It’s a long way from Mackay, 970 kilometers north of Brisbane, to Goa, India’s beach party capital – even longer, given Sarah Todd took the long way round.
It’s telling that My Restaurant in India, the six-part SBS series following the former model and MasterChef contestant in the occasionally fraught process of opening a restaurant on Goa’s Vagator beach, once had the tentative title of A Long Way for Dinner. (Thursday nights on SBS and on SBS On Demand). Her improbable story begins with growing up in Queensland as one of three children with a hardworking single mother dedicated to the bland meat-and-three-veg dinner paradigm. “I went from my teens to living on my own as a very simple cook, often standing up eating,” says Todd. It was the arrival of her son Phoenix, now five, that began her slow evolution into a serious gastrophile. Phoenix’s father is of Indian heritage, and it was living with his family for a few years in London that opened Todd’s eyes to broader culinary possibilities. “They would just throw spices into a pot and I’d think, wow, you’re not even following a recipe. My brain just exploded.”
Todd was modeling at the time but food began to take the upper hand – to the point where she decided to throw herself into a year of full-time study at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu school. (“I finished top of my class and all I could think was that a few years ago I was eating boiled eggs for dinner,” she tells me, laughing.)
Food was also a reason to return to Australia. That, and the weather. “As a Queenslander in London, I was freezing my butt off.” A deal was struck between Todd and her then-partner: if she was successful in applying for MasterChef, they would head back home.
Todd’s telegenic appeal made her a favourite in the reality cooking show’s sixth season (which screened in 2014), during which she was originally booted out for serving the judges a raw chicken roulade before controversially being given a second chance with a mystery box cook-off (she ended up placing ninth). Despite cooking primarily French dishes during the competition – a tribute to Le Cordon Bleu – it was a Punjabi dish known as aloo gobi – potato and cauliflower curry – that inadvertently changed her life.
“Aloo gobi is what I’d call a village dish – you don’t really know it if you’re not from India – so for Indian people watching the show it was like, who the hell is this white girl cooking our dish?” Todd laughs. “Facebook went crazy, I had tens of thousands of followers after that episode aired... later, when I went on a tour of Mumbai, Delhi and Goa (for grocery chain Godrej Nature’s Basket) I had hundreds of people waiting to meet me wherever I went.”
The two years post-MasterChef have been a whirlwind for the 29-year-old. A cookbook deal (The Healthy Model, published by Penguin) was first cab off the rank after leaving the MasterChef house. Then the tour of India, which cemented her fame on the subcontinent. And then, a chance meeting with Indian hospitality entrepreneur Ashish Kapur, famous for launching a highly successful chain of casual Chinese restaurants called Yo! China. Kapur had heard of Todd, but the two didn’t secure a meeting until the restaurateur’s seven-year-old son convinced him to make it happen. He knew her, of course, from MasterChef.
The meeting with Kapur was surreal: not only was Todd chatting with one of India’s most successful food entrepreneurs about the possibility of going into business together, but her newfound fame in the region meant she was constantly being photographed as they talked. At Kapur’s Delhi restaurant The Wine Company, Todd tried her best to act naturally while being snapped by 20 people wielding smart phones. While Sarah says she didn’t think much would come of the meeting, soon after, she received a call from Kapur. “One day Ashish called me saying he had this site in Goa, overlooking the sea, sunset views, totally amazing… and he wanted me to be his business partner. I flew over and saw it and thought, I’d be crazy not to do this.”
It sounds like a fairytale but in reality opening Antares (the name means ‘bright star’) was much more of a hard slog. My Restaurant in India (Thursday nights on SBS and on SBS On Demand) captures the typical trials of building deadlines not being met and the all-round expense of the exercise (“She’s a very expensive partner,” Kapur says to camera about Todd’s high-end furnishing taste) as well as the more culturally specific hurdles of language. “There are so many languages spoken in India and even among our kitchen crew, people sometimes couldn’t talk to each other because some spoke Punjabi, some spoke Hindi, others spoke Bangalore…” There’s a scene in which Todd tries to explain the presentation of a dish to a group of young chefs before realising in frustration they have no idea what she’s saying. “It was a steep learning curve. And also just learning to be a boss was a new one for me.”
The 400-seat beach club and restaurant is an ambitious project: there are six menus (the beach club, the private dining room, the events menu, the restaurant menu, the breakfast menu, and dessert menu), a culturally diverse staff and a boss – Todd – who has never run a restaurant before. As the money runs out before soft launch – with more construction still necessary – tensions are truly high. Watching Todd – who appeared so unflappable on MasterChef – deal with the real-life pressures of opening her own restaurant is riveting.
The other changes for Todd post-MasterChef have been manifold. She’s filmed another series, to be screened in India, and learned to deal with tabloid attention over her personal life (she split from Phoenix’s father a few years ago). The career woman/single mother juggle is another new thing for Todd – she tearfully talks on-camera about missing Phoenix, who stayed in Melbourne with his father. “He’s going to travel back and forth a lot with me,” she says. “It’s funny seeing the Indian kids, their palates are just so attuned to acid and spice… It made me realise that I had to make my menu more adapted to the local palate. You really can’t battle it, you’ve just got to embrace it.”