The Australia Day long weekend is all about getting together with family and friends over a delicious lunch, playing a few games of backyard cricket and cooling off afterwards in a blow-up pool. But, instead of throwing a few shrimps on the barbie, ex Masterchef contestant Sarah Todd says Australia Day is the perfect time to spice up your public holiday menu with some global flavours.
We caught up with the former model-turned-mum-turned-reality-TV-contestant-turned-international-restaurateur at our gorgeous Bayville show home, to talk all things food, family and feasting. She also shares two of her favourite culinary crowd pleasers. Hint: they’re impressively easy to whip up.
 

Where do you get your creativity from?

For me creativity comes from my travels, my surroundings and, above all, people.  No matter which country you travel to or which language you speak, everyone speaks the language of food. 

What is your favourite food memory?

One of my fondest memories is a trip I took to Rajhasthan and I was invited by one of the locals to come and eat in their home.  We sat around on the floor and cooked bajre ki roti (an Indian flatbread) over the flame with her entire family, and we laughed and smiled but not a single word was spoken. It was such a beautiful experience.

Your food is always so beautifully presented. Do you have any advice for plating and styling food?

The first sense that is engaged when eating food is sight so for me I put a large emphasis on the way a dish was presented.  I think this is something I was known for in MasterChef.  I use the ingredients themselves that I have cooked with in the dish to add another texture; for example, topping a dish with sweet potato crisps or crisp onions. Plating or garnishing should always have a purpose.  Don’t add a sprig of rosemary just because you think it needs colour. It should always add flavour or texture to a dish.

MORE: Five minutes with ex MasterChef contestant Sashi Cheliah

How do you come up with new recipes?

I like to play around with flavours. When coming up with new recipes there are a few things I think about. First and foremost is always flavour, so making sure there is the right balance of sweet, sour, umami. The next big thing is balancing different textures - making sure there is a good mouth feel – then, last, the plating.

How did you learn to cook?

I learnt a lot of desserts from my mum, then I started learning a lot more savoury. Even after a full day modelling I would get home and cook a three-course meal for dinner. It was a passion and then basically became an obsession. I decided one day that I was done with modelling and that I wanted to go full-time in to cooking so I enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu in London to become classically trained. This was the best thing I could ever have done as it gave me the foundations I needed to go in any direction.

What sparked your interest in Indian cuisine? 

My ex-partner (my son’s dad) is Indian.  I remember how he and his mother used to cook everything by touch and feel, no measurements. They would throw a little bit of this spice and a little bit of that together to create this magic in a pot and I wanted to learn so badly as it was so different to how I cooked. I think this really opened me up as a chef and gave me the ability to be more creative.

MORE: The ultimate chocolate bark with caramel popcorn, pretzels and honey-roasted cashews

 

Do you have any go-to ingredients?

It’s a little bit naughty but, for me, I love butter; it’s that little finishing touch that elevates a dish. 

Running three restaurants and juggling family life – how do you manage it all?

I used to feel overwhelmed with everything that had to be done, but when my son was born he taught me one for the greatest lessons: to live in the moment and take each task one at a time. For me now, I can be down at the park kicking the soccer ball around with my son and having the best time with him even when I know there are so many things to be done. You have to remember to enjoy your loved ones and quality family time.

What has been the most challenging aspect of the restaurant business so far?

Learning to become a boss. For me, I had never managed staff and now I have about 200 staff.  Understanding personalities and how to build a good work culture is key.  I want to make people happy to come to work because, when I’m not there, they are the face of the restaurant.


 

How much time do you spend travelling between India and Australia?

I spend about six months in each country, travelling back and forth once a month to each place.

What is your cooking philosophy?

My philosophy is all about seasonal, local produce, cooked simply. Let the ingredients speak for themselves. Nutritious but tasty. Always tasty.

What’s next on the agenda for Sarah Todd?

More travel, more cooking and likely another restaurant coming up very soon 
 

SARAH'S TIPS FOR A STYLISH AUS DAY BBQ

What are the first things you think about when it comes to styling a plate or a table?

It has to look inviting and enticing. I don’t want my table to look too stark or too perfect.  You want it to be inviting, to make you want to dive right in.  Keep it looking fresh and colourful and a little bit rustic. 

Creative ways to serve food – that won’t cost the earth? 

Make a doughnut stand!  That means it’s easy for anyone to grab a doughnut and it can be there all day for family and friends to keep nibbling on.

Easy ways to give your table the wow factor?

Forage around in your garden or local area to add pops of greenery or colour, and use little crates or boxes to create different heights on the buffet table.

Tips for easy entertaining?

Make life simple for yourself on the day and choose dishes that you can prepare the day before.  We all want to enjoy celebrating together. I love making big, one-pot wonders like paella. It might seem fancy, but it’s actually super easy to whip up and everyone will love it!

How to you tie everything together?

Pick a cuisine – that way you know all the dishes will taste nice together and it makes it simple to decide on what dishes to create. Spanish dinner party or Indian. Keep it simple and let the food speak for itself. Then use lots of nice big platters with colourful, tasty food.
 

SARAH’S FAVOURITE CELEBRATORY RECIPES

Authentic Spanish Paella

Serves 6-8
Cooking time: 2 hours
Ingredients
  • 400 ml olive oil
  • 1 chorizo, finely diced
  • 1 onion, finely diced
  • 1 leek, finely sliced
  • 1 tbspbutter
  • 6 garlic cloves
  • 1 bell pepper, finely diced
  • 6 over-ripe tomatoes, finely diced
  • 2 tbsp sweet paprika  
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika (if using a strong chorizo then don’t need)
  • 500 ml white wine
  • Pinch saffron
  • 3 cups bomba or calasparra rice
  • 8 cups chicken stock
  • 15 vongole mussels
  • 15 green tiger or king prawns
  • 10 mussels
  • 2 crabs, cut in quarters (optional)
  • 3 lemons, sliced in 1/2cm rounds
  • ½ bunch parsley, roughly chopped
  • Tinned artichokes, roughly chopped
Method
  • Coat the pan with a generous amount of olive oil and brown your chorizo over a high heat for 1-2 minutes.  Do not fully cook.  Set aside.  This gives your oil a fantastic flavour and an intense red colour.
  • Add onion, leek and garlic and cook over a low heat until softened, about 8-10 minutes.  Do not colour.  Add pepper and plum tomatoes and cook for another 5 minutes. 
  • Meanwhile in a separate pot, poach your seafood in the chicken stock until just cooked (approximately 5 minutes).  Strain and set aside and keep stock for paella.
  • In a bowl, soak the saffron in the wine.
  • Add smoked and sweet paprika to the pan with the onion tomato mixture and cook for 1 minute until fragrant.  Add wine mixture and allow to simmer until reduced by 1/3.   Now add rice and all of the stock and allow to simmer until cooked through.  In the first 15 minutes you can stir the paella then you must leave and allow a caramelisation on the bottom of the pan. Now rim the entire paella pan with lemon rings and allow to cook until serving to infuse and caramelise.   Approximately 45 minutes in total. 
  • For the last 8 minutes, add in all your seafood and cook.  Then top with fresh parsley, artichokes and cover with a cloth and allow to sit for 15 minutes before serving.
 

Pavlova with fig, basil and strawberry

Ingredients
MERINGUE
  • 6 eggs, separated
  • 360g caster sugar
  • 1 tbsp cornflour, sieved
  • 2 tsp white vinegar
  • 1 tsp vanilla essence
  • 1 pinch of cinnamon
  • 1 pinch of salt
 
FRUIT & CREAM TOPPING
  • 300 g whipping cream
  • 1 punnet strawberries, cut into quarters
  • 4 figs, cut into quartered
  • Handful basil leaves
Method
Meringue
  • Preheat the oven to 150°C.
  • Line an oven tray with baking paper, brush with melted butter and dust with cornflour. Shake off the excess.
  • Place egg whites in a large bowl with salt and whip until soft peaks form. Gradually add sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time while still whipping until the sugar is dissolved between additions. The meringue should be glossy while all the sugar should be dissolved and not grainy (test by rubbing some of the mixture between your fingers). Reduce the whisk speed to low then add the vanilla, vinegar and cornflour.
  • Spoon the meringue into a circle on the baking tray. Use a spatula to create a little peak around the sides of the Pavlova.
  • Place in the oven and immediately drop the temperature to 120°C. Bake for 1 hour.
 
Topping
  • Whisk the cream until you can form soft peaks
  • Top the meringue with the cream, followed by fruit and fresh basil.

Note: This can be prepared the night before.


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