Gourmet food and an army pedigree are an unlikely mix, but the union sure tastes good, writes Michelle Coursey.
Chef Sid Sahrawat, with his friendly smile and softly-spoken manner, doesn't seem as if he could ever be a tough-talking drill sergeant, but this talented food-lover says an army attitude has been a large influence on his cooking career.
The award-winning chef credits his father Ravee, who had a 35-year career in the armed forces in India, with teaching him some of the essential skills for achieving success in the culinary world. "I learnt a lot about discipline in the army from him, and cooking can be quite similar in some aspects," Sahrawat says. "You have to be devoted to what you do, you have to be disciplined."
It is that discipline that has seen Sahrawat become one of the most talked about chefs in New Zealand during the past eight years. He arrived here hot on the heels of a three-year stint in the Middle East, after completing his chef training in Delhi, and started out at Anise in Wellington, before moving on to The George in Parnell, and later becoming head chef at Toto.
In 2007, he took over Michael Meredith's head chef spot at The Grove, where he gained many accolades from diners and reviewers for his boundary-pushing dishes.
He left to open his own eatery, SidArt, in Ponsonby last year.
Along the way, Sahrawat has collected awards and honours: most innovative chef in 2006 and 2009; New Zealand's outstanding chef in 2007 from the Auckland hospitality industry's Lewisham Awards; plus SidArt collected the prestigious gong for best new restaurant in the country this year, awarded by Metro magazine.
It is a career his father is justifiably proud of, although he admits he was surprised when a teenage Sid announced his intention to become a chef.
"Coming from the background we did in India, I thought he would become a doctor or go into the defence force, and there was a certain reluctance on behalf of parents like us," says Ravee. "But once we saw his dedication and involvement, we knew he would do very well."
And he has certainly proved his father right on that count. Sahrawat says it was his "love of food" that inspired him to become a chef. He didn't grow up helping out in the kitchen - the family had household servants in India - but says he loved the authentic foods cooked and sold on the street in his native country, and is still influenced by the flavours of home in many of his dishes.
His hard-working attitude, combined with creativity, has made his food stand out among the crowded fine-dining world of Auckland and seen him achieve a long-held aspiration to open his own restaurant.
"It's every chef's dream and what I've always been working towards," he says, sitting in the intimate, comfy SidArt dining room that looks out on a spectacular view of inner-city Auckland. "It was such a proud night on opening, it's a great feeling seeing everyone working hard to make your dream come true."
Ravee has eaten at his son's new restaurant, and has been inspired in turn to take up cooking as an interest himself, although he tends to stick to Indian cuisine.
"I had not ever had a chance to cook in India, so on coming to New Zealand I started picking up knowledge," says Ravee, who lives in Wellington. "I try things out, although my knowledge is not as good as Sid's yet." It may not be, but as Sahrawat points out, "there are a lot of things I don't know as much about as him, so I guess it balances out."
Sahrawat says he has used the discipline and dedication he saw in his father's army career not only to inspire himself, but to also help run the kitchen.
Although he's not of the Gordon Ramsay persuasion, when it comes to his temper, he admits there are times where some firmness is needed to make sure everything runs smoothly.
"The staff have to work kind of like an army because everything has to be cooked the same way, there are systems in place, and it has to be organised," he says, explaining that SidArt there are just six staff, which makes for a consistent experience at all times.
"We're trying to perfect ourselves in everything, food, service, so it's important for the team to all have the same vision."
Despite opening during the recession, and being tucked away in the back of Three Lamps Plaza in Ponsonby, SidArt has excelled over the past year, and Sahrawat looks forward to celebrating the anniversary later this month.
"It couldn't have been a better year, given the economy and everything," he says. "I think it's just about keeping your head down and doing what you believe."
And although he knows his food can be a little intimidating - experimental dishes such as beef fillet with oxtail, wrapped in dry hay and set alight, feature on the SidArt menu - he says he's been impressed with the open minds most patrons come with to experience the food he is so passionate about.
"In the end, I cook what I like to eat," he says. "Food that makes me happy, that's what I like to put on the plate."By Michelle Coursey