Sid Sahrawat has a hunger for perfection

By Greg Bruce

Greg Bruce spends a day in the kitchen with Sid Sahrawat and discovers a chef with a penchant for silence — and a problem with carrots
Sid Sahrawat and his Sidart team. Photo / Babiche Martens
Sid Sahrawat and his Sidart team. Photo / Babiche Martens

At 5pm on a Tuesday, an hour before his restaurant opened, Sid Sahrawat looked down unhappily on a plate containing roasted carrot with coffee and sherry caramel, carrot and coffee puree, macadamias in brown butter, grated macadamias and seared scallops, and he knew not what to do.

This was the one day a month that Sahrawat changes the menu at Sidart, the restaurant that bears part of his name, so the dish had never before been made. It existed only in his mind, on his iPad and on paper, written down for his chefs in the form outlined above. But now it was on the plate, he felt it was not right, and it needed to be served to paying customers in about an hour.

What was missing? It was hard to say. "It needs something extra," Sahrawat said, sliding the plate across the stainless steel bench for his chefs to try. "See what you guys think when you eat it."

The dish was relatively uncomplicated. The briefing Sahrawat had provided for his chefs at 10 o'clock that morning had taken 45 seconds: roast the carrots, portion them into small pieces, make a caramel, add cream, sherry, espresso, bring to the heat, make a carrot puree with coffee beans through it and a bit of garlic, do the macadamias like last week, grate some macadamias, two scallops per portion.

"Yes, chef," they had all mumbled. The entire briefing, featuring descriptions of how to prepare eight courses they had never before seen, and one dessert they liked so much they were keeping it for another month, took eight minutes and 20 seconds.

"The briefing is very easy," Sahrawat said afterwards. "Every chef has a style. If I tell them to make stock, they know what to do."

This made sense, to an extent, but it was so hard to see how this tiny briefing would congeal in a bit under eight hours into what this newspaper's restaurant reviewer Jesse Mulligan, in a 10 out of 10 review last year, called Auckland's best meal.

Others like it too. Cuisine magazine last year adjudged it the country's best metropolitan restaurant, ahead of The French Cafe and The Grove. In 2014, Metro called it Auckland's best fine dining restaurant and named Sahrawat the city's best chef. In December, La Liste, a new guide to the world's 1000 best restaurants compiled by France's Foreign Ministry, rated it the world's 792nd best restaurant. Four New Zealand restaurants made the list with only The French Cafe ranked higher, at 723. The Grove was 794 and Kazuya was 955.

Trying to name the country's best restaurant and best chef is a fool's game but if you said it wasn't Sidart and Sahrawat, you would need a fairly strong argument.

With wife Chand and then-unborn son Roan, but without 4-year-old daughter Zoya, Sahrawat last year took a $20,000 trip through the United States to eat at some of the world's best restaurants, including Eleven Madison Park - rated by La Liste competitor The World's 50 Best Restaurants as the world's fourth best restaurant - and Michelin three-star establishment Saison, where their meal for two cost $1900 and the staff to diner ratio was 1:1.

The trip reinforced Sahrawat's belief that Auckland's top four or five restaurants are up with the best in the world and likely to get Michelin stars of their own - possibly more than one, probably not yet three - should the guide start an edition in this part of the world.

Stars and accolades are important to Sahrawat, but not necessarily more important than the scallops and carrots on which they are built. "When something doesn't work out the way you want," he says, "It haunts you all night."

Prior to Sidart's opening in 2009, the space it now occupies had been an unsuccessful Nepalese restaurant with the toilet located in the kitchen. By knocking the toilet out, Sahrawat both brought the kitchen into line with basic sanitary regulations and made just enough space for five chefs and a kitchen hand.

Sid Sahrawat tests the latest 
development in his weekly kitchen briefing. Photo / Babiche Martens
Sid Sahrawat tests the latest development in his weekly kitchen briefing. Photo / Babiche Martens

After their 10am briefing, the chefs had set to work, almost shoulder to shoulder in that Lilliputian landscape, and for 10 minutes there had been no sound. Nobody talked about cooking or romantic partners, nobody streamed classic rock from their phones, nobody discussed the latest Nigella or yelled, "Where's my f***ing lamb?" - nothing.

"It helps everyone focus," Sahrawat said, eventually, of the silence. His chefs didn't look up.

"I think English kitchens are a bit different, right Ed?" he said to the newest member of his kitchen staff, 25-year-old Englishman Ed. Ed made a face like "Understatement of the Year", then nodded slowly and deliberately.

"Is it hard to adjust to?" Sahrawat asked. Luuk, 25, of the Netherlands, who has worked for Sahrawat for 14 months, stepped in: "Oh, it is," he said, "But you get used to it."

Sahrawat wanted it known that the silence didn't convey a lack of direction or anything like that. "Modern-day kitchens have changed so much," he said. "If you look at the Scandinavian restaurants, all the restaurants overseas now, there's just a sense of calmness or zen, that everything just rolls smoothly.

"I'm a firm believer that if there's too much talking, your prep suffers."

Silently, the five of them worked through the day. Occasionally, somebody checked something with Sahrawat or he gave an instruction, but these moments were so rare and brief that it was like he was just another dude in the corner of the kitchen cutting carrots.

At 4.30pm, 26-year-old sous chef Nishant, Sahrawat's right-hand-man, ladled plain white rice and orange curry on to seven plates, and Sahrawat asked front-of-house manager Stefano to put some music on, which he did, extremely quietly. Everybody ate their dinner standing up, and they were back at work eight minutes later.

Coffee, scallop and sherry dish in an early stage of the test process. Photo / Babiche Martens
Coffee, scallop and sherry dish in an early stage of the test process. Photo / Babiche Martens

Just before 5pm, an hour before opening, Stefano put some wine glasses on the pass and everybody gathered to see what the city's best meal would look like this month.

The chefs didn't hate the carrot and scallop dish. In fact, they seemed to quite like it: "I think the coffee comes through nicely," Luuk said. But Sahrawat's smooth brow belied the internal furrow he felt about this dish, a knot in his quest to untangle nine dishes into something close to perfection.

"I think it just needs something green," he said. But that wasn't quite right either.

Somebody suggested adding a tapioca with herbs through it, somebody else suggested brussels sprouts. The discussion was open; nothing was dismissed.

Sahrawat doesn't believe in tasting his own dishes at the same time as the other chefs, because he isn't sure he will be able to remove his ego and allow himself to judge objectively whether something is working. "That's why I trust these guys," he said.

Nevertheless, in the subsequent silence of that kitchen, his mind began working away. At that moment, it was doubtful anyone in the world cared so deeply about carrots.

It wasn't clear that his mind knew what it was working away at: Was it a problem of colour? Texture? A philosophical void in the dish's thematic core?

"I think it's because both those things are round," he said at one point. "The carrots are round and the scallops are round."

That idea hung in the air for hardly a moment and then vanished, another point on the long, winding road to the ineffable thing at the core of a world-class restaurant.

With most art, you produce it once and then people consume it. As a chef, you produce it and produce it and produce it. There is no time to sit back and appreciate your own genius.
Sid Sahrawat

Later, he said: "You could do something with macadamias. But with macadamias, what do you do? You make a gel? A puree? You don't need a puree because there's enough moisture, you don't need a gel because I don't think it's going to do anything for the dish, so you come back to say to yourself, 'What are you looking for? What are you looking to fix in a dish?'"

Somebody asked him what he was looking for.

"I don't know yet," he said.

Sahrawat could easily have called his restaurant "Sidharth", which is his first name, rather than "Sidart", which is a statement. This would have been much less bother, because people would not then have begun asking whether a) food can be art and b) whether his food is art.

Creativity is a funny thing. Menus can be created fast - Sahrawat says he can come up with a menu in half an hour if he needs to - but the food for which it provides the template cannot. Preparing and serving food from a menu that takes half an hour to create still takes more than 12 hours a day for a month. Creativity is crucial in a great restaurant, but it only gets you part of the way.

Benoit Violier, whose Restaurant de l'Hotel de Ville was, prior to his suicide last month, ranked number one in the world by La Liste, told the New York Times that the key to his success was consistency rather than flash: "This ranking is a recognition of seriousness, of delivering the same fidelity and level of excellence from the beginning of January to the end of December," he said.

Asked about when he feels best, Sahrawat says, "Usually when the stakes are really high, constantly busy, constantly full and it just works seamlessly. That's the time. If the restaurant is pumping every night and there are no hiccups - it just means everyone is on top of their game."

With most art, you produce it once and then people consume it. As a chef, you produce it and produce it and produce it. There is no time to sit back and appreciate your own genius, no time to watch the money and awards roll in. Sahrawat, 35, is on his feet for more than 12 hours most days, slicing carrots and cooking scallops and vacuuming the floor of the kitchen 20 times a day with his portable dustbuster.

A great restaurant is about repetition. This sounds as glamorous as it isn't. Three hundred and twenty plates go out each night at Sidart and every version of each dish has to look the same. Every day for a month you do the hard work of emulating what you've already done hundreds of times before. If you don't have a crazy love for perfection, you're not going anywhere.

Sahrawat's father was in the army and used to stress discipline and consistency. "They're things I've always taken from him," he says. "Sometimes the kitchen has to be like a small army."

Lamb, chevre, olive and cumin dish. Photo / Babiche Martens
Lamb, chevre, olive and cumin dish. Photo / Babiche Martens

"Until you become a head chef, you're just working hard. Back when I was a commis or a chef de partie, it's hard, you just do what you're told. With time that changes, but until you really run a kitchen, the creative thing doesn't come out completely."

Sahrawat has put in his time. He started his working life as a grunt chef at the Grand Hyatt Muscat in Oman as a teenager, before moving to New Zealand, where he worked at Toto and Non Solo Pizza, then Parnell's The George. That was where he established himself as a creative force, but it was after taking over from Michael Meredith at The Grove that he really established himself as one of the country's top chefs. Finally, at 29, in 2009, he opened his own restaurant at Three Lamps Plaza in Ponsonby.

If, walking in to Three Lamps Plaza, you didn't know that the world's 792nd best restaurant was at the end, you'd be right to slow down and start to worry about the decision you had made. It's uninspiring and not in the way of a place that is thrillingly grotty but more like somewhere generically unappealing. "Maybe we could go to the Ponsonby food court instead," you might whisper to your romantic partner, as you notice Jeff's Barber Shop on your right.

The Michelin Guide describes a two-star restaurant as "worth a detour", a three-star restaurant as "worth a special voyage". Not to go on unnecessarily about the strange dismalness of Three Lamps Plaza, but you do wonder which of those trips you're making while on your final approach to Sidart.

When he first started looking for a location for his own restaurant, Sahrawat wanted something in Kingsland, which he felt, correctly, was crying out for a great restaurant. After a couple of months without success, the real estate agent said to him, "What about Three Lamps Plaza? I won't show you inside. Just look at the outside and see what you think and if you like it, I'll show you inside."

It must have looked pretty bad inside at that time, because the restaurant has by far the greatest view of any of the city's top restaurants and from the outside you can't see much except the odd conglomeration of shops and services you're sharing with. Anyway, Sahrawat was sold, and he has turned the place into a fine dining oasis in that desert of chiropractors and tattoo removalists.

He has built a solid team around him. This has been crucial to his success, he says. Three of his four chefs have been with him for more than a year, which is a reasonable amount of time in the hospitality game. His sous chef has been with him nearly three years. His restaurant manager has been with him nearly two. He's away two days a week at his second restaurant, Cassia, so he needs to be sure the restaurant runs the same way without him as with him.

"You're nothing without your team," he says. "It's a family. We spend more time together than we do with our families."

At about 9pm, Sahrawat finally tried the scallops.

"Oh, that's great. Really nice," he said, swallowed, then started in with a whole lot of ideas about how it could be improved.

Two weeks later, the dish featured tapioca, blitzed through with spinach, basil and mint. It didn't feature brussels sprouts, which were out of season. The scallops were being cooked crisp on top to add texture. Fresh shaved carrots had been added for the same reason. The carrot and coffee puree was being made with espresso rather than coffee beans, to give it a smoother mouth feel. More sherry caramel was being used because Sahrawat thinks sherry and carrot is a great combination. There was more coffee in the caramel.

It would be wrong to say it was a whole new dish but it would be right to say it was not the same dish. And it was not the end.

Most top restaurants in New Zealand change their menus a few times a year, often with the seasons, but few, if any, beside Sidart, change them monthly. Sahrawat used to do it weekly, but that became a little too much. He is always feeling his way toward something, something he cannot even put his finger on. The menu with which he starts each month is not a set of instructions so much as it's a treasure map.

"Every time we make a component, we always ask, 'what can we do to make it better?' And that happens over time so every time you make something you go, 'can we put a bit more of this or a bit less of this, or do this in a different way?' That's why I find that having a dish on for a month is quite a good time for it. You get to spend as much time with it and try to make it as perfect as possible, whatever maximum thing you can achieve with that dish or those flavours."

Blueberry, blackcurrant, hazelnut and parsley dessert. Photo / Babiche Martens
Blueberry, blackcurrant, hazelnut and parsley dessert. Photo / Babiche Martens

It was not just the scallops and roasted carrot that had been overhauled in the two weeks since the new menu's launch. The pork belly had been substituted for venison, with pretty much the same garnishes, but cooked in hay, to give it an earthier taste. "The pork was good but not quite doing it for me," Sahrawat said.

The porcini icecream, another dish he had been a little unsure about at first, had gone from being a fairly conventional mushroom icecream dessert to one in which a white chocolate and mushroom foam is immersed into liquid nitrogen with an espuma gun to make a frozen white chocolate shell, then served tableside, where diners smashed it into little rocks with the back of a spoon.

The kohlrabi was being pickled an hour before service to give it a nice sharpness, and was being sliced thicker. The fennel and sorrel flavour of the sorbet was enhanced and the ratios of the dish's components were adjusted to make it eat better. The shiitake broth with the gurnard was cleaner-tasting and the colour clearer.

On and on the changes went, a long list that was, and forever will be, in flux. In short, the new menu had, after 10 or so services, itself become a new menu. Each time he watched a group of identically beautiful plates leave his kitchen, Sahrawat was thinking about how they could be better. He would never be satisfied.

- Canvas

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