Changing 70 outfits for a fashion show to dressing a plate of pani puri with tamarind chutney – meet Sarah Todd ex model turned chef of The Wine Rack Mumbai, Antares Goa and The Wine Company, New Delhi.
An eighteen-year-old girl who came from a small town in Mackay, Queensland with a population of only two thousand people, trotting around the world to finally find her fame and feet in India, with a population of more than one billion people.
How did she do it? Let me take you inside the home of Sarah Todd, MasterChef Australia contestant 2014. Her symphony of flavours not only plays a harmony on the plate, but her understanding of food says a lot about who she is as a person, a single mum, and a celebrity chef.
Here I am, ringing the bell in an affluent Melbourne suburb, a perfect day under a glorious winter sun. I notice a hand sanitiser sitting near the door; without hesitation, I dab my hand, a sign of the times. The door opens, and I’m standing face to face with a gorgeous smiling Todd –beaming in a lime green knit-top and flared blue jeans.
Thirty-three-year-old Todd makes me feel comfortable at her dining table. As I get ready to switch on my recorder, I can’t help noticing two glorious doughnuts plated beautifully, staring back at me. “Coffee?” she asks, I politely declined – perhaps after the interview. Well! Look at me, sitting in a MasterChef contestant’s house, and I say no to her coffee… I ask her what she’ll be plating for us. My enthusiasm doubles when she says papri chaat.
I turn on the recorder and lose myself to her charming voice and her story.
The former model turned chef started her modelling career by simply entering a competition of twenty-five words to win a trip to Sydney. Todd, then 18, was now among a large audience in a fashion show; she tells me quite candidly she never went anywhere, let alone the ‘big smoke’. Then someone walking past her stopped, looked at her, and handed her a business card. Todd was asked to go to the Chadwick modelling agency in Sydney.
Taking the giant leap of faith, she went to the agency, and the next thing she knew, she was standing there with a contract. In her ten-year modelling career, her travels included New York, London, and Germany.
It was in Germany she first unlocked the mystery of food and culture. She was living with a German family – they couldn’t speak English and she couldn’t speak German, but the perfect translation was through a random dish of cucumber, dill and creamy sauce. That’s when Todd understood human bonding and joy comes from food, not changing 70 outfits for a fashion show.
She tells me that there is a perception models don’t eat well, that they starve themselves – but in reality, they are athletes. Todd has a great understanding of the macronutrients used in her food.
Although they’re now separated, the father of her son Phoenix was the first to introduce her to a keema dish. The holistic balance of spices, and how every pinch and every tablespoon would behave in a dish, fascinated her.
One day while she was based in London, she enrolled herself in Le Cordon Bleu, and soon after, she found herself standing among the top fifty at MasterChef Australia 2014.
Her famous aloo gobi that she cooked in MasterChef led to a surprise 50,000 followers in India. She still didn’t know how famous the show was in India. After MasterChef, she travelled to India to see all the fuss for herself, planning dinners for certain people in India. As soon as she landed in Mumbai, she was amidst a crowd cheering her – she was enveloped in their madness as they wrote about her, and endorsed her as one of their own.
One day she got a call from her now business partner, saying that he is standing in Goa in front of ‘their restaurant’; six months later, Antares Restaurant and Beach Club opened. Todd is there with five other chefs from Australia.
From then there was no stopping Todd, going on to open The Wine Rack in Mumbai and The Wine Company in Delhi. In January 2019, SBS aired a second series of My Restaurant in India by SBS Australia, after the huge success of the first series in 2016. Her documentary Awesome Assam with Sarah Todd in 2018 was aired on National Geographic and Fox Life India. She served up an ace at this year’s Australian Open with Donna Hay, Analiese Gregory and Thai chef Bo Songvisava. Todd’s experimental cooking, combining modern Indian flavours with Australian produce, added that extra depth to her menu. Chaat masala, the word “shukriya” and rubbing shoulders with A-list Bollywood stars are few of Todd’s favourite things. Being a close family friend of the Kapoors, she presented a beautiful wedding cake for Armaan Jain, first cousin of Kareena Kapoor. With her team of chefs, she plated the cake on stage at Jain’s wedding, dressed gorgeously in Manish Malhotra’s creation.
But, the Sarah Todd that is sitting in front of me in her kitchen only becomes real when she talks about her travels. Like in Assam, living with the Mishing people, sharing the drink apung. Or the day two strangers from her masterclass in Delhi took her out for the entire day to explore Delhi with their two kids.
From Chandni Chowk to crab pani puri with seafood jus to breaking down of traditional flavours and combining them with new techniques, she is most happy making her own way.
I ask Todd about her most unforgettable moment in India. She says “So many!” but that there were two that has to beat the rest. She sat on the floor with a local family in a village of Rajasthan, eating bajre ki roti (corn bread) with a huge dollop of white butter.
“Two young girls, must be around seventeen or eighteen, they came into the restaurant in Goa – It was that one day, I was feeling particularly low, away from my family, just sad… One of the girls taps me on my shoulder and wants to introduce me to her friend, saying that she is a huge fan of mine… and that’s not all; they had driven six hours together to meet me. I walk up to her friend and look over, and she’s crying… That’s the point where I realise, saying to myself, ‘You idiot, it’s not about me anymore. I am inspiring these young girls to good things.”
I couldn’t help thinking that no matter what we achieve, we are human after all – we see ourselves circling back to our own human self in its simplicity.
As I conclude my afternoon with Todd, she has a message for young girls, as if a five-year-old self is giving advice to herself: keep on dreaming a beautiful dream and believe in it. Dreams do come true.
She plates the papri chaat. The light yoghurt was like a silky cloud, layered with ginger and spices over a salty flour biscuit with potatoes, pomegranate and tamarind chutney. (I should tell you that I not only got to eat that, but I did have that coffee after all!) A ray of the afternoon sun illuminates her delicate face and I couldn’t help but think of Tagore’s words – “Everything comes to us that belongs to us if we create the capacity to receive it.”
By Nandita Chakraborty