Chef Adam D'Sylva is surrounded by fans. Journalists are notoriously difficult to impress. Yet, at the Grand Hyatt's Italian restaurant, Celini in Mumbai, I watch food and wine writers chuckle delightedly as Chef D'Sylva swaps stories and poses for pictures. One writer comes by to show me a picture of herself with him, just taken on her phone. She promptly uploads it on Facebook. Five minutes later, she squeals, “25 likes… already!” Chef D'Sylva chuckles, “So, now add me on Facebook.” We're at a Master Class organised by Tourism Victoria to celebrate the opening of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival.
Chef Adam D'Sylva is best known in India for his appearances on the immensely popular ‘Master Chef Australia' series. However, in his home town Melbourne, he also has a sterling reputation as a restaurateur thanks to ‘Coda', an edgy, award- winning restaurant of which he is the owner and executive chef.
With a name borrowed from the title of Led Zepplin's 1982 album, Coda features food that's gobal, contemporary and seasonal. Chef D'Sylva began cooking professionally with an apprenticeship at Hilton on the Park in Melbourne. He went on to travel through Europe and Asia, working in Italy and Hong Kong. His career includes a stint with Thomas Keller at Per Se. All influences are evident in his fluid cooking style and intricate food.
“We'll start with scallops with tapioca and salmon caviar,” he says, displaying a bowl of creamy tapioca soaked in milk. “I use a lot of tapioca in my cooking because it's gluten free.” The dish is almost painfully elaborate to construct, featuring a tarragon reduction with white wine and pepper corns, sabayon and Beurre blanc. The result however has astonishing clarity, a creamy subtlety spiked by salty explosions of bright orange caviar.
“This is Asian European food, I suppose,” he says, adding that Australia is so multi-cultural that it's only natural that independent cuisines influence each other. “There's nothing classical about our cooking. Growing up you realise how diverse we are.” With an Italian mother and Indian father, he grew up on pasta, rice and curry. He says his Indian-Italian heritage gave him an edge. “I have an appreciation and love for spices. Growing up we would eat biryani, beef curry, lamb curry… My mother made a nice, clean curry. Not heavy. She used a lot of European techniques.” As for his Indian father. “Oh. My dad didn't cook!”
Coda's signature dish is Sugarcane prawns with sweet chilli sauce. “It's a take on the Vietnamese sugar prawns,” he says, holding up a spicy-sweet sauce made of red chillies, garlic, ginger and sugar.
Discussing how he experimented with all kinds of variations till he found one that worked, he says it's heavily inspired by Vietnamese street food. “Chefs rip off other chefs,” he says, rolling his eyes. “There's no one who's completely original. You go into a chef's office and it's full of cookbooks.” He thoughtfully picks up a green chilli. “Hmmm. Let's see how hot that is.” Seconds later he's gasping. “Pretty hot! Wow.”
After a few slugs of cold Chardonnay, he's recovered enough to start on his Black pepper crab. “Toast the pepper — it takes out some of the heat.” He says, throwing almost a cup of pepper into the pan. “Then the holy trinity: garlic, chilli, ginger. Now let me put… well, a truckload of butter.” I count 10 cubes, before closing my eyes in horror. Yet, the resulting sauce is light and feisty. The class ends with young coconut pannacotta. And with some useful advice on how fast the wine's disappearing. “The water's just the best thing for hangovers. It's amazing.”
Later, Chef D'Sylva sits down for a chat. “My traditional training was in French food, but there's a strong Australian influence. We have our own unique style. Fresh, produce-driven, extremely multi-cultural.” For him, perhaps becoming a chef was inevitable. “My dad was a butcher. Growing up with my nona and aunties always gave me the freedom to cook with them.” As a boy he helped his maternal grandmother make sausages or gnocchi instead of hitting the books. “I wasn't very academic…” As for ‘Master Chef', he says its biggest success is bringing the viewer into the kitchen. “It shows how hard it is to be a chef.” Ironically, it also inspires people to try cooking more challenging food. “It's just technique. A bit of practise is all you need. You can conquer anything if you make up your mind…”