• Adam D'Sylva and his spanner crab salad from Tonka (Tim Grey)
In his 'ghee-free' kitchen at Melbourne restaurant Tonka, Adam D’Sylva is changing perceptions of Indian food, one butter chicken at a time.
Siobhan Hegarty

15 May 2017 - 1:42 PM  UPDATED 18 May 2017 - 2:52 PM

Born into an Indian-Italian family, Adam D'Sylva was blessed with first-hand access to two of the world's most beloved cuisines from a tender age. While his father, a butcher, brought home the bacon, Adam's mother schooled her son in the fundamentals of Italian cuisine. 

“Gnocchi would have been the first dish I learnt as a kid,” Adam recalls. “Though I can't say I mastered it.”

Adam might talk down his childhood gnocchi skills, but as the executive chef and co-owner of two of Melbourne's hottest restaurants, Coda and Tonka, these days he's attracting plenty of praise. While Coda's menu skirts between French and Vietnamese cuisines with a 'modern Asian' aesthetic, Tonka delivers a fine-dining feel to classic Indian dishes. Using the highest quality ingredients, be it pearl meat, Petuna ocean trout or corn-fed chicken, the menu carries notes of Japanese, Italian and French cuisines. The vindaloo, for instance, is a spiced steak tartare with fenugreek raita and mathri; tuna tartare comes with rice pappadum, pomegranate, ginger and fresh wasabi; and a blissfully charred roti is served beside burrata cheese and fresh coriander relish.  Case in point: this isn't your average 'Indian'.

“I was always wanting to create a venue with a focus on the cuisine of my paternal heritage,” says Adam, explaining how the restaurant came into being. “There was an obvious gap in the market for modern and inspired Indian.”

Indeed, the proliferation of Indian takeaway shops and low-key eateries with rich, creamy curries and bain-marie serving styles, has given the cuisine somewhat of a bad rap. 

“I don't get [Indian] takeaway," Adam admits, “Because it's too rich.” 

And so, to create his fresher, lighter take on Indian, Adam refuses to cook with one particular ingredient: clarified butter.

“The unique difference of Tonka is that it's a ghee-free kitchen,” he continues. “We use oil instead.”

Another way in which Tonka elevates its Indian offering is through the restaurant's tandoor. This traditional clay oven is predominantly found in northern India and Pakistan, and is most commonly used to cook skewers of meat rounds of bread, such as roti.

“The heart of the kitchen at Tonka is definitely the tandoor,” says Adam, whose enthusiasm for this cooking method convinced presenter Maeve O'Meara to get her own backyard version after filming Food Safari Fire.

Adam hopes his passion for upmarket Indian cuisine – and that includes a dressed-up butter chicken – will also catch on.

After scrolling through the truly enticing menu and watching Indian week on The Chefs' Line (starting Monday 15 May), we have no doubt it will. 


Have we got your attention and your tastebuds? The Chefs' Line airs 6pm weeknights on SBS. Check out the program page for episode guides, cuisine lowdowns, recipes and more.

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