'India has such a rich food history; it's amazing to be able to explore and understand that': Sarah Todd – The Indian Express

Sarah Todd is a restaurateur, author, speaker, and TV host who first competed in the cooking show MasterChef Australia in 2014, finishing in the top 10. She made a grand comeback to the show this year, and though lost out on winning the title with just a couple of points, Sarah won many hearts with her culinary skills and the love and knowledge of many cuisines, especially Indian.
Sharing more about the same in an exclusive interaction with indianexpress.com, the Season 14 runner-up spoke about her experience of competing again, experimenting with Indian cuisine, her journey so far, and the dish she really wished to prepare for the judges. Read the edited excerpts below:
MasterChef 2014 and then 2022 — how was the experience different?
In 2014, I went into MasterChef without anything to lose, really. I was just starting out as a chef, and going into the competition was more about seeing what I could do and just following my dream. But this time around, I had something to prove. I definitely put a lot of pressure on myself to really do well and yet to cook really tasty food. So, for me, the second time around, was a lot more pressure, because ultimately there’s credibility attached, too.
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On a personal note, how much did you realise you’ve evolved as a chef after returning to the MasterChef kitchen eight years later?
I have definitely been evolving and doing a lot of research and experimenting in the kitchen every year. But, this time in MasterChef, I managed to find my style — something that, I think, we all search for as a chef. So, I got more than I thought out of the competition.
The season began with favourites vs fans. Did you ever feel you had an advantage?
The fans that came into the kitchen are huge foodies and know a lot of cooking skills; it was really exciting to see what they were creating. You always know one bad dish is going home, so it definitely levels the playing field for everyone. You know, no one can be perfect (enough) to cook amazing dishes every single time; and we saw that through a couple of really amazing chefs going home quite early in the show. So yeah, it definitely made the pressure feel a lot higher because you know any of us could go home at any point.
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Playing to your strengths, you experimented a lot with Indian cuisine on the show, including in the grand finale. What about the country’s food interests you the most?
Being an Australian and growing up with a certain idea of what Indian cuisine is, and then visiting the country to realise just how different it is from how it’s represented in Australia, has been really exciting for me. Getting the opportunity to travel around India and having people share their knowledge and teaching me dishes is something that I feel really lucky to have experienced. So, upon returning, I was really excited to showcase some of these dishes, and also show the Australian public a different side of Indian cuisine. Also, it’s an exciting time in Australia at the moment where I think Indian cuisine is really taking off.
In a key elimination episode, however, you mentioned that whiskey does not pair well with Indian food, and opted to whip up a Japanese dish. How much of a risk did you think it was, considering it was a service challenge?
It’s not that I think it doesn’t pair well with Indian food, but I couldn’t think of a dish that would allow whiskey to be the main flavour. Also, throughout the competition, I wanted to show a lot of variety in the dishes I cook. As such, I have a huge love for Japanese cuisine as well — and my dad has lived there for 30 years — so my mind instantly went for the dish I finally prepared. I actually thought it was not really that risky cooking that dish as I felt like it was something I knew was going to be tasty. Also, I didn’t want to just cook dishes that I knew, I really wanted to push myself outside my comfort zone and experiment throughout the competition. So, I really saw the whiskey challenge as an opportunity to pair it with the beautiful Japanese flavours because I think that it just really blends itself well.
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What was the most challenging moment/round of this season for you?
That will be a lot of the early episodes because I was cooking a lot out of fear in the beginning. I was scared about doing well, I suppose, and it wasn’t until the later episodes where I felt comfortable enough to experiment and showcase my personal style of cooking. It really wasn’t until about halfway through the competition that I started to feel comfortable in the kitchen.
A dessert as the finale dish, and that, too, by Heston Blumenthal. How challenging was it for you to take it on, knowing you were competing against the ‘dessert queen’ on the show?
For me, in life, it’s all about challenging yourself. I never really look at other people and judge myself against them. I know that we can all achieve this and I really was excited to do the challenge. I know that I had enough tools in my backpack to create it, and was really excited about it. There are, obviously, going to be challenges that lend themselves more to some people, skills, rather than others so that’s just the nature of the competition, and I was ready for it. I think that finale cook was the most pleasurable one for me because I just I felt really happy walking into the kitchen and I really cooked with a lot of love, I had my family there and there’s such a huge support and whenever they’re around me, I feel, like all the fear kind of goes away.
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You run two successful restaurants in India. In your view, how much has the food scene evolved in India ever since you have been an active part of it?
India has such a rich food history; and it’s amazing for me to be able to explore and understand that a little bit more. I think that there’s a lot of new up and coming chefs that are really doing some creative stuff in India, and it’s never easy for chefs doing that because ultimately you’re taking a dish that is incredible as it is and reinventing the wheel. So, I think it’s amazing what the young chefs are doing in India and it’s really exciting to see that this is happening.
Among all the Indian dishes you made on the show, which was your favourite?
All the authentic Indian dishes I made. Also, I love the crab xacuti, the flavours are incredible and it’s something different for the Australian audience as well, which I think was really exciting.
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Is there a dish you really wanted the judges to taste, but did not get the opportunity to prepare?
Oh, there are endless dishes in India that I’d love them to try! I feel like the judges need to come and spend a month in India travelling around because a week in India is not enough to explore. Not only the judges, there are so many dishes I would love to have the Australian audience see and experience. Two being ‘chole bhature‘ and ‘bhelpuri‘.
Your favourite Indian spice/herb/condiment — and why?
I love Kashmiri chilli, it is something that I add to a lot of dishes. But I think that it’s really hard to say one because it’s the combination that makes it key with dishes.
MasterChef Australia S14 streamed and is available on Disney+ Hotstar.
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