Celebrity chef Sarah Todd is a leading food and lifestyle influencer on the digital platform with a global audience of over 800,000. A model-turned-chef, she has added many feathers to her culinary hat, which started after  she won the MasterChef Australia Season 6 in 2014. Todd speaks to Guardian 20 about her career as a chef, her love of Indian food and her television series exploring various cuisines.

Hailing from Australia, she was discovered as a model at the age of 18. Todd worked with high-end fashion labels such as Gucci, Hugo Boss and more, which required her to travel to various countries. It was during these travels that she developed a passion for different food cultures. This triggered her imagination and she decided to get formal education in cooking.

So what made her think about switching careers? She said, “The birth of my son, Phoenix, led to a distinctive change in my mindset. It was the realisation I needed to live in the moment. One day, after a particularly monotonous photoshoot and 60 outfit changes later, I was sitting quietly having lunch, when I had a light-bulb moment. I thought if I was going to be away from my son, I wanted to be doing something I loved.” So she applied to Le Cordon Bleu, a leading hospitality institute, and after finishing her training, went to compete in MasterChef Australia.

About her experience at the prestigious cooking reality show, she said, “It was life-changing. It has been one of the most difficult times of my life, but also the most rewarding.  It gave me the confidence I needed to pursue cooking as a career.” She became a talking point in India during this time for serving several authentic Indian dishes—from fish curry to roti and pickle. Her master dish, though, was Aloo Gobi. She was not expecting the amount of attention she got from Indian viewers. She said, “I wasn’t aware that MasterChef Australia was so popular in India and the question that was being asked was, ‘Who is this girl cooking a fancy Aloo Gobi on MasterChef?’ Within a week I had 50,000 followers from India. So I planned cooking demos across India.”

Todd says that she was exposed to Indian cuisine by her Punjabi mother-in-law. “I remember watching Bibi [her mother-in-law] cook in the kitchen. She would throw in spices here and there while watching a Bollywood movie—no measurements, just experience and instinct. I’d be there beside her with pen and paper, taking notes and being inspired by watching the artist at work,” she said.

Herself an acclaimed chef today, Todd has learned from the likes of Michelin-starred chefs Neil Borthwick and Angela Hartnett. She was highly inspired by the latter’s success. In Todd’s words, “In an industry that is highly male-dominated and hierarchical, I was always inspired by what she [Hartnett] has achieved.”

Todd told us that she was always fascinated by the fact that food transcends language barriers: “One of my first international trips while modelling was to Hamburg, Germany, where I spent a month with a local family who spoke very little English. On one of the first nights, we sat and ate a meal together. Even though there was a language barrier, I felt comfortable and I realised that food is a universal language and we could share a moment without speaking. It sparked my love for food and I began delving more and more into this art.”

Todd currently runs a casual fine-dining restaurant, Antares Restaurant & Beach Club in Goa. She is also helming The Wine Rack in Mumbai, with a motive to break the stereotype that Indian food doesn’t go with wine. With the same vision, last year, she collaborated with Gurgaon’s The Wine Company. For them, she curated a menu replete with Indian food that is prepared with wine, and is perfectly paired with the classic drink as well.

She told us about her approach to curating menus by incorporating wine and Indian food. She said, “Pairing is simple, flavours should complement and not fight each other. You can’t have an extremely strong heavy curry with a light pinot as it’s going to overpower the dish. In a nutshell, the flavours should complement each other.”

On giving contemporary touches to classic Indian dishes, she said, “Today’s food distribution systems are such that almost all global foods are available everywhere. This has diluted traditional culinary mores, and one ironic result of that is an increased nostalgia for those very traditions. I try to keep the real flavours intact.”

She has been working to promote healthy eating trends all over the globe and says that the key to living a good life is to “eat seasonally, eat fresh and eat balanced”. She has also come out with a book based on the same idea, entitled The Healthy Model Cookbook. About authoring the book, she said, “My philosophy is simple—delicious, satisfying food where there are no fads; healthy food that will have you looking and feeling your best. I preach tasty, nutritious, wholesome food that is cooked simply works wonders.”

In India, Todd has filmed several television series, such as My Restaurant In India, Serve It Like Sarah and Grilled. In 2018, she also made a documentary, Awesome Assam With Sarah Todd. All of these focused on her discovery and understanding of various Indian cuisines. On her experience of filming these, she said, “When I go to these destinations, I find restaurants that are filled with locals and I eat there. It’s the best reflection of the local cuisines. I love home food and exploring people’s day-to-day routines.  I always try to capture this in my television series as not everyone has the opportunity to explore such destinations.”

Todd now plans to open another restaurant, delve into the product space and continue inspiring young girls to become professional chefs.