How the lockdown gave this chef food for thought

By Indira Laisram
Adiityaa Sangwan

Adiityaa Sangwan now brings contemporary Indian treats to Mornington Peninsula

The coronavirus has hit the culinary world stymieing hopes for some new migrant chefs. However, one such young chef did not allow the pandemic to bring his fledgling career in a new country come to a precarious halt. Instead, he chose to rise to the challenge of the past few months delivering contemporary Indian food around the Mornington Peninsula. Meet Adiityaa Sangwan, who The Age has described is among the few backstage players ‘to step into the spotlight many thought was not for them’.

It’s been about four years in Australia for Sangwan who came here after completing his hospitality studies from the Institute of Hotel Management in Aurangabad with stints at the Marriot Hotels in Mumbai and Taj Hotels in New Delhi. With his uncle Devendra, a restaurateur and aunt Shashi, a winemaker here since the early 1980s, Australia has always been on his radar. The dream eventuated in 2016 when he moved to Melbourne to pursue an Advance Diploma in Culinary at Le Cordon Bleu. Once here, he was introduced to the dynamic food scene.

While still studying, Sangwan got a chance to work at Petit Tracteur, a French Bistro on the Mornington Peninsula, then he shifted to Doot Doot Doot, the marquee one-hatted restaurant at Jackalope, and finally he started full time work in 2019 under Phil Wood, the culinary director of Pt Leo Estate and someone who has worked and run some of Australia’s most influential restaurants.

Flinders’ Mussels with Rappa Leaves and Coconut Sauce, home-made Brioche Buns

It was a time of great optimism and Sangwan was cooking in earnest. Working at these ‘amazing places’ he got a chance to experience different cooking techniques which brought out the complexity of flavours and textures of those ingredients. “It also allowed me to be more creative and it changed my perception of food in general,” he says.

Unfortunately, when COVID-19 restrictions hit Australia in March, Sangwan faced uncertainty as Pt Leo Estate closed its doors and he was not eligible for any of the government assistance programs. “It was a scary time as no one knew how long the lockdowns would last and whether things would return back to normal,” he says.

With no job at hand, Sangwan used the time to immerse himself in cooking, experimenting with different dishes. Often, he would be on the phone with this mother, who he describes is an amazing cook herself, taking down family recipes. “I was trying to create some of my own dishes using local produce and using the different techniques which I have learned over the period of time.”

He kept in mind Phil Wood’s constant encouragement and guidance. “Keep cooking,” Wood told Sangwan when Pt Leo estate closed down.

Garam Masala Spiced Cauliflower, Cashew and Coconut Sauce

Sangwan also drew on all that he learnt while interning with Gaggan in Bangkok during July-August last year. “It was great to get an insight into one of the most innovative Indian restaurants in the world. It made me realise that there are no boundaries to the flavour profile and texture you can create whilst keeping the essence of a dish still Indian,” says Sangwan. Interestingly, Sangwan was part of the last service when the iconic restaurant shut up shop in August, although the man who put Indian food in the fine dining spotlight in Bangkok has reopened Gaggan Anand in November last after the split from his partners.

With the support of his uncle and aunt and their facilities at the family’s cellar door—Avani Wines in Red Hill South—Sangwan successfully formulated a plan to create contemporary Indian home-delivered menu for the Mornington Peninsula. He named it Kesar, which in Sanskrit means ‘saffron’, an exquisite and ancient spice used throughout India.

On the long weekend following the Queen’s birthday in June, Sangwan introduced Kesar to Mornington Peninsula by organising his first pop-up at his family’s Red Hill South winery, where his kitchen is based. He designed a special menu pairing it with a range of Avani wines. On the menu were Khaman Dhokla, a steamed chickpea cake with mint and tomato relish, Flinders’ mussels with rappa leaves and coconut sauce, tuna tartar with pickled sea cucumbers, spiced oil and potato crisps, roasted half-spatchcock, fermented lime relish, to name a few.

Cellar Door Pop-up

The response to this event was huge and proved an immediate success. By the time the family announced their next pop-up in July, it would be a sold-out event. When plans were afoot for the third pop-up, Victoria came under lockdown restrictions again.

“It has been a wild ride, We don’t know what will happen next, we will just keep hoping,” says Sangwan, adding, “Going forward, we will be doing this on the first weekend of every month at the cellar door once restrictions are lifted. We might also have a private in-house catering for small groups, which may work well at the moment with the restrictions.”

For now, the food delivery business has been up and running. “There has been good interest so far and I am encouraged by the great feedback from everyone. I am still working on getting the word out across the Peninsula. I have been creating and publishing a new menu every Monday (orders close late Saturday) which is delivered on Thursday through to Sunday,” says Sangwan.

Braised Lamb Leg

Sangwan’s food style is contemporary, not fusion or merging flavours. “I am utilising traditional Indian flavours but expressing them in a different way. I am also looking to source seasonal and local ingredients where possible.”

An example would be the tuna tartar dish, which was on his second pop-up menu where he used Indian spices along with pickled sea cucumbers and saltbush which he foraged during a walk along Cape Shank. “The culture of eating salted food is quite dominant in Australia so I wanted to showcase that. I also had a slow cooked lamb shoulders with curry leave jus. So, I had the essence of Indian flavour while technique was French.”

Like any chef transitioning into a new space, Sangwan is relying not just on the novelty of providing contemporary Indian food but food that presents fresh regional produce while retaining that Indian flavour.

Amrisari Fish Scotch Egg with Nasturtium Sauce

As his aunt Shashi says, “What Avii is doing is taking the best local produce that we have in the Mornington Peninsula and helping them in turn.”

Asked what led him to cooking, an unusual trait for an Indian boy, Sangwan laughs. “I was always into food. Growing up, my first question used to be what’s for lunch or what’s for dinner, a question that often annoyed my mom. So I used to make something on my own. Basically, I just enjoyed playing with aroma, I feel I can be my true self inside the kitchen.”

“No one knows what is going to happen in the next few months, but I hope to keep going with the business for as long as I am able to,” he reflects.

Whether culinary transcendence or perfection, there is something inspiring, even hopeful, about what Sangwan has to offer.

This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas

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