Celebrity chef Sarah Todd talks about the AO chef series, her Goa restaurant and cooking Indian
'Modelling had become monotonous and I needed a creative outlet'
- Published 23.01.20, 7:48 PM
- Updated 23.01.20, 7:48 PM
- 5 mins read
The culinary bug bit Sarah Todd early on in life and since then, there’s been no looking back. Culinary school, MasterChef Australia, extensive travels across the world and in India, cookbooks and a restaurant in Goa later, Sarah is all set to don the chef’s hat for the AO Chef Series on the sidelines of the Australian Open, which began this Monday. The Telegraph chats:
Tell us about your role in the AO Chef Series? What can viewers expect?
Introduced in 2018, the AO Chef Series brings together four international chefs to present exclusive dining experiences. Each culinary event allows guests to interact with the chefs as they enjoy a five-course degustation-style experience that shows off each chef’s signature style while paired with matched wines.
For the first time, the AO Chef Series in 2020 is an all-female line-up and I am honoured to be invited to join Australian culinary icon Donna Hay, innovative New Zealand-born chef Analiese Gregory who heads two-hatted restaurant Franklin in Hobart and Thailand’s top Michelin Star chef Duangporn ‘Bo’ Songvisva.
I have travelled extensively throughout India over the past five years. I have been welcomed into the home of a Mishing family in Assam, stayed with a tribe in Nagaland, fished in the backwaters of Goa and cooked freshly caught Crab Xacuti with a family on the banks of the river. These travels and experiences have influenced the way I cook. My menu at the Australian Open will take guests on a journey of flavours from across India while incorporating native Australian ingredients. Australian produce is the best in the world, and I will be using Southern Rock lobsters, Milly Hill lamb, Epicurean Harvest fairy-tale eggplant and nettle, to name a few. I’m looking forward to sharing the story behind each dish with my guests.
Given Melbourne’s cosmopolitan palate, what are the challenges of a culinary enterprise there?
Australia’s rich cultural diversity is one of our greatest strengths, from the oldest continuous culture of our first Australians to the cultures of our newest arrivals from around the world. Forty nine per cent of Australians have been born overseas or have at least one parent from abroad and moved to Australia.
Melbourne foodies are adventurous and keen to sample the melting pot of cuisines on offer. It is their willingness to embrace different cultures that give prospective restaurateurs, small and large, the courage to give it a good crack at entering the market.
What are your views on the AO Chef Series on the sidelines of the bustling Australian Open?
With hundreds of thousands of fans visiting each year, the Australian Open has evolved into a jam-packed entertainment package which includes live music, gourmet food, evening sound-and-light shows and lots of activities for the kids. Oh, and then there’s the tennis.
I recently took my son Phoenix and his cousin Jackson to the AO Ball Park where kids of all ages can be entertained all day while their parents can enjoy the tennis. Some of the activities on offer are the flying fox, water activities, go carts, ANZ Tennis Hot Shots, family-friendly food options, and non-stop entertainment.
I am so excited to be part of this world-class event.
You were a model before you trained to become a chef. What was the turning point that decided this course of action for you?
After having my son Phoenix, I realised that if work was going to take me away from him, it had to be worth it. Modelling had become monotonous and I needed a creative outlet. The travel was exciting and I enjoyed learning about new cultures and cuisines. I had developed a love of cooking and decided to enroll in the Diplome de Cuisine programme at the critically acclaimed Le Cordon Bleu in London. After topping my class, I decided to give myself a year to prove myself in the culinary world. I applied for MasterChef Australia and the rest, they say, is history.
Tell us about your restaurant in Goa...
Antares sits atop a cliff on Vagator Beach in Goa, overlooking the Indian Ocean. Goa is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before: pink/purple sunsets, coconut trees surrounding you, and I could immediately envisage what I wanted. It reminded me so much of my home in tropical Queensland that it was a no-brainer when the opportunity arose to open a restaurant. I decided if I was going to open a restaurant, I wanted to do everything my way, from scratch, from staffing to menu design and training.
I’ve learnt so much during my time in India and my cooking style has changed significantly. Antares reflects that growth in the new menu and guests are loving it. India has become my second home, and just like me, Antares is a little bit Indian and a little bit Australian.
What is the biggest challenge in being in the Indian culinary business?
Initially it was the language barrier as I could not speak Hindi. I’m taking lessons now and while it is taking a little time as I am so busy, it is coming along nicely. I can understand more than I can speak, which helps tremendously.
Tell us about your signature cooking style and interests...
I spend an equal amount of time in India and Australia and I feel at home in both countries. I feel grateful and honoured that the people of India have opened their hearts to me. Indians have such a love of food and the food and the style of cooking varies so much from state to state. So much so that you could imagine that you were in another country. I have learnt so much that my cooking style has changed and adapted to incorporate some of what I have learnt during my travels. I call my style of cooking Indian-Australian cuisine.
You work a lot in sustainability. What are some of its challenges?
No longer am I and many other chefs keen on flying in produce from another country. Cooking with seasonal, local produce ensures that you are getting the most out of your ingredients in terms of flavour, colour and texture. You will often find the provenance of local ingredients on menus. This practice supports local growers and sustainability.
I think the challenge is in educating people to understand what sustainability means. Over-fishing occurs because there is a preference for certain species of fish. We need to eat a variety of produce.
How was your experience at Masterchef Australia?
I think we were all competitive, but what my time in MasterChef Australia taught me was how to master the balance of being competitive and supportive. Rather than competing with the other contestants, I learnt to channel my energy into competing with myself. During any task in the competition, I was busy creating my own recipes as opposed to paying attention to what’s going on around me. I learnt to think on my feet, improvise and, most importantly, stay focussed with a positive attitude. It wasn’t always easy but it’s these traits I have taken with me post-MasterChef.
What’s the most interesting thing you have learned from your travels in India?
I conducted a cooking demonstration during my first visit to India in 2015. After the public appearance, a couple with two young kids took me to Old Delhi. The city’s mixture of food and energy was magical, but it was the family’s generosity in taking a whole day out of their time to show me around that impressed me most.
Indians have this saying, ‘my guest is my god’, so they really welcome you. I instantly felt loved and accepted into the country. What I love about India is the people. They are so warm and giving. It feels like home now, as does Australia.
Watch the Australian Open 2020 live and exclusive on SONY SIX and SONY TEN 2 channels from 05.30AM (IST)