Food & Culture

Sid Sahrawat: Meet the chef reinventing New Zealand's fine dining scene

The gutsy innovator behind Sidart, Cassia and Sid at The French Café.

Sid Sahrawat

Sid Sahrawat has been serving up a beautifully executed culinary adventure at his Auckland finer diner Sidart since 2009. The chef and restaurateur relocated to New Zealand from India with his wife Chand in 2000 and began working in some of the country's most acclaimed kitchens, including Toto, Parnell's The George and The Grove in Auckland.

Spending much of his childhood travelling, Sahrawat's exposure to international cuisine inspired his love of cooking — he attended culinary school in Chennai, India from the age of 14, before gaining work experience in Oman in the Middle East.

With a desire to showcase progressive Indian flavours and contemporary cooking techniques, Sahrawat left The Grove to open Sidart — an elevated extension of Sahrawat's home cooking that celebrates seasonal New Zealand produce. Delivering innovative dishes with delicate flavour play and show-stopping creativity, Sidart fast became recognised as one of New Zealand's best new restaurants.

In 2014, the couple opened their second Auckland offering, Cassia, this time reinventing traditional Indian fare with modern ingredients.

Adding a third restaurant to their stable in September this year with the acquisition of The French Café — aptly relaunched as Sid at The French Café — the Sahrawat's New Zealand takeover seems inevitable.

GT caught up with Sahrawat to find out more about the vision for his restaurants and what we can expect from him next.

How has your upbringing influenced your cooking?

Growing up in India and my love for Indian cuisine has influenced my palate. I always think about how to enhance flavours and ensure dishes have texture.

How has New Zealand’s food scene transformed?

I think Kiwis are travelling a lot more and are more open to trying new concepts — our geographical location forces us to explore the rest of the world. We are seeing modern interpretations of traditional cuisines. There is a lot of respect for the ingredients and produce. We are so blessed to have such beautiful produce to work with.

Carrot, cardamom, mandarin and burnt cream at Sidart. *Photo: Josh Griggs*
Carrot, cardamom, mandarin and burnt cream at Sidart. Photo: Josh Griggs

Talk us through Sidart's 'Discovery' menu.

Sidart's Discovery menu features six snacks, followed by seven courses. Diners don't know what they will be getting until they come into the restaurant, so it's an exercise in trust. After we bought The French Café, we decided to change the menu at Sidart so we wouldn't own two restaurants serving the same food.

The point of difference between Sidart and Sid at The French Café is that Sidart offers tasting menus to showcase subtle Indian flavours, while Sid at The French Café serves contemporary New Zealand cuisine with both à la carte and tasting menu options.

What makes your restaurants so successful?

I think it's our staff; how passionate they are and their ability to share our vision. We constantly and consistently create the best experiences we can for our guests. We also believe in always evolving — whether it's with new menus to reflect the seasonality of ingredients, or through changing concepts and interiors.

Sid at The French Café. *Photo: Josh Griggs*
Sid at The French Café. Photo: Josh Griggs

How important is local produce to your businesses?

[New Zealand is] blessed with some of the best seafood, beef and lamb. I think the more local and seasonal the produce we use, the better it is for us to create a composition on the plate. That is why we use seasonal local produce to guide our menus.

We try to be as sustainable as we can: We design menus that minimise waste, grow the produce that we can, and work closely with our producers. I think it's important for us to respect the environment that produces what we eat and helps us sustain.

What ingredients are you loving right now?

First Light beef and venison because it's beautiful grass-fed wagyu. The Blackfoot Paua from the Bluff area is amazing. With summer on our doorstep, sweet corn, berries and stone fruit from the Hawke's Bay region are definitely inspiring our menus at the moment.

Scallop, scampi, goat curd and almond relish at Cassia. "Cassia is smart dining while Sidart is a more formal restaurant," Sahrawat says. "Cassia's food marries the best of New Zealand produce with traditional Indian flavours. Sidart's food is elevated, progressive Indian cuisine." *Photo: Josh Griggs*
Scallop, scampi, goat curd and almond relish at Cassia. "Cassia is smart dining while Sidart is a more formal restaurant," Sahrawat says. "Cassia's food marries the best of New Zealand produce with traditional Indian flavours. Sidart's food is elevated, progressive Indian cuisine." Photo: Josh Griggs

Talk us through Cassia's famed cocktail list

Our talented bar manager, Prateek Arora, came up with a cocktail named Teekhi Coffee. It's Broken Shed Vodka, Quick Brown Fox coffee liqueur and a shot of Vittoria Coffee espresso with ghost-chilli syrup made from ghost chillies grown in our home gardens. Essentially, it's an espresso martini with a hint of chilli.

What constitutes the perfect brew?

Good extraction, the quality of the beans, freshly ground beans, perfect milk temperature and the intensity of flavour, all in perfect balance, coming together. We use Vittoria Coffee in our restaurants. I love the way Les Schirato runs his business — the people who work at Vittoria are like his extended family. We know we can pick up the phone and speak to Les if we need to and that's quite important in business to have that personal connection with someone.

Cassia. *Photo: Josh Griggs*
Cassia. Photo: Josh Griggs

How does Sid at The French Café differ from The French Café?

First thing that's different is the food. I think every chef has their own style and mine differs from Simon Wright's. Customers at The French Café were used to Simon's signature dishes so it has been a balancing act, ensuring that we create dishes that make previous customers happy yet introduce them to something new.

Chand has been slowly making changes to the interiors and we changed the artwork when we took over. A few weeks back we changed the lounge area in the bar, and next will be all the upholstery in the restaurant when we close in December. We are slowly trying to put our mark on the restaurant space so that the staff and guests feel the difference.

Can you tell us about the menu and wine list?

My favourite dish is the sourdough ice-cream with blackberries, strawberries (and shards made from them), basil oil and dulce de leche. It's a dish that showcases seasonal berries and also uses off-cuts from the sourdough bread we bake in house, so it reduces wastage.

One of my favourite wines at the moment is the 2014 Millton Clos de Ste Anne chardonnay from Gisborne. I love New Zealand chardonnays and this one is particularly well structured.

Sourdough ice-cream with beer praline and raspberry at Sid at The French Café. *Photo: Josh Griggs*
Sourdough ice-cream with beer praline and raspberry at Sid at The French Café. Photo: Josh Griggs

What do you have in the pipeline for 2019?

Next year will mark Sidart's tenth birthday and Cassia's fifth, so it will be a very special year for us. We will be consolidating and working on perfecting what we do in each restaurant, and are looking at hosting guest chefs throughout the year.

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