International chef and former model Sarah Todd has enjoyed meteoric success since her debut on MasterChef Australia in 2014 and now owns three restaurants in India and captains many successful brands. We sat down with Sarah and chatted about her colourful career timeline within the culinary industry, her food philosophy, and the vision behind her new cookbook My Indian Kitchen.
You’ve achieved a lot since entering the industry – and even prior. Can you tell us about some of your appearances in TV and editorial?
My first media appearance was at four years old.Together with two fellow preschoolers, I appeared on the front cover of Mackay’s Daily Mercury Newspaper. We were front and centre of Mackay’s annual Festival of Arts’ Strut, where the streets are filled with weird and wonderful creations of school students.
My next brush with the media was as an 18-year-old when I was photographed with Home and Away heartthrob Chris Hemsworth. He was the celebrity guest at Mackay’s racing carnival and presented me with 1st prize for Fashions on the Field. I found myself on the cover of Revive, the local lifestyle magazine.
From a very young age, I was taught to treat everyone with respect no matter who they are. I guess this mindset helps me when I meet or interview influential people. In 2017, the Australian Trade and Investment Commission invited me to attend the gala dinner and film a cooking segment for Australia Business Week in India (AWBI) and CNBC News India. Tourism Australia has since recognised me for my unique relationship with India by naming me one of the “Friends of Australia”. Coincidentally, Chris Hemsworth is the global ambassador.
I have featured in 10 television programs or series; one is yet to be released. The Perfect Serve is one of the most recent. It was an honour to be invited as one of four female chefs for the AO Chefs Series, one of Australia’s most prestigious culinary events. I was a little intimidated when you considered the long list of prominent international chefs from previous years. Food stylist and Australian icon Donna Hay, Hobart restaurant Franklin’s head chef Analiese Gregory, and Thai chef Duangporn ‘Bo’ Songvisava were also included in the all-female line-up.
Australians know me from my time on MasterChef and the My Restaurant in India documentaries. However, my cooking style has changed dramatically since MasterChef. Because of my time in India, I developed a unique Indian-Australian cooking style. This would be the first time Australians would have the opportunity to try it. To be honest, I was a little nervous. I began to relax when the plates came back to the kitchen empty. The response was amazing. Diners were treated to the best Australian produce with flavours of India that some had never heard of before.
The exhaustive process to conceive, source and test our menus was captured in The Perfect Serve, a five-part documentary series. It followed us as we undertook the daunting task of serving five-course menus. Viewers got an insight into the behind-the-scenes preparations and followed the journey across different countries, cultures, and cuisines.
How would you describe your food philosophy?
Food has no boundaries and brings people together irrespective of culture and language. I have travelled to many cities and states in India and marvel at the diversity in cuisine and culture. However, it is away from the usual tourist spots that I discovered the heart and soul of this unique land.
My time in Rajasthan was one of my most memorable experiences. I was welcomed into the homes of the Rajasthani locals to cook bajre ki roti topped with white butter. I remember breaking the roti and eating it with local jaggery. I never thought such humble ingredients would make me feel such emotion.
Everywhere I travelled in India, the produce used in their cooking was sourced locally, if not grown in their own backyard. Buying local and seasonal produce is also a great way to support farmers. Many of us want to know where the food comes from and how it is produced and delivered.
Restaurants now provide the provenance of food on their menus. Schools are cultivating their own veggie gardens, and students learn how much hard work is needed to get the food onto the plate. I follow this philosophy for my menus in India. I keep it fresh and let the ingredients shine.
What does your cookbook entail and what's the inspiration and vision behind it?
I have been to every corner of India after spending six years working and travelling around the country. I am fascinated by the incredible diversity in flavours, methods, and culture in the art of Indian cuisine. Indian food is savoured all around the world but is often regarded as labour-intensive and complex. If you are not brought up using the intricate blends of spices, cooking a traditional Indian meal would appear daunting.
In My Indian Kitchen, the recipes are easy to prepare while maintaining the traditional flavours and aromas of Indian cuisine. If you have been to India, it will transport you to the street stalls in Mumbai or the beaches of Goa. For those who have not, you will see and taste India from my perspective with the typical Sarah Todd twists.
Today, people’s palates have become more adventurous. Food is not simply just to satiate our appetites but must satisfy all the senses. Experimentation and adaptation of traditional recipes are commonplace. We want quick meals to cook at home while maintaining the flavour. I incorporated elements of my travels in India to create recipes that portray the land I have grown to love. Each recipe has a story behind its creation.
Please tell us about your restaurants and the experiences you had when launching them?
Six years ago, my goal was to open an Indian restaurant in Australia. Well, the universe had other plans for me, and I opened an Australian restaurant in India. Thank goodness, because I've realised that there is such a depth and variety of Indian cuisine after spending six years in India.
Before launching Antares, I initially prepared the entire menu sitting in my home in Melbourne. It wasn't until I explored Goa that I realised I had not catered for the Indian palate at all. A light bulb moment for me occurred when I visited a home for young girls. I made Frankies (also known as Mumbai Burritos or roti wraps) for them, and they polished them off in no time. Some of the girls then picked up a piece of lime, sprinkled it with masala and began sucking on it. I knew at once that I had to create a more appealing menu and, drawing inspiration from these beautiful little girls, I set about to do just that. I started again by incorporating the local produce and the traditional cooking techniques I learned along the way.
I never stop learning, and during the last six years, I have travelled extensively throughout India. I have been welcomed into the home of a Mishing family in Assam, stayed with a tribe in Nagaland, participated in a cultural festival at a Rajasthani Fort, 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.
I now describe my distinctive style of cooking as Indian-Australian. Essentially, it was a natural progression after being immersed in India's culture, culinary sensibilities, and Indian cuisine. Each serving has a little bit of both countries and represents my connection to India and Australia.
The two My Restaurant in India seasons documented setting up Antares in Goa and The Wine Rack in Mumbai. Having a camera capture my every mood was a little daunting. It was fantastic to show people my story, but it took a lot of extra time when the time was precious. I am thankful for the exposure, though, and often people come to the restaurants because they have seen the documentaries.
What are some of the biggest challenges you've faced during your time in the industry so far?
Like most working mothers, I feel the biggest challenge is achieving work/life balance. Pre Covid, in 2019, I made 13 international trips. For me, the number one rule in juggling motherhood and business is communicating with my son. Sometimes we must find a compromise, so if I explain the situation to him, we can work together to find a solution. Phoenix, my son, has also spent several weeks each year in India. It is also his second home and the birthplace of his paternal grandparents.
Another significant challenge is the imbalance between male and female chefs in the industry. Until we see more women in the top positions, we will not see gender equality in commercial kitchens. I genuinely believe we need to support one another as we have the expertise to rise to the top.
How do you think Covid's second year in action has affected the industry and even you as a chef and restaurateur?
The impact of Covid on the hospitality industry has been devastating. My restaurant in Mumbai will not open its doors again, and I know many people in the industry are in the same position. It not only affects the owners but the workers and their families. I have been forced to diversify. One of the consequences of lockdown is that more people are cooking at home, so I have created a product line to make cooking easier.
My flavoursome masala range is designed for home cooks to create their own delicious curries and grills. My irresistible masala chai blend not only tastes incredible but will keep you in good health. They are currently available on my website – you’ll love them!
What are your favourite spring colours and flavours to work with? And do you have any favourite recipes or dishes you love to cook in spring?
Spring is such a wonderful time of year. When the sun is shining and the mornings are still crisp, I love sitting in the garden watching my son on the swing we built together. Unforgettable! I enjoy cooking on the barbecue on those days. I am always creating new vegetarian dishes that are loaded with flavour, like my vindaloo spiced charred zucchini, spring herbs, yoghurt, and pomegranate.
If you were a ____ you would be a _____:
A flower: Pink bougainvillea
A TV show: Family Guy
An iconic woman: Wonder Woman
A colour: Green
A dessert: Banoffee Pie
A song: “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding
A cocktail: Dirty Martini