Chef Sash Simpson: ‘You’ll Catch Me [here] From Morning Till Night’
Growing up with 32 siblings from all over the world, Sash Simpson’s dishes represent the whole globe, with flavours spanning from continent to continent. Recently, Simpson took Dolce into his kitchen to explore his Indian roots through one of his signature dishes: Chilean sea bass with Madras curry.
“What I would do is: get a piece of the fish, make sure you get some of that sauce, then try a piece of that okra, and then a piece of pakora. And at the end you kind of know the flavour. Then you can start mixing it.”
That’s Sash Simpson, the creative force behind his eponymous Toronto restaurant, Sash, gleefully explaining to me how to enjoy one of his signature dishes. Simpson is the paradigmatic chef-as-artist, focusing his creative energy into dishes that dance on our tongues with every bite. The orchestra of spices, textures and cultural influences in a Sash meal are a medley where the end result is greater than the sum of its parts: “My menus are all about flavours. You’ll see a lot of Indian influences on the menu, lots of spices. There are universal flavours all over it. Any dish that you put on your palate — it’s going to hit you hard.”
Given the complexity and attention to detail involved, a Sash Simpson dish is something that must be experienced in person — the written word has the effect of subduing the intensity of the effect. For this reason, I was recently invited to Sash on a crisp Tuesday to cook Chilean sea bass with Madras curry, served with fried okra and vegetable pakoras. Accompanied by a crisp glass of white wine, we sat down to enjoy the ideal pairing we had just cooked together. I was hoping to understand the man behind the meal, the inspiration behind the art.
Sash opened in May 2019 to critical acclaim, but that was only the second-most-important milestone for Sash that week: “I will never forget that month. I just knew one thing was happening for sure, and that was my son. Sawyer was born on May 27, and we launched the restaurant May 30.” Sash represents the culmination of a career of culinary excellence for the chef, who previously worked with Mark McEwan at North 44. “That’s where I got my break and when I got into actually setting up a career path. I spent almost 25 years with Mark McEwan at North 44. I was part of that group that opened up Bymark, taped the Food Network for three seasons. I learned how to become a chef. I never thought I would be in a position where I could own a restaurant.”
If you walk into Sash, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to experience as intimate an experience as I did. “I’m here every night, every day. They will see my face nine out of 10 times. And if I’m not here, it’s not because I’m taking the day off, it’s because I’m somewhere doing a wedding, or bar mitzvah, birthday party, or anniversary. You’ll catch me from morning till night. I just feel it’s very important for a chef and an owner to be here from start to finish, because you have tables coming in early and tables coming in late. I want everybody to get that experience. And I get to go to every table and talk to them. “How was your food and how was your experience?” Sash says, full of pride.
“For me, it’s Always been Knowing where I come from, How I came From. I can Never forget It. I can never Forget I was a Street kid”
About eight months after the opening of the restaurant, Sash started noticing that something was off. “I knew something was happening because my reservation book wasn’t getting filled up. Next thing you know, two weeks later, I had to close the restaurant. Boom, doors shut. And that was the biggest. I had everything on the line. I had to think of ways to keep the restaurant afloat.”
The risks were particularly acute for Sash, who wanted the restaurant to represent his unfiltered culinary vision. “I had a lot of sleepless nights because I said, ‘What the hell am I doing? This is the biggest thing I’ve ever done, and usually when I do something massive like this, I always have a support group, somebody else wants it and it’s not me. And now it’s the other way around.’”
But those who know Sash know he is not one deterred by challenge. In fact, he’s someone who relishes it. And overcoming challenge is something he’s done his whole life. “Being an orphan, I didn’t have a lot. I’m a street kid from India. I grew up on the streets of Chennai, and I slept on the sidewalk. What’s getting me through and what has gotten me through over this year and a half of the pandemic is keep hustling. That’s what I’ve always done. It’s always been 200 per cent, never less. I’ve always wanted to be better than the next guy. People have asked me if I would have opened it after the pandemic. I would’ve said no way. You want to put me through rough waters, put me in it right now.”
At eight years old, Sash was adopted by Canadian philanthropists and Families for Children orphanage founders Sandra and Lloyd Simpson. “When I was seven and a half, almost eight, I came at Christmas time, December 23, 1979, because my mum wanted me in Canada for Christmas. I was her Christmas gift. My sister Kimberly, who lives in Arizona now, she’s the one who came to pick me up, and said, ‘I’m your sister, Kimberly. We need to go because you’re my mom’s Christmas gift, so I have to get you there before Christmas. I didn’t even know what Christmas was, I was just a seven-and-a-half-year-old kid nodding yes to everything. I remember getting woken up in the middle of my nap after lunch. My memories from being in the orphanage and being adopted, coming to Canada, I remember that clearly as if it happened yesterday. As a kid, you can never forget that.”
It is no surprise, then, that Sandra Simpson, the family matriarch, has had a significant influence on his life. “I wanted to prove to my mom that she made an amazing decision to adopt me and bring me to Canada, so that was always that incentive for me to keep thriving in whatever I did. And as far as cooking goes, I started in the hospitality industry when I was 14 and never looked back. I thought it was the best job. You are with this family that you see every day, other than your real family, and then it just grew. Then I got into the kitchen and I just enjoyed it and I was pretty decent at it and it just evolved to what it is now.”
Sash credits his signature blend of globally inspired, locally sourced ingredients to his upbringing. “I have 32 siblings, 4 biological and 28 are adopted, me being one of the 28. My family is totally global. I have Vietnamese brothers, Chinese sisters, Korean sisters, African-American brothers, Spanish brothers, Indian brothers, Bengali brothers, Somalian sisters. You know, it’s the whole globe, and that’s why my menu is very global. A bit of everything that represents how I was raised in a family with so many kids, and my menu represents that, and the flavours represent that.”
With his past and humility at the forefront of what he does, Sash can easily put his feet in the shoes of those who are less fortunate and has dedicated his philanthropic efforts toward giving back to The Scott Mission. “For me, it’s always been knowing where I come from, how I came from. I can never forget it. I can never forget I was a street kid. I can never forget I used to beg on the streets and steal food and eat out of garbage cans. When I see things in Canada and especially where I live, I guess it’s like anywhere in the world, people need food, people are on the street and I’ve been fortunate to have angels watching over me the whole time, so it’s my way of taking care of people.”
Part of this mission is to not let anything go to waste in his restaurant. “When I have a lot of food left over, I feed my staff, and if I still have a lot of food left over, I’ll package it up and I’ll bring it to The Scott Mission. All the food that I cook or whatever I have, it all gets used up one way or another. I don’t waste anything because I just feel like that will always be me and I’ll never let that go.”
When it comes to his sons, Sash can’t help but give them everything he didn’t have growing up as an orphan in Chennai. “They’ll have everything that I didn’t. I just feel giving my sons stability for the future is a must because I didn’t have it. With my kids, I do spoil them because I give my kids what I never had. My kids are two and seven. I’m humbled to have my two boys. I never in my wildest dreams thought that I would have two boys, have a wife and a restaurant in Rosedale. When it comes to them, I’m going to teach them respect and teach them hard work and yet just spoil them in a good way.”
As we age, many of us become more self-reflective, and getting back to one’s roots becomes an increasingly larger consideration. “Now that I’m getting older, and I think back on home and I think India is such a beautiful country. I’m getting more and more used to doing Indian dishes now because I’m getting more comfortable with myself and my Indian heritage because I never really experienced it before.”
It’s incredible to think about how fate has worked to put Sash in the heart of Toronto all the way from Chennai. “I’m living the sweet life. I couldn’t have had it any other way.”
As we nibbled on the last few crumbs of our delicious dish of Chilean sea bass on that crisp Tuesday morning at Sash in Toronto, I couldn’t help but feel completely satisfied — I came for a great meal, but left with food for the soul.