This Italian Indian grew up with a bowl of pasta in one hand and a bowl of curry in the other – meet chef Adam D’Sylva, co-owner of Melbourne’s Tonka and Coda restaurants, both recipients of the Age Good Food Guide’s hat award every year since opening.
Growing up in a butchers’ family with an Italian mother and an Anglo-Indian father from Madras, it didn’t take long for this twelve-year-old boy to connect with food. When making gnocchi with his nonna and aunties, the stories they would share made him the chef he is today. Every morsel of his childhood is connected with food and so this chef began to gloss his dreams into reality with two beautiful plates of food: Coda opened in 2009 and Tonka opened in 2013.
The name ‘Tonka’ is a tribute to Melbourne’s iconic night club Honky Tonks, with its menu taking inspiration from India, South East Asia and a hint of Italy.
So, I am inviting you inside Adam D’Sylva’s world of luxurious curries and blended culture, getting up close and personal with the man who mixed Indian food into fine dining.
I first dined in the majestic 80 to 100 -seat Tonka in 2017 with my maa and two friends on my birthday, just before taking off to France for my own gastronomic odyssey in inspiration for my book. I still remember the breathtaking butter chicken; it melts in your mouth, leaving the sauce to tingle every corner of your tongue. The fluffy naan to go with that sauce is like a cloud of cotton candy. There were other dishes too, especially the palak paneer which I thought could never be experienced with pine nuts, let alone looking like gnocchi. That night was epic, and that was that. Then I met D’Sylva in 2018 during the ICC Cricket World Cup; we talked and I took a few photos with this rock star of food, and that was that again.
Now, amidst a pandemic, an economic carnage and Melbourne in Lockdown 2.0, we speak over the phone for this interview. He is a busy man and his team is organising deliveries in Melbourne within 20 km of his restaurants – from Mornington, Ballarat, Bendigo, and Bellarine to Lorne. He’s definitely bringing together and keeping the community sane with his food. A humble D’Sylva apologises to me for not getting back sooner and stops his car to get ready for the interview.
As I begin to get ready from my apartment, in the back of my mind I’m thinking how the ‘butter chicken’ in general has been so popular during the pandemic, and how people went to break the rules for this saucy chook – I was now sure Indian cuisine is at its best in the Western world.
So, let’s start with early days of D’Sylva’s journey – born and bred in a butcher shop in Melbourne, with salami, mince and leg of ham. During his school days in Xavier College, Kew, he would anticipate the weekend so that he could spend hours with his nonna and aunties – mastering cooking techniques, understanding the flavours, and listening to the stories. Sitting down at the dinner table meant a big bowl of curry and stories again, every night.
In 1996–99 he completed his apprenticeship at Hilton on the Park. Soon after, it didn’t take long for people to notice him, as he joined Cosi as the head chef for 1999–2001, then Pearl restaurant as head chef 2002–2009, while also heading Longrain as head chef in 2005.
Now 43, he loves to travel, eat, cook and share his food along his journey. D’Sylva says quite passionately that understanding cultures is the secret ingredient in binding that flavour of love in everything he cooks. His love for South-East Asian flavour and in-depth knowledge of the cuisine let him experiment with Indian flavours – and that’s what makes Tonka special.
I ask him if he feels that Indian cuisine has progressed or matured over the years, to which he says that the spices and flavours are still the same in Indian cuisine – what makes it special is the fresh Australian produce. D’Sylva explains that he doesn’t use ghee in Tonka; all the curries are cooked in olive oil, and that’s the reason (I agree with him) his curries are light and yet bold and silky, with no compromise on the flavour. Most of his chefs are Indian and have the same tenacity as D’Sylva. Take the example of this infamous butter chicken that I rave about like a broken record; this is one of his chef’s mother’s secret recipes, and D’Sylva is valiant in taking it to another level with its story and its history, making it special for all his diners.
I ask him his favourite dish in Tonka and he says quite candidly it’s tandoori salmon – he enjoys it not only because it’s rustic, juicy and succulent, but also because he enjoys the stages of cooking. It’s all about breaking the rules. But when I ask him what he loves cooking at home, he simply tells me spaghetti bolognese and a few South-East Asian curries for his three kids. Then he drops a bomb on me, saying that the ingredients that he cannot live without are chillies and garlic. I say amen to that – a true Italian Indian!
D’Sylva has travelled to India on a number of occasions, mainly with Tourism Victoria. He has cooked for a few people there, including the Australian High Commission. At this point, I couldn’t help but ask him what he thought of the Indian food there. To that, he giggles away like a twelve-year boy -he deserved a break from his cooking, Indian food. So, with the executive chef of Grand Hyatt he lived on ham pizza with buffalo mozzarella and Italian wine. I give away a hysteric laugh – that’s the ‘Italian tourist’ missing a spag bol.
I mention he should look into doing a cookbook with all his travels of Europe, Asia and India, to which he says the idea has been steaming for a while – so watch this space, as we might soon have a Tonka cookbook and a Coda cookbook. But these days it’s hard focusing on a cookbook, as Covid-19 continues to fracture the hospitality and art industries, and his priorities now include not only feeding hungry Melbournians – delivering their packaged food – but also looking after his employees with JobKeeper.
He has a message for all of us: there is a light at the end of the tunnel and we will bounce back from the lockdown, and to nurture this semi-normal life in the meantime.
As I draw the curtain to the interview, memories of Tonka from 2017 flash in front of me, making me melancholy – we stepped into a bar which is at the entrance, where we had a drink while waiting for our table. We walked to the formal restaurant with another bar on the side; its fresh clean look is completed with an off-white, spiral, mesh-like decorative fabric covering the ceiling.
As for the man himself, D’Sylva, he is a passionate cook with a big personality, who is as entertaining as his stories. People like him keep the heartbeat of Melbourne going, letting us salivate over his butter chicken. Oscar Wilde comes to my mind: “Yes, I am a dreamer. For a dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.’’
By Nandita Chakraborty