Behind the scenes at Cassia

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To restaurant lovers, Sid and Chand Sahwarat need little introduction. The owners of two Auckland restaurants – fine dining eatery Sidart, and modern Indian cuisine Cassia – have a fistful of awards under their belt. Cassia has been named Supreme Winner of the Metro Restaurant of the Year for two years running, as well as acquiring 2 hats in the prestigious Cuisine Good Food Awards 2017 and Best Specialist Restaurant. It’s fair to say that Sid and Chand’s restaurants are recognised as some of New Zealand’s top eateries.

But awards are one thing; I wanted to know what was behind the hype, to discover why the Sahwarats are the darlings of the hospitality industry. So, in the interests of research, I popped into Cassia, on Auckland’s Fort Street, to find out why everyone’s talking about Sid and Chand and their food.

Just walking down the stone stairs to the small underground restaurant is an experience. The ambience is warm and inviting, with gorgeous soft lighting, but there’s something very cave-like about taking your seat underground. Sid was working on the long pass with his team, all of whom worked with military precision; in this small space, and with so much work going on, everyone has their place, and a job to do.

I’d been told by Chand that Sid’s energy is unstoppable – he nearly died from influenza that had reached his heart just 10 days before Cassia opened 3 years ago, but the show still went on – and his passion is well and truly on display in his small but impeccable kitchens. He happily showed me around – how many chefs like anyone in their kitchen in the runup to the lunch rush, much less one on crutches!

Not fazed in the slightest by my ungainly hobble down the stairs to the back kitchen while all around us chefs sliced, peeled, stirred and seared, Sid showed me the immaculate shelves, industrial ovens and huge walk-in fridge that contains everything the team need to create the dishes Cassia has become famous for.

Just past the junior chef peeling 5kg of beetroot for that day’s service – every meal is prepared fresh and to order, so it’s all about the fresh ingredients – sits the spice shelf. Although everything’s tucked away and labelled tidily, the aromas of the spices made me feel like I was walking through an Indian market. Black cardamom, fenugreek leaves, cumin, cassia, coriander, various colours of salts, peppers and chillis – I was in heaven.

Sid and his team make all their sauces from scratch with oil (not ghee), and in no time he’d pulled out the ingredients needed to make his delicious masala recipe – and, unusually for a chef, he was prepared to share, so I’ve included it below. Be warned though – this recipe makes 16 litres of sauce!

“Running restaurants is very hard work, but it’s Sid’s passion,” says Chand, whose loose title is Operations Manager – ‘the Do It All Lady’, as she’s known. “Cassia is pretty unique, as we make Indian food with New Zealand ingredients. It does run our lives – Sid’s here at night, not at home with me and the kids – and it takes up all our time. It’s important to get it right – we are giving people food, so we have the health of everyone who walks through our door in our hands.”

Staffing the restaurant falls under Chand’s remit, and in May she spoke out about the government’s planned changes on migrant workers. “I’d love to hire Kiwis, but I can’t find people to do the job. Learning to be a tandoor chef is like learning to be a sushi chef – it takes a lot of time, and a lot of skill, and they don’t just turn up on the doorstep,” she says. “To make the right food, we need the right staff. It would be much more efficient if we could use local chefs, but there simply aren’t enough of them in New Zealand, and kids in some schools are even being told that hospitality isn’t a good career choice. It’s a great career choice – you just have to be prepared to work hard.”

If the faces of the lunch crowd are to be believed, Sid and Chand are doing it hard, but they are doing it right. The deliciously mouthwatering amuse bouche of Pani puri – a little orb of potato and chickpea, filled with a coriander and mint sauce – is just the right level of surprise, and the naans coming out of the volcanically-hot tandoori oven are among the best I’ve ever eaten.

It’s hard to know what to recommend at Cassia, as the choices are plentiful. Unlike most Indian restaurants, Cassia serves a delicious duck dish with kumara, lychee and cardamom – a perfect example of the Kiwi/Indian fusion they do so well. There are plenty of vegetarian options: that 5kg of beetroot I’d seen was for part of a Roasted beetroot, creme fraiche, black garlic and almond starter. There’s plenty of seafood on offer too – the Madras style clams with aromatic sauce and curry leaves took my fancy, as did the prawns and celeriac in aromatic sauce. I was spoiled for choice – and my tastebuds were working overtime, taking in the flavours and spices I’d seen so neatly stacked in the hidden kitchen.

Reluctantly leaving the restaurant, I thought about what I’d discovered in the past 2 hours. Firstly, I’d discovered that the hype around this talented couple and their restaurants is well-deserved – the food is impeccably made, packed full of flavour and is completely unique. But their success is no accident. New Zealand doesn’t have enough chefs coming through, and finding the right people to help them create these beautiful plates of food is harder for Sid and Chand than cooking any sauce or side dish. “The wrong message is being given in schools – we’d love to see kids with passion and talent coming through,” says Chand. And while there’s no doubt the chefs in this kitchen work hard, the result is very, very worth it.

Cassia’s Masala Spice Mix

Ingredients

  • 80g cumin seeds
  • 80g fennel seeds
  • 60g cardamom
  • 6 cinnamon sticks
  • 150g black peppercorn seeds
  • 5kg onions, finely diced
  • 300g ginger and garlic mix
  • Tomatoes (tinned or fresh)

Method

Dry roast all the spices to release the aromas. Blitz to a fine powder and add to sauteed onion, ginger and garlic. Add the spices and cook for 5-10 minutes. Add tomatoes (tinned or fresh) and cook through.

 

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