'm so thankful for that. Antares being my restaurant, on the cliff, overlooking the ocean! For me, it's such a magical place. I walk in there and I get emotional every single time. All the staff there, I just want to hug them all! (laughs) They're like family. Opening restaurants is like (starting) a family. You're building a culture, a lifestyle. I love it! I love feeding people and taking them on a bit of a journey and I feel very grateful for that. The worst part would be, having to split my time between two countries, which is very tough. My son is still in Australia. He comes during his school holidays. He loves India, but we're travelling a lot back and forth and that's the hardest thing. Not having my family here. You have to make some sacrifices to progress and to grow.
I still remember, when the restaurant (Antares) burned down, my son was actually in Goa when this happened. We had just had a staff party at the restaurant. Just as we left, 10 minutes later, the fire started. So as we were driving into the restaurant, Phoenix (her son) was in the car and he goes, "My mum has the best restaurant in the world." (Laughs indulgently) He was just so proud! And when the fire had started, I didn't tell my family, I just went back to the restaurant.
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The entire place caught fire so quickly. It was horrific. I watched it all burn and then I drove home and I had to tell my mum and son and when I told him, he had his finger in his mouth. He was just blank and he was just quiet. I asked, 'Are you okay? How do you feel about this?' He goes, 'I'm wobbling my tooth because I want the tooth to fall out so I can get money from the tooth fairy to help you build the restaurant back.' (Laughs indulgently) I am sacrificing time with him to do this, but he has respect for the whole situation.
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I: What is Phoenix's (her son) favourite dish?
S: He loves stuffed parathas. So every Sunday we would have stuffed parathas. He would eat two and I was like, 'I can't eat two!' He loves roti and anda for breakfast as well. If I made that every morning, he would eat that every morning. He had a phase where he didn't like spices, but now he's getting used to it.
I: What is your favourite Indian dish to cook?
S:Keema is my go-to food. If I'm hosting parties and people want Indian food, then Keema is the number one dish that everyone likes. It's delicious, especially since in Australia we eat a lot of meat. So I cook that quite a lot. I don't think I've put it on any menu; it's more of a home dish that I cook when people are coming over.
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Madras lamb tortellini with coconut broth at The Wine Company, Gurugram. The dish combines the best of both worlds- Italian classic with a South Indian twist.
I: What are some must-try dishes in Australia?
S: Surf and Turf- something from the surf, which is seafood and something from the turf, which is a meat. Another one is pavlova- you have to have it in Australia. Most places get it wrong; they make a meringue, which is hard all the way through. But pavlova is supposed to be like a marshmallow on the inside, like a crispy outer crust and a chewy middle.
I: Tell me something about chefs that inspire you?
S: It's a tough time for women in the business since it's a male dominated industry. It's also a tough job. It's not easy in the kitchen, it's got long hours, you're on your feet all day. Especially with children and family, it really is tough. So I always look up to female chefs who've worked in this space. One who's always been my inspiration is Angela Hartnett. She was Gordon Ramsay's number one. She's worked with a man who's been throwing plates and swearing and all that and she's gone on and opened up a Michelin star restaurant. I've worked under her for a little bit and she's very humble and amazing. Just very inspirational. I look up to women chefs. There are a lot of cooks that are female, but in terms of chefs and restaurateurs, there's not a lot of them.
I: Do you lose temper in the kitchen?
S: I have (done that) a couple of times, but to be honest people can tell when things are not going the right way, I think it comes across. But I don't yell and all. Well, I have yelled a couple of times (laughs). But I think I'm more of a calm kind of person, while dealing with these kind of things. I want to create a culture where the front of the restaurant works with the back of the restaurant instead of each side throwing the other under the bus. I want people to understand it's not a blame game, it's about working together and to co-exist and deliver something good.
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I: Which country, according to you, is one of the best emerging food destinations around the world?
S: Definitely Japan. It's so front-running, in terms of their cuisines. They have 10,000 restaurants in Tokyo alone. Just walking down the street, you stumble into a (great) restaurant, which I did. It was a restaurant which maybe had 15 to 20 seats and all they served was eel. Every single course was eel. You sit down and they give you a wet towel to wipe your hands and the quality and level of these restaurants, even at a small restaurant like this, is, incredible. And then I look on the wall and they've got a Michelin star. I was like, of course!
They have so many (Michelin-starred restaurants) because they're just so dedicated and so specific. Like in sushi, they master the technique. They are not distracted by lots of different things.