“I must have been an Indian in another lifetime” says MasterChef Australia contestant Sarah Todd

By Neeru Saluja

Celebrity chef and restaurateur Sarah Todd has always been a favourite with her Indian fans. She rose to fame by making the humble aloo gobi in MasterChef Australia 2014 and is creating waves again on MasterChef Fans and Faves with her Indian culinary dishes ranging from bhelpuri, pork vindaloo, madras curry, crab xacuti and even a lobster French Indian dish that won her an immunity pin!

Standing strong as the final five in MasterChef Fans and Faves, Indian Down Under talked to the chef who has come a long way since wowing the judges and audiences in Season 6 of MasterChef Australia. In 2015, she opened her first restaurant in Goa, India, which led to a six-part series, My Restaurant In India, which aired in more than 150 countries. In 2018 she opened her second restaurant, this time in Mumbai which led to another TV series, My Second Restaurant In India. Two years later, Sarah published her second cookbook, My Indian Kitchen, showcasing Indian-inspired recipes that are quick and simple to create. In 2020, Sarah co-hosted the Farm To Fork TV series on Channel 10 which showcased fabulous produce and destinations around Australia.

You rose to fame by making the humble aloo gobi and now you are creating waves amongst the Indian community with bhelpuri. How would you describe your MasterChef journey?

For me, living in a Punjabi family and getting to experience all these incredible dishes was so inspiring. I was studying at Le Cordon Bleu in London, eating all these Punjabi dishes and being exposed to both sides of the cuisine. From one side it’s all just about throwing in different spices and cooking with your heart, while the other side was very technical. This inspired me to start to experiment with Indian food.

In the first season of MasterChef, I really wanted to kind of cook a few of those dishes and it wasn’t until after the first season of MasterChef when I got to spend all of this time in India and travel around, I realized that every city and state that you go to has such a unique cuisine and Indian food isn’t just one cuisine. There are so many cuisines, it’s kind of an umbrella of all of these different cuisines across the country. So for me cooking and learning from so many people across India really gave me a lot of inspiration for this season of MasterChef and coming back I was able to cook these dishes. In India everyone knows what bhelpuri is, but in Australia nobody does.

I’m getting inundated with people who are saying I’m cooking all these dishes that they love! I do get nervous as after having my son Phoenix I want to represent India well and also show him his heritage. I dedicate a lot of my time and effort making sure I understand a lot about the cuisine, especially regional cuisine.

As you are talking about how Indian cuisine varies from state to state, region to region with so much diversity, what technique of Indian cooking intrigues you the most and what’s your favourite dish?

Well, to be honest, I started off learning a lot of the North Indian dishes so that will always be something that is close to my heart and obviously being my son’s heritage. But when I opened my restaurant Antares in Goa, I started exploring the Southern cuisine as well. I’ve spent a lot of time in Assam, and the cuisine is very different to the rest of the country. Every state has a different technique that intrigues me in it’s own way.

It’s almost impossible for me to have a favourite dish because I have a favourite dish from every city and state. Everyone thinks I’m crazy but I have Kashmiri spinach for breakfast, in Goa I like the Crab Xacuti, and I love the Mumbai sandwich which I made in MasterChef. Wherever I go I have my speciality dishes that are on my go-to list, but Punjabi food will always be closest to my heart.

You did mention that you learnt a lot of your Punjabi dishes from your mother-in-law.
I learnt so many dishes from her – saag, aloo gobhi, keema, samosa. Everyday she would cook at least three meals. It was a lot of learning over the time living with them. She was an amazing cook as well.

In one episode, you combined French techniques and Indian flavours in your cooking, which got you the immunity pin. It was a very unique dish and brave to attempt – is this something you would like to take forward in Australia?

Yes, absolutely. For many years I always get this comment from people whom I admire, ‘find your style and what you love to cook’. Early on in my career, I would often just kind of replicate dishes that I have learnt. It wasn’t until I started experimenting with Indian flavours and French techniques that I found my own feet in cooking and gain that personal style. So for me, I definitely think that’s where my future is and the style of cooking that I want to continue with and so you’ll be seeing a lot more of it.

At what point of your culinary journey did you decide to move to India?
It was really after the first MasterChef. When I got to India, I just really felt the love and thought how so many people accepted me into India. I felt what I’m doing in India is really loved and appreciated. I must have been an Indian in another lifetime because there’s such a huge connection.
Whenever I land in India, I just feel like it’s home and, taking my son there all the time is something that I love doing and getting him to see his heritage. So it really was after the first MasterChef that I decided I wanted to set myself up in India.

It’s not easy setting up a restaurant in India. What were the challenges you faced?

Setting up a new business anywhere in the world is never easy. When I was setting up my business and having it documented on the television series was something that a lot of business owners related to, and they really got to see that we all go through the same issues while starting up a business. When I was opening Antares, I was still quite young, I was only 27 and had never run a business before. I had worked in kitchens, but for very short periods of time and opening a restaurant is not just about setting a menu, there’s so much more that goes on.
I had to learn a lot. And I think like similar to what happened through MasterChef, I really grew as a person and it’s through these intense situations and being put outside your comfort zone that you learn the most. So I think going through that experience, I really did learn and grow a lot. A female in a business and especially the restaurant industry is very hard. There is a lot of men I would say for sure. So for me, that was just getting the confidence and learning the skills in another country, but also a highly male dominated industry, somewhere you have to be strong and confident and that’s something that I learned along the way.
So when you’re talking about growth, how would you describe your progress from MasterChef 2014 to MasterChef 2022?
In the first MasterChef I was very shy and the competition helped me to build my confidence in learning that I can do it and cooking can be a career for me. In the second MasterChef, it was more about getting that confidence in my own personal style. Through episodes like the challenge where I cooked the French Indian fish, that was ‘the’ moment. Cooking is like an art where you are creating dishes and putting yourself in a vulnerable position and exposing yourself. I think on those days when I cooked dishes that are me and not one of those dishes that I’m replicating on the show, and got good feedback was just a real boost of confidence. This helped me to really solidify that cooking style of mine and continue down that path.

I’ve always been very intrigued by your career trajectory. Coming from regional Queensland to becoming a model, a TV host. a MasterChef and an entrepreneur. Is this the way you had planned it or you’ve got all the surprises on the way.
If you had asked me this question before going on to MasterChef the first time, what dream I had and where I wanted to go, I could have never picked this. Food is something that I knew I wanted to throw myself into and I’ve always pushed myself and tried to learn as much as possible. And that’s something that I have done along the way and everything else that’s come along has just been such a blessing.

And for me, the restaurant business really is what I love. That’s where I truly belong to and get to see people loving my food and tasting my food and everything else that’s come along the way has just been a blessing and an added bonus to be able to cook and travel. The TV shows are just amazing because you get these experiences that money can’t buy, and I’ve done so much travel across India because of being able to cook for different people in different cities. And also now in Australia through MasterChef and having all these incredible chefs come into the MasterChef kitchen and taste our food or cook for us is just something incredible. It’s been lots of amazing experiences.

Any tips to Australians who would like to try Indian cooking for the first time?

Just realise that it’s ok to experiment with Indian cooking. From personal experience, it’s a bit intimidating when you see so many different spices. By playing around with flavours, you realise it’s not that complicated. Even if it’s just finding some Indian spice blends from your local Indian store. Don’t feel intimidated, it’s a beautiful cuisine. It’s become my go-to for healthy vegetarian dishes. The mindset around Indian food is changing. For eg, Australians think that Indians eat butter chicken all the time but it’s actually a celebration food back home, they don’t eat on a daily basis. I would like people to try homemade Indian food. Lots of my recipes are now on the MasterChef recipe and can start making these dishes.

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