The Ayala SquareMeal Best Female Chefs Series 2023: Sabrina Gidda

We talk to chef and author Sabrina Gidda about her unique path through food and her debut cookbook, Modern South Asian Kitchen

Updated on • Written By Pete Dreyer

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Few chefs can boast the varied career that Sabrina Gidda has had in the kitchen. Aside from heading up a collection of widely-acclaimed restaurants, the self-taught, Wolverhampton-born chef has appeared on TV, written for magazines, competed in competitions at the highest level, and most recently has penned her first book - Modern South Asian Kitchen.

Whether it’s her two stints on Great British Menu or back-to-back appearances in the Roux Scholarship final (she was the first female chef to achieve the feat), the peaks of her career have been extraordinarily high. And yet, her first hospitality job started in the most humble of ways, as dishwasher-loader and table-layer extraordinaire in her family kitchen.

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‘You’re always involved in hospitality when you’re at home in an Asian household,’ she laughs. ‘It’s just how it is. Growing up in a Punjabi family, food is everything.

‘I remember when I first put together a three course meal - I was probably 9 or 10. It was more of an assembly job, but it involved a fairly slapdash tuna pasta bake, and there was some kind of soup or salad to begin with, it may have been an iceberg wedge. Dessert was some pre-made biscuits with ice cream. I remember forcing these raspberries through a sieve because I’d seen someone make a coulis - I thought I was legit!’

Her parents loved it, but cheffing was never ‘really on the approved list of professions,’ she admits. Inadvertently though, her early food education in her mother’s kitchen would end up being the catalyst for a career in food. Sabrina was studying Fashion PR and Marketing at university, but she had taken a waitressing job on the side, ‘to subsidise my shoe habit,’ she laughs. An incident in the kitchen one evening meant that Sabrina had to jump in and help, and her mother’s kitchen schooling rose, instinctively, to the surface. ‘I just felt comfortable knowing how to cook and how to bring everything together,’ she explains. ‘It was a lightbulb moment when I realised - this was perhaps the thing that I was always meant to do.’

'The untrained Punjabi girl from Wolverhampton...'

After a stage at The Dorchester, Sabrina’s kitchen career scaled to impressive heights in a remarkably short space of time. At 21 she was already head chef of the Draft House - a popular gastropub in south west London - and that meteoric rise continued with back-to-back appearances in the prestigious Roux Scholarship competition, where she beat tough competition to reach the final for two years in a row.

‘The Roux Scholarship was huge for me,’ she says. ‘It was really special, it’s a tough competition. It gave me great exposure, but it also allowed me to become friends with chef Albert (Roux) and his family, and that was the real win for me.’

By this time, Sabrina was head chef of acclaimed Italian restaurant Bernardi’s - a restaurant that we declared as one of the best Italian’s in the capital back in 2016. Two appearances on BBC’s Great British Menu soon followed, and though Sabrina didn’t win the competition, she received perfect scores from the likes of Daniel Clifford and Paul Ainsworth during the show. ‘To be the untrained Punjabi girl from Wolverhampton that got a 10 from Daniel Clifford, that was epic,’ she says. ‘When someone comes along and gives you a pat on the back, it’s really special, just for yourself.’

Sabrina with book Modern South Asian Kitchen

Sabrina discusses all of this with a quick-witted eloquence - she’s a natural storyteller, so it comes as no surprise that she would turn her hand to writing. She secured a book deal with Quadrille in summer 2021 - something she had always dreamed of doing, she says - but whatever plans she had for her book debut changed overnight when in October of the same year, her mother sadly passed away from pancreatic cancer. What would, perhaps, have been a more straight-forward recipe book, became a chance to shine a light on her food through the lens of the person who had influenced and inspired her the most.

‘I was very lucky that my publisher allowed it to evolve into the tribute that it's become,’ she says. ‘It changed from just writing a book to being a dedication of love, and I get to share my mum’s legacy with everybody who reads it.

‘I did clink a glass of Champagne with mum when the deal came through, but unfortunately I lost her before I could share the book with her, so that's why it's dedicated to her.’

'I get to share my mum’s legacy with everybody who reads my book.'

Modern South Asian Kitchen is not just a tribute - its very creation was a vital vehicle for catharsis. With a boatload of recipes to test and a family in mourning, Sabrina moved back into her old family home and worked on the recipes in her mum’s old kitchen, using the same pots and pans to cook dishes that were born from the food of her childhood. ‘My dad would be the commis and he’d peel garlic and prep vegetables and make cups of tea,’ she says. ‘It was important to me to be there. I cooked with my mother for the last time that summer, and I had to distil that into a thing that could be passed down generationally, and people could learn about that and understand why I am how I am and why food is important to me - because it came from home.’

Sabrina plating her masala bouillabaisse

In the last few years Sabrina’s career has shifted out of kitchens and into writing, consultancy and supper clubs. There are gentle stirrings about a second book, and Sabrina runs her own consultancy business, working with everyone from brands to hotel groups to help them with their food offerings and menu design, as well as supper-clubbing her way across London. It’s a great example of how a career in food doesn’t have to be limited to a professional kitchen.

‘I love working with new people, there's always something to learn,’ she says. ‘I’m really excited about the next generation that are supper-clubbing and doing their own cool projects. Everybody that’s following their dream and doing what brings them joy, I love that.’

There’s a common thread that weaves through everything Sabrina does - it’s all about sharing knowledge and the enjoyment of food. She jokingly bemoans that she didn’t win the Roux Scholarship or Great British Menu, but more important, she says, is the less-visible ripple that you leave behind. ‘I’ve met a couple of chefs who took part in those competitions because they’d seen interviews I’d given about the competitions,’ she says. ‘That’s the point isn’t it? It’s about holding the door open for everyone as you go.’

Sabrina’s perfect match for Ayala’s Le Blanc de Blancs 2016

Sabrina's masala bouillabaisse and Champagne

The dish: Masala bouillabaisse
The Champagne: Ayala Le Blanc de Blancs 2016

Masala Bouillabaisse

Sabrina explains: ‘When I was growing up, Champagne used to signify luxury and the idea of a special occasion, but as I've grown up I've realised that sometimes the special occasion is that you have something delicious to enjoy. I think great, fresh seafood and Champagne together is about as good as it gets, really! The dish is a masala-spiced bouillabaisse - it’s a very classic French dish but with a modern South Asian twist. The Blanc de Blanc works really nicely - there's enough acidity to keep it nice and fresh, and it works perfectly with the mellow spice. What else do you need? A big bowl of gorgeous fish, a little spice, and a glass of something utterly delicious! I couldn't be happier.'

Sabrina’s quick bites

Who or what have been your biggest influences?

My mother, she was just - big flavour, big energy, glass of Champagne in hand, having a good time!

If you could give someone just starting out some words of wisdom, what would they be?

One would be to work hard and not give up, but also, I've often come across this narrative in kitchens that you need to work for someone else to be good. I don't believe in that. You need to work to be the best version of you. I would say this to my team - don't come here and think that you need to work for me or anyone else - you need to be brilliant for yourself.

Describe your cooking style in three words?

Bold, Vibrant, Exciting.

Do you have a favourite cooking gadget?

Oh I love my julienne peeler! It's so dorky but I love it. It just makes everything look like you've made this massive effort, but it's so easy. It's a great bit of kit, so practical.

What is your favourite thing to cook at home?

When it's hot, I love to barbecue - any kind of outdoor cookery is my jam. If it's freezing outside I'm making dal in the kitchen, because there's never a bad time for dal.

Do you have a guilty food pleasure?

Cheese. There's always a Tunworth in my fridge. I don't believe in guilt when it comes to food - I'll take down half a Tunworth, no guilt here! No judgement, no guilt.

Where is your favourite foodie destination?

I had an amazing trip to India last year to Punjab, that was sensational. It was my first visit back as a chef, so there was so much that I saw that hadn't registered with me when I was much younger. I had my second trip to San Sebastien just a week or so ago, and that place is a square mile of deliciousness. Every chef should make a pilgrimage there.

If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing?

It would be something entrepreneurial, I'd have to be running a business I think. Maybe I can say something cool... I really like cars so maybe a race car driver! I just like driving fast.

Favourite restaurants?

Tooting Market has had this massive revival, and there is an Argentine restaurant called Barra10. It's tiny - one hotline, charcoal grill, and an empanada oven but it's absolutely knockout, it's so delicious. I've never had a bad meal there. It's everything that's good about food - unfussy, unpretentious, delicious. Also Jose, because I love Jose and his food. 45 Jermyn Street is great. My friend Phil has an Iraqi restaurant in Borough Market called JUMA, which is great too. It's not just the food for me, it's the people - if I resonate with the person cooking the food then I have a better experience.

Read more about our Ayala Female Chef of the Year awards, including interviews with the likes of Pip Lacey, Chantelle Nicholson, and Lisa Goodwin-Allen.

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With its longstanding commitment to the restaurant industry, Champagne AYALA is a natural sponsor to this award and to the series of interviews that accompanies it.

AYALA is one of the best kept secrets of Champagne. With a history dating back to 1860, AYALA were pioneers of dry, vibrant styles of Champagne, they were one of the original Grandes Marques Houses, and were awarded a Royal Warrant by Edward VII in 1908. Since 2005, the Bollinger family have helped restore this historic House to its former glory. Champagne AYALA is known for its fresh and elegant wines, made with precision and delicacy and crafted on a boutique scale. The wines have been served in the UK for over 100 years in many of London’s most prestigious establishments.

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