Chef and restaurateur Sarah Todd has been on an Indian exploration since concluding MasterChef Australia five years ago. She shares with BeanScene the challenges of restaurant life, inspiring a new generation, and why coffee is set to become India’s next big thing.
There are many things the Indian community of Goa has taught Sarah Todd: the Hindi language, local recipes, and the true meaning of kindness. But the one skill Sarah insists on sharing is her coffee- making prowess.
“The first thing I do when I get to our restaurant [Antares] is make everyone coffee,” Sarah says. “I’ve taught all the staff how to achieve the correct grind, dosage, good crema, milk texture, and latte art. I’ve even taught my mum.”
Sarah worked as a barista when she was 17 years old, straight out of school. She received five job offers, one being fine dining restaurant Pacinos. Within 12 months, Sarah became the restaurant supervisor and had completed Pacinos’ official coffee training. Instantly, she was fascinated.
“I just love the process of coffee making. I like a strong coffee, so I enjoy a piccolo or an espresso. I just like it to be balanced,” Sarah says. “I have really high coffee standards. From one end of the restaurant, I can tell by the excessive noise if one of the staff members isn’t texturing the milk right. There’s one guy at our restaurant who makes my coffee just right, Abhieshek. He was a waiter when we started. Now he’s the best barman we have, and the best barista.”
Back in Melbourne, Sarah isn’t loyal to just one café. She enjoys using her Bialetti and, on occasion, admits to using Uber Eats for her caffeine fix.
“I always feel so guilty when I do that, but I need my coffee. Having recently broken my ankle and unable to move around easily, there were necessary orders,” she says.
“What I love about the Melbourne coffee scene is its vibe. There’s something about it. No-one does coffee shops like Melbourne does. Every point has been considered: the coffee is made well, the food is moreish, and the service is good. Then there’s the décor, the energy, the music, and even the usability of reading a menu. It’s the whole experience.”
India is largely a tea-drinking country. However, Sarah is confident its coffee culture is shifting with a growing appreciation for high-quality coffee.
“The scene is definitely building over there in a big way. India already grows quality beans, so it’s just a matter of time before its café scene evolves. Once people become trained to make good coffee, it will excel,” she says.
At her Goa-based restaurant Antares, Sarah uses locally sourced and roasted beans from a company called Blue Tokai. To make the selection, she enlisted the help of her friend and Melbourne-based café owner to taste each of the nine options flown over from India.
“Indians like their coffee strong and they drink a lot of black filtered coffee,” Sarah says. “What we use at the restaurant is something I enjoy drinking. It’s smooth and balanced, and not too acidic.”
Sarah has always felt a connection to India, given her son Phoenix is half Indian, but she credits her time on MasterChef for raising her global profile.
“I was French-trained at Le Cordon Bleu and had started learning the Indian cuisine, but when I started cooking Indian dishes in MasterChef like aloo gobi, which is basically like village food from Punjab, and that episode aired in India, it changed everything,” Sarah says. “MasterChef Australia is one of the number one shows in India. More people watch the Australian version than the Indian version. They love how multicultural the show is. So when that episode aired, I got 50,000 new followers on my social media. I thought it was spam but they just loved when I cooked Indian dishes. They followed my journey.”
After her time on the show, Sarah decided to do some cooking demonstrations in India but was unprepared for the attention she would receive.
“No-one from MasterChef had really travelled there before. When I landed, I went straight into this cooking demonstration in the basement of this premium grocer. It was invite-only but somehow hundreds and hundreds of people found out. People were pulling my shirt, pushing me, and asking me for signatures. I was hyperventilating. I couldn’t breathe. I had no idea what I was going into,” Sarah recalls.
After the public appearance, a couple with two young kids took Sarah to Old Delhi, a city with the population of Australia. Sarah says the city’s mixture of food and energy was magical, but it was the couple’s generosity that impressed her most.
“Indians have this saying, ‘my guest is my God’, so they really welcome you. I instantly felt loved and accepted into the country. They labelled me ‘India’s own daughter-in-law’,” she says.
“What I love about India is the people. They are so warm and giving. It feels like home now, as does Australia. I spend three weeks there, three weeks here. Both countries are close to my heart.”
It was never Sarah’s intention to open a restaurant in India, but when she received an offer from an entrepreneur for a venue in Goa overlooking Small Vagator beach, resembling Queensland’s tropical surroundings, she decided she had nothing to lose.
“Goa is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before: pink/purple sunsets, coconut trees surrounding you, and I could immediately envisage what I wanted,” Sarah says. “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.”
Back in Australia, a television producer got wind of her restaurant exposition and immediately took an interest in following its progression. Within a month, SBS funded the project on a small budget and flew a producer and cameraman over to follow Sarah’s daily activities for four months straight. They created the series My Restaurant in India, which has since aired in 150 countries.
“I had no idea what I was doing. I was very out of my comfort zone. I didn’t know that you would need a generator every day in India because they don’t give you enough electricity. I didn’t speak Hindi. Every day was learning. I learned how to build a restaurant from scratch and deal with staff. I had to realise that staff weren’t friends,” Sarah says.
“There were days I was sitting in my bedroom crying thinking ‘what have I done?’ Many times I wanted to just give up and come home. One day I was thinking ‘nothing is working, the menu isn’t perfect the power doesn’t work, the staff don’t explain the right words to guests.’ Then I thought, ‘stop being a sook’. I went into the restaurant and this girl tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘ma’am, we have travelled six hours to see you. My friend is a huge fan – could you please come and meet her?’ As I walked over she was bawling her eyes out. She was so happy to see me. It was the moment I decided to stop feeling sorry for myself. This journey wasn’t about me anymore. It’s about inspiring young girls, especially in India when there’s not equal opportunities, it’s very male dominated, and girls aren’t given the respect, pay, or roles they deserve.”
With the restaurant settling into a rhythm and attracting a loyal following, Sarah rewarded her staff with a belated Christmas party on 9 January 2019, a new tradition for the Indian team. She spent the afternoon dancing on tables with staff and family, listening to Punjabi music, drinking beers, and giving out Kris Kringle presents. Everyone involved in making the restaurant a success mixed, from management to cleaners. But that’s where the fun ended. As Sarah drove home from the party, she received a phone picture from a friend showing a fire from the beach and her restaurant roof on fire.
“I hadn’t even reached home yet. By the time I turned around and drove back, the whole place was up in flames. It was like a horror movie. I was running towards it, but my staff grabbed me and held me back,” Sarah says. “Someone was clearing the land next door to ours in dry season. The wind lifted the flames and hit the roof in three different spots. In 40 minutes the restaurant was completely engulfed in flames and there was absolutely nothing left. It felt like my lifeline to India had suddenly been cut. It was very emotional. There was a feeling of loss for months.”
Not only was the restaurant entirely gutted by the fire, so was the rest of the street’s restaurant strip, leaving many of the locals unemployed. Despite the huge hit, Sarah says the good news is if you want things to happen fast in India, they can. After assessing the financial and emotional investment of reopening, within four months they were, this time with a fresh look.
While January 2019 is a time Sarah would rather forget, January 2020 is already shaping up to be one of Sarah’s most exciting yet. She will participate in the Australian Open Chef Series along with chefs Donna Hay, Analiese Gregory, and Duangporn Bo Songvisva to offer a premium dining experience to VIP guests.
“The Australian Open is one of the biggest sporting events in Australia. It’s the first grand slam of the year. I’m so exited to create a menu that celebrates Australian and Indian cultures. I’ll take my discoveries of India and infuse them with Australian produce in a light, fresh, and enticing way. It’s my own personal cuisine using native Australian and mostly Victorian produce like sun rock lobster, lamb, nettle, and different native vegetables,” Sarah says.
“It’s a chance to show Australia how I’ve grown, how my cooking style has evolved, and what I’ve learned. I pinch myself to think of where I’ve come from and the position I’m in now. I know both Australia and India will be proud of the menu when it comes out.”
This article appears in FULL in the December 2019 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.