Orphanage to Ontario: A Chef’s Journey
Chef Sash Simpson remembers sifting through garbage bins behind restaurants for sustenance in India. Rescued by an orphanage in Coimbatore, and eventually adopted by the Canadian founder of Families for Children, Simpson worked his way up the food chain to become the executive chef at a legendary high-end restaurant in Toronto. Sash, the restaurant Simpson opened in early 2020, got rave reviews. Even as he waits for the pandemic to end, he continues to work on his business and philanthropic goals.
Deprivation shaped your early relationship with food. Did that indelible experience spur your interest in the culinary world? Was there another line of work you considered?
I had initially thought about becoming a computer analyst as a way to earn a decent living. But I am a computer idiot! I never thought I would end up in the kitchen; I just have a knack for it. Doing what I am good at has made me happy.
In an interview with Toronto. com, you said when people ask you if you have seen Slumdog Millionaire, you tell them you have lived it. When you reflect on your incredible journey, what do you deem the most significant factors in your personal and professional success? What are some of the challenges you faced?
Where do I start? I have been blessed. Everyone goes through obstacles, but being an Indian kid growing up in a harsh neighborhood, attending a school with many white kids wasn't easy. Now I have a fine-dining restaurant, and I am happy to have my life in order, but racism still exists.
How does racism present itself in your line of work?
I have the support of a lot of people, but there is a small percentage of people who do not want you to succeed. You have to put that out of your mind and focus on the fact that we have the same goals, to have a good life and a good future for yourself and your family. As long as people come to my restaurant, enjoy my food, and are happy, I am good. I focus on the positive.
Sash is an upscale restaurant with luxurious interiors and indulgent menus. It is a substantial investment. How are you coping with the effects of the pandemic?
You have gotta play with the cards that we are dealt with. It is depressing to walk into a beautiful space every day and see it empty. When we first shut down in March 2020, I had sleepless nights. I have all this debt. But I realized everyone was in difficult situations. My landlord has been very good to me, and that has helped to keep things going. I have an amazing clientele. We are doing curbside pickups and home deliveries. We are being creative with packaged dinners, serving oeuvres like oysters, to create a restaurant experience at home. Eventually, we will open up, and it will be better than ever.
Chilean sea bass with Madras curry, gunpowder lamb chops, organic beet risotto, oysters, and caviar—the seasonally customized menu at Sash is a fiesta of flavors. Where do you draw inspiration to create a smorgasbord of tastes and textures?
When I came out of an orphanage, I was adopted by a large family. I had 32 brothers and sisters who came from different parts of the world, and we ate different styles of food. My menu represents that diversity. When I go to a restaurant, I like to see flavorful food for every palate on the menu. I would rather starve than eat food that does not have flavor.
Blending global flavors with savory outcomes takes the precision of a biochemist and the imagination of an artist. How do you marry unlikely ingredients?
When I create menus, I sit with a drink and reminisce about food. What comes to my mind works well nine out of ten times. Like Chilean sea bass with Madras curry.
Do you have memories of eating anything special as a child?
My [adoptive] mom loves burnt toast, and I do too! Burnt toast with butter and strawberry jam. I can't explain it, it's great. Just try it!
What do you like to cook for your wife and children at home?
At home, I keep things simple. When we first met, my wife was a steak and chicken kinda girl. Later she became a vegan for two years and now a vegetarian. Cooking for her is different, and that allows me to cater to those preferences. My kids like food with flavor. Anything chicken—Jerk chicken, Moroccan chicken. Anything goat cheese. They love oysters. One of my treats at home is having caviar with a glass of champagne. My kids are not big fans of caviar, but I think they will appreciate it over time.
What are some of your go-to spices? Can you share a unique way to use common ingredients?
You can do a million things with garlic, butter, and salt. I make a curry with a hint of truffle oil. Take some Madras curry powder, grape seed oil, canola oil, and a little truffle oil. Let it sit for two days, strain it, and use it to cook and finish dishes to make them aromatic.
You earned your stripes in the restaurant business first by washing dishes and then honing your culinary skills on the job. What advice would you offer aspiring chefs?
The recipe for anything in life is persistence and hard work. Once you have that one-two punch, you can do anything. But you have to test yourself to see if you like something first. When an apprentice comes into my kitchen, usually about 17-18 years old, I tell them to be realistic. They are inspired by cooking shows on TV, but a live kitchen is different. If you can handle working 18 hours a day, take all the beating that comes with it, and enjoy it, then over time you will get to where you want to be. It is good to start young. Give yourself a year or two; that way, you can have time to switch if it does not work out.
You won't make money right off the bat. When I look at all the mileage on my shoes, I see how long it has taken me to have my own restaurant. And I am still not making money!
[Top] Sash with his adoptive mother.
You established a restaurant at the orphanage in Coimbatore to offer employment to girls who are not adopted by age eighteen. You also cook meals for homeless shelters. Tell us more about your philanthropic endeavors.
It is no secret coming out of my mouth that feeding others means a lot to me because I am a street kid. I didn't have any food or a place to live. I remember people feeding me when they didn't have to. And if it weren't for people like that, I would not exist.
I do the same in return. When I see a line of people waiting for food, I reminisce about how tough it was being a street kid. I need this pandemic to get the hell out of here so I can do more catering, because you have a lot left over to feed others.
Author of Kismetwali & Other Stories, Reetika Khanna is an Atlanta-based freelance writer who likes to spotlight people with purpose. She has worked with ELLE as a senior features writer, and as an associate features editor with ELLE DÉCOR, Mumbai. For more, go to ReetikaKhanna.com
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