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Sid Sahrawat at Cassia (Photo: Joel Thomas).
Sid Sahrawat at Cassia (Photo: Joel Thomas).

KaiJuly 9, 2018

Inside the empire of Auckland’s first couple of food

Sid Sahrawat at Cassia (Photo: Joel Thomas).
Sid Sahrawat at Cassia (Photo: Joel Thomas).

Taking over New Zealand’s most lauded restaurant is not a move for the faint-hearted, but risks tend to pay off for Sid and Chand Sahrawat.

In 2014, when I first ate at Cassia, my palate was racist. I knew the food at the new modern Indian restaurant hidden down a back alley in the heart of Auckland’s central city was really good, but my taste buds believed the flavours it recognised – the cumin, ginger and cinnamon – should be found only in plastic takeaway containers. I couldn’t comprehend Indian food this complex and delicate, or expensive.

As I understood it, curries in New Zealand should taste relatively similar, with a few chunks of lamb or chicken, and cost $15 including some naan. Early reviews expressed the same unconscious bias, inevitably comparing Cassia to your neighbourhood Indian joint in flavour and price.

After a second visit, my palate started to understand what Auckland restaurant power couple Sid and Chand Sahrawat are trying to achieve at Cassia. It was like the difference between a $15 shiraz and a Bordeaux blend from the shelves above my eye line. By the third visit, I realised I was being taken on a magical circumnavigation of Indian cuisine by one of the country’s best chefs.

Combining his classical training with traditional Indian techniques, Sid has captured the spirit of India, marrying it with New Zealand’s best produce, and created a version of Indian food that didn’t exist in Auckland. It conveys the diversity of India’s cuisine and celebrates the idiosyncrasies of each region. The snapper was dressed in a light curry sauce made with the mustard and coconut flavours of coastal southern India. The kati roll with chicken charred in the tandoor then wrapped in naan bread tasted like a tribute to Kolkata. The pani puri was a spicy mouthful of gourmet Mumbai street food, best consumed in one bite.

“We didn’t really know what modern Indian cuisine was. It was something we created and something we formed over the last few years. There wasn’t a restaurant for us to copy,” says Sid, while we share a kulcha (naan bread stuffed with spicy lamb) in the Cassia dining room before a winter lunch service.

Behind Sid a chef threads thick chunks of orange marinated chicken onto long steel skewers to be cooked in the tandoor, and a giant pot of vindaloo sauce bubbles on the stove.

Chicken is dropped into the tandoor oven at Cassia (Photo: Joel Thomas)

The inspiration came from their own home. On Sundays, the sacred day when chefs find time for their families, Sid would cook for Chand and instead of dressing an eye fillet in a salsa verde or a red wine jus, he would serve it with a curry sauce. Or he would do quail in the tandoor, or a barbecue spiced with Indian flavours.

“We asked, ‘Why can’t we eat like this in Auckland? Why is everyone ignoring these yummy Indian flavours? Why do we have to go to a takeaway restaurant where the ambience doesn’t feel right, and the service isn’t where it needs to be?’” says Chand.  

When the couple opened their first restaurant, the sophisticated Sidart, in 2009, the concept of Cassia was already thought out in their plans. But they believed the market wasn’t ready for anything Indian on that plane of flavour or price. So after he left his role as head chef at The Grove to start his own restaurant, Sid designed a European-influenced tasting menu at Sidart, shelving the concept of contemporary Indian cuisine until Cassia opened in 2014.

Cassia was a test. A test whether Aucklanders would accept that Indian food could be something more. Cassia was a little louder, more colourful and more robust than Sidart, but still dedicated to elegant cooking and service. Almost from opening day, by 5.30pm there was a line out the door.

It took five years for Sidart to win a top award for its presentation of fine dining. In 2014 it won Cuisine’s restaurant of the year, and Sid was named chef of the year by Metro. At Cassia it took less than two when in 2016 and 2017, it took home Metro’s Auckland Restaurant of the Year. This was a smart-casual Indian restaurant beating out all those places presenting long degustation menus. The experiment had worked. They’d shifted the perception of the potential of Indian food.

“Now we’ve tested Cassia in Auckland, we are ready for the next level,” says Chand.

The modern Indian food of Cassia (Photo: Joel Thomas)

The “next level” required a pretty significant excuse to fix a bunch of things that most certainly weren’t broken. So it was big shock for their staff (who learned only the day before the general public) and the industry when, a month after they swept the Metro awards in April, the news broke that the Sahrawats had bought The French Café, probably Auckland’s most important and innovative restaurant.

As they shift the pieces of their empire, the purchase gives Sid and Chand the opportunity to attempt Indian cuisine on an even higher stage. From September, The French Café will become ‘Sid at The French Café,’ where he will cook his modern European fine dining. Cassia will remain the same in its vigorous but polished downtown presentation of Indian food, and Sidart will become progressive Indian-influenced formal degustation dining. Here the flavours and techniques developed at Cassia will be refined and embellished into 14 courses served on white tablecloths.

“It was a big decision for us to change Sidart. The feedback we’ve got is Auckland is ready and they want to have the Indian influences coming through in a more intimate setting, and Sidart is ready for that change,” says Chand.

Sid is from Chandigarh, in the north of the northern state of Punjab, and a city like no other in India. Designed by the radical Swiss-French urban modernist Le Corbusier, Chandigarh is a city built on planned order and uniformity in a country famous for chaos. The city is cut into 56 carefully gridded sectors, each intended to form a micro neighbourhood with its own infrastructure and amenities.

His father wanted Sid to follow him into the army, but he left home when he was 14 to attend hotel school in Chennai. At first he wanted to work in the lobby, dressed in the the shiny uniform, rather than being hidden in the kitchen. But the more he cooked, the more he realised how much he enjoyed it. And how good he was.

At 17, his career began at the Grand Hyatt Muscat in Oman. Here he cooked mostly repetitive, but high-quality, Italian-influenced food in a team of 80-90 chefs. Looking for more innovative cuisine, and a better quality of life, he moved to New Zealand with his parents when he was 20. He worked around Auckland’s upmarket restaurants, and then in 2006 took over the head chef role from Michael Meredith at The Grove.

Chand grew up in Pune, 150km to the southeast of Mumbai, an only child in a middle-class liberal Hindu family who sent her to a Catholic convent school, because that’s where you got a good education in India. She was a rebellious teenager.

“If I had stayed in India I would be dead, or I would have really gone off the rails. I had to get out,” she says.

So at 17 she got on a plane on her own and moved to New Zealand to study at the University of Auckland. She was so lonely she’d visit the Bhartiya Mandir Hindu temple on Balmoral Rd just to see other Indian faces. She’d just sit there and feel part of a community.

“It was very scary. I wanted to run away the first year. But eventually you make friends and you settle into life. I think New Zealand is home now,” Chand says.

She completed a degree in psychology, then studied to be a teacher and taught English at Rangitoto College and Howick College. She has a postgraduate qualification in education and counselling, and plans to one day do her masters.

“All those things I would never have been able to get in India. I was doing things an Indian woman wouldn’t be allowed to do.”

Chand was 18 when she met Sid, then 22 and starting to get his first head chef positions. He had a fast car and seemed alluring and cool. She was assertive and strong. There was powerful chemistry and quickly they moved in together. Three years after they first met, they were married in 2006.

“He is just really passionate and that is what makes him a great chef. When he was younger I used to think he was a little bit arrogant when we were dating, because all chefs are a little bit arrogant,” she says.

Sid and Chand Sahrawat at home with Roan, 2, and Zoya, 7 (Photo: Supplied)

When they opened Sidart, Chand was teaching and the loan conditions for financing the restaurant required she maintain that income. But even while she worked at school, the restaurant demanded a lot of her time and mind. A year after Sidart opened she became pregnant. After a brief return to teaching following her maternity leave, she discovered how devoted − and how important− she was to the restaurant and its success. So she gave up her career to manage “all the things that Sid can’t do”.

“She was the one who pushed me to open Cassia. I was quite content with just Sidart. But she knew I had this desire to open a modern Indian restaurant. I would never have done it without her,” says Sid.

In 2003, their first formal date was at The French Café, and it was a meal that changed their lives. From the moment he first ate there, their approach to food forever influenced Sid. And the husband-and-wife owners, chef Simon Wright and manager Creghan Molloy-Wright, were a model for the Sahrawats for how to run not just a restaurant, but a business.   

“It was the first place to inspire me to put out what I do now. If The French Café didn’t exist, I don’t know if we could have existed.”

The French Café wasn’t for sale. And the Sahrawats weren’t looking to buy another space. But a rumour was floating around the hospitality industry about the availability of Auckland’s most famous restaurant, and Sid and Chand wanted to know if it was true. It was summer and Simon Wright, executive chef and owner of The French Café, was on the beach in the Coromandel when Sid called.

“He rang me out of the blue and said if you’re interested, phone me back,” says Wright.

For nearly 20 years, this husband-and-wife partnership, with Simon in the kitchen and Creghan on the restaurant floor, have been in charge of The French Café. Almost intentionally hidden behind Japanese shōji-style paper walls, in the awkward Symonds St-Khyber Pass junction, under their stewardship it became Auckland’s most illustrious restaurant, and for many years its best.

The plan was to look at selling the restaurant around the 2021 America’s Cup. Theirs is a demanding industry full of pressure, mental and physical stress. The hours are long, especially for a couple so devoted and present in their business. They have two children, aged nine and three, and they wanted to find a way to focus on their family. The couple felt like there was nothing left for them to achieve with The French Café.

Chand and Sid Sahrawat with Simon Wright and Creghan Molloy-Wright at The French Café (Photo: Aaron McLean)

“I’m 52, I have been doing the same thing for 20 years, and beyond that I have been doing the same thing all my life. It is a very hard life, even though I love it to bits,” says Wright.

They were looking at ways of making The French Café more attractive for sale, creating systems so a potential buyer wouldn’t have to be as intimately involved as the couple had been for the last 19 years.

Then suddenly, from just the seed of imagining a potential buyer, they had the perfect one. This wasn’t an overseas investor, it was a couple they knew, and a couple they knew had the skills and passion to maintain The French Café legacy.

“I said to Creghan: ‘I know it’s a little bit earlier, but is this type of buyer going to be around in three years? They’ve got the backbone. They know how to do it. And we will be handing it over to someone we know will look after it,’” says Wright.

In March, the two couples met at The French Café to discuss the sale. Sid and Chand’s 7-year-old daughter Zoya explored the restaurant’s gardens and private dining rooms. Then there were meetings with financial advisors, the banks, and then negotiations. The press release dropped on May 23.

The view from Sidart (Photo: Josh Griggs)

Sid is in a crisp black buttoned shirt, everyone else is in aprons. He’s rolled up his sleeves and stands at the kitchen bench that overlooks the immaculate white tables and muted tones of the Sidart dining room, slicing apples into matchsticks, and then the matchsticks into perfect tiny cubes. At the same time as cutting the apples, he surveys his chefs preparing for Friday lunch service, and then steals a glance out the restaurant’s window at the view across the Freemans Bay villas to the Sky Tower. This is the foundation of his empire.

A giant kingfish is muscled through the door by a courier and dumped on the kitchen pass. It’s a beautiful beast, skin like a rainbow that bends from pure white to a sparkling emerald. Head chef Jason Kim fillets the fish with precision, strength and tenderness.

The Sahrawats have created an intense loyalty in their staff. They encourage them to take sabbaticals to study and develop in restaurants overseas, and they always come home. Cassia chef Nishant Arora is currently working at Michelin three-star restaurant Frantzen in Stockholm, Sweden. Each day they serve 30 people and have 23 chefs, 11 of whom work from 6am to 6pm, and 12 who work from 1pm to 1am. Next month Arora is returning to Cassia to allow staff to migrate across to The French Café.

They have unique roles like “research and development chef”. Lesley Chandra, former head chef of Cassia, was in charge of “thinking of crazy stuff and trying it out”. When I ate at Sidart, my snapper was dressed in one of Chandra’s creations, a smoked fish bone foam. The fluffy bubbles that looked like sea foam accented the delicate fish like it had been cooked on an open fire. It was very clever.

The Sidart staff try sous chef Ed’s burnt onion, mushroom puree and cheddar custard with herb oil, thyme and shiitake (Photo: Joel Thomas)

Every Friday lunch service, Sidart hosts the “Creative Collaboration” menu, where a different rotation of chefs design one of the five courses. On Tuesday the chefs fight over ingredients and flavour profiles, and write down their dishes on a piece of paper stuck to the wall of the kitchen. Throughout the week they discuss and test and taste their menu concepts with Sid.

It’s Sid’s way of nourishing the chefs’ creativity and development. Pastry chefs have a chance to cook on the hotline, grill chefs make apple sorbet, and on the Friday I had lunch, the head chef was baking a salt-crusted pineapple in the sun on the restaurant’s balcony for our dessert.

The concept originally ran on Saturday nights, and each chef would cook two portions of a dish they’d invented and developed for the other staff. The team would sit around the “chef’s table”, often until late on Sunday morning, share wine and see how far they could take their cooking, critiquing each other’s work. It was inspired by the famous “Saturday night projects” at Noma, Copenhagen’s frequently named “best restaurant in the world”.

But while it allowed his chefs to be inventive with new techniques and ingredients, Sid found the Saturday night concept lacked real-world restaurant application. There’s a big difference between cooking two dishes for your colleagues and cooking 40 under the pressure of service.

“I wanted to take it a step further. I wanted my chefs to learn about cost feasibility for the dining room, how to balance with what each other is doing, and create a menu that speaks to each other,” he says.

At 11am it’s the dress rehearsal for service. Young French chef Antoine Rouge nervously watches as the rest of the chefs and floor staff hand around his scallop dish. Flavours from his home region in northern France influence the first entree on the five-course lunch menu. Sid thinks deeply as he chews, then smiles and shakes Rouge’s hand in pleasure and excitement. He’s proud of the young man. Rouge looks relieved, and deeply flattered.   

“I’ve never had scallops and dates before, the chorizo brings it all together,” Sid tells him.

The Sidart staff gather to test Friday’s collaboration lunch (Photo: Joel Thomas)

When chef Vicky Shah puts down his plate of seared kingfish with a cup of miso soup, some of the staff are noticeably confused. Are they supposed to pour the miso over the fish, or sip it? When Sid tastes the fish he likes the way the horseradish references wasabi and the Japanese inspiration of the dish. But the miso is too strong, and he suggests he pulls it back with chicken broth.

By the time it arrives at our table, the dish’s presentation and flavours have been perfected. A small handmade ceramic cup is filled with a balanced salty soup that when sipped works like seasoning for the medium-rare fish. Fish that was filleted just over an hour ago.

“You always have to come up with something new. When you love cooking, there is no pressure, you’ve got a chance to be inspired,” says Shah. “[Sid] cares about his people and our cooking, not just running a restaurant. He’s never too busy for us.”

The main course is always designed by Sid. He’s started using it to apply the vision for Sidart’s new Indian-inspired menu (which launches next week) on diners by stealth. The lamb rump from Hawke’s Bay is slow cooked in the sous-vide overnight, then finished in the pan, the fat crispy. It’s accented with fragrant fenugreek and chilli, and has a heat that comes on slowly and stays. It’s served with a goat’s cheese-stuffed pastry cigar, the creaminess and sharpness of the cheese a perfect pairing to the fat and spice of the lamb.  

“If you came here four weeks in a row you would never have the same dish,” says Sid.

The Friday menu (Photo: Joel Thomas)

A restaurant relies on consistency. Producing the same dish, to the same standard, dozens of times a day, every day. Yet, when I dined across Cassia and Sidart four weeks in a row, each experience was unique. Within the six weeks the food at each meal was defined by the changing seasons and availability of produce.

Sid has committed Sidart to using only New Zealand produce, from the meat to the salt and olive oil, and at Cassia wherever possible. Chand has started growing chillies and uncommon herbs for both the kitchens.

Focused on the celebration of the produce, Sid’s cooking has grown up and in doing so simplified. During the height of molecular gastronomy in the mid noughties, Simon Wilson, the editor of Cuisine and then Metro during the rise of the Sahrawats’ influence in Auckland, remembers being invited to The Grove to try Sid’s attempt at the trend. It wasn’t good.  

“I was appalled, he had no idea what he was doing. He knew technically what it was but he had no idea why to do it, or what to make that would be good,” Wilson says.  

But Sid learned how to do molecular gastronomy well, says Wilson. He’s always learning. He’s learned to respond to trends with his own version, and he has faith in his vision of what great food is.

“I have grown as a chef,” says Sid. “When I was young, my dishes used to be a lot more complicated.

“As you mature, you trust your instincts more and cook what you want to and what you enjoy. You don’t have to put too many things on the plate,” he says.  

Sid Sahrawat at his first restaurant, Sidart (Photo: Joel Thomas)

Opening a restaurant isn’t easy. Sid and Chand launched Sidart in the middle of the Global Financial Crisis, in the back of an awkward arcade in Three Lamps, at the much less fashionable end of Ponsonby Road. And for six months it was quiet. On the weekends the couple would walk around Ponsonby and Herne Bay, putting their menu into the letterboxes of expensive houses. They’d go pitch their new restaurant to hotel concierges.

“It was really, really scary. Sid had this conviction that when we opened we were going to be full, and we opened in 2009, bang in the middle of a recession,” says Chand. “We’d have days where he’d come home and there were two people booked for the restaurant.”

By the time they decided to open Cassia in 2014, Sidart was established as one of the country’s best restaurants and Sid one of its best chefs. But two weeks before opening night Sid got really sick. Tests to diagnose minor chest pain saw him sent straight to hospital. Influenza had spread to his heart, causing it to swell and enlarge, a syndrome called myopericarditis. He was kept in hospital for eight days of tests, and then four days before their new restaurant opened, he discharged himself.

“Chand was just a rock – she organised everything. She managed everything, recruited people, made sure the designers and builders were doing everything they needed to,” says Sid.

“We make all the decisions together and that has been a big part of the success story.”

The decision to take over The French Café was made in their bathroom. They’d already taken two failing restaurants in awkward spaces and turned them into dining destinations. Moving into one of Auckland’s best restaurants was an easier decision than opening Cassia.

The space will test Sid as a chef. The French Café seats more than twice the diners of Sidart. He’s already stretched between his two existing restaurants. There will be 25 new staff to add to the family.

“We haven’t done it just to do another place, it’s more to carry Simon and Creghan’s legacy and keep what they’ve created,” says Sid.  

A dish from Sidart’s new menu: pork jowl, butternut and wild garlic with Goan flavours (Photo: Josh Griggs)

Not all chefs make good restaurateurs. Not all good restaurateurs make good entrepreneurs. Sid has three key influences in his career as he tries to be all three. His predecessor at The Grove, Michael Meredith, one of New Zealand’s most innovative chefs, inspires Sid in the kitchen. The longevity of the success of The French Café couple has guided the Sahrawats on how to create an entire restaurant and dining experience that can remain relevant. And Al Brown’s empire building has instructed Sid on how to be a businessman and a restaurateur.  

“A good chef is just focused on his kitchen and the dishes they’re cooking. A good entrepreneur is focused on the dining experience. The quality of everything used in the restaurant. They’re focused on the overall picture.”

He works six days a week. Each morning he cooks his children breakfast then takes his daughter to school. He tries to spends an hour at the gym before work. Then he’s in the kitchen around 10.30am. On the Saturday night I dined at Sidart, we sat down at 8pm and left after 15 courses at midnight. Sid is usually home by 2am.

When they had one restaurant he was able to control everything himself. As they expanded he learned to trust his staff by investing in them. He learned about creating the vision and direction of the dining experience.

“Letting go is hard. That was really daunting, not being in Sidart all the time. But that gives the staff an amazing sense of responsibility, and that drives the restaurant forward,” he says.  

The Cassia dining room (Photo: Joel Thomas)

Chand grew up watching her father run his own business, making hard financial decisions. There were times when he was out of a job and the family couldn’t afford a loaf of bread. It taught her how to run the restaurant as a business, how to respond to the market. She’s seen chefs get lost in their creativity, unable to check their arrogance to allow people to understand what they were trying to achieve.

“At the end of the day, you are running a business, and you have employees, and you have to go to the consumer and make sure the consumer gets you,” she says.  

But they’re not afraid of risk. They’ve tested Cassia, but it’s a risk to reinvent Sidart’s lauded tasting menu. It’s a risk to add Sid’s name to the front of the name of a restaurant that has defined Auckland dining. And it’s about measuring that risk as they chase their empire.

“When we were deciding about The French Café, I said to him, ‘What is going to happen if we fail? We will lose our restaurants, I will go back to being a teacher, you will go back to working as a chef for someone else. Can you live with that reality?’ And he said ‘yes’. And I said, ‘Well, let’s do it then.’”

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