Twelve Questions: Sid Sahrawat

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Sid Sahrawat was named best chef in last week's restaurant of the year awards for his work in Sidart, which won the best fine dining category. The 35-year-old grew up in a wealthy Indian family and went away to hospitality school aged 14. Sarah Stuart poses 12 questions.

Sid Sahrawat eats at Auckland's fine dining establishments once a year - he says fellow chefs inspire each other. Photo / Dean Purcell
Sid Sahrawat eats at Auckland's fine dining establishments once a year - he says fellow chefs inspire each other. Photo / Dean Purcell

1.Did you grow up in a foodie family?

Not really. Dad was a general in the army and my mother was a professor in business and accounting. She was a very busy lady - never cooked until she moved to New Zealand a few years ago. That was a big adjustment for her. We lived very comfortably. We had a massive house and there was one person doing all the cooking, one person doing the tidying up in the house and one person doing the outside work. I was curious about food but never went into the kitchen. We'd eat out a lot though - Chinese, European, sometimes Indian. I ate at a lot of restaurants as a child.

2.With such high-achieving parents, was there pressure on you to succeed?

No, there wasn't. My father did want me to follow him into the army but that wasn't me. I went to hospitality school in Chennai when I was 14. To be honest, it was just an easy way out of school. I was very young though. I remember I couldn't lift my suitcases because I was so small and someone had to help me.

A lot of my upbringing has influenced my work now. That discipline my dad had from the army. Everything has to be consistent. In some ways a kitchen is like the army: you have to get everything done a certain way and the pressure's quite high when you're charging a lot of money to people.

3.It is a lot of money: how can you charge such high prices?

Tuesday nights are our test kitchen and that's very reasonable: eight courses for $80. Wednesday to Saturday we do five courses for $95 or nine courses for $140. With wine it's $230 a head. But so much goes into the overall experience - it's food quality and ingredients but then every other detail matters too. We spend $1500 a month on tablecloths. All the plates are handmade for us by Peter Collis. I don't tell my kitchen hand that though. When he's doing the dishes he thinks they're shipped in from America and take six months to replace.

4.Does that make your customers more demanding?

Our customers are very knowledgeable about food. They're real foodies and a lot are international. We like everyone to leave happy but some people are just hard to please. We had a diner last night and he had the best table in the dining room but he was pissed off at how noisy it was. I was like "what can I do?" This is the dining room.
He went on his phone and looked at the decibel rating which was a nine.
I know this because I read his review on Trip Advisor late last night.
It was his anniversary and I wanted him to have a good time but the two of them looked like they didn't want to be here.

5.How did you end up in New Zealand?

My parents were living in Oman and so I got my first job there through a family friend at the Grand Hyatt Muscat. I learned a lot there - I was the youngest in the hotel of about 80 or 90 chefs. When I was 20 I wanted to go somewhere to diversify my cooking style. The restaurant scene here was better than the Middle East and I didn't like that the company you worked for there had your passport.

6.So 15 years ago Auckland had a good restaurant scene?

Well, it was better than the Middle East. I got work at Toto and a couple of years later Antonio the owner shouted me a meal at the French Cafe. That was the worst thing he could do. I was like 'this is the kind of food I want to do'. It inspired me a lot and I was like, 'Okay, let's go'.

7.Will you ever be a telly chef?

No. You have to be a personality and a good speaker and I'm not those. I'm a chef. Yeah, I do watch TV. Watch a bit of Masterchef unfortunately. I think I should keep my thoughts to myself about that show.

8.You still have foam in your dishes: isn't that now highly unfashionable?

This is such a debatable topic and the media doesn't help at all. They don't mind having a creamy sauce but if it's slightly aerated they make it such a drama. Foam is an aerated sauce that makes it less rich or creamy and allows the flavour without dominating the dish. I'm like what, are you over purees as well?

9.Where do you and your family go to eat out?

I eat at least once a year at all the fine-dining places: Merediths, Clooney, Grove, French Cafe. I love them all. We all inspire each other I think. With my family we love Blue Breeze Inn and Moo Chow Chow. Last Sunday we went to the Twisted Tomato in Pt Chev. It was great. Young people doing really good things.

10.What do you do after a night's service?

I get home about 12.30am or 1am and Chand my wife has always made me a meal. She cooks five different meals a week. No matter how much you eat during the day, after a long service every chef wants a little snack at night. She makes a lot of Mexican. Tostadas. Sometimes a curry.

11. Why did your mother move to New Zealand?

She got sick in Oman, was diagnosed with cancer and two weeks later my father passed away. It was a bit of everything together. It was a really difficult time for everyone.
Mum had full chemotherapy and moved here.

12.What did you learn from your parents that you'll pass on to your daughter?

Discipline. Hard work. To be respectful of your elders and friends. To be punctual and loyal. To live clean and work clean. Being thorough in everything you do. And to find the professional work that you're really passionate about.

- NZ Herald

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