Sashi serves up winning dishes and second chances

People of Adelaide At Work

Whether you followed MasterChef Australia or not, city workers and visitors to Adelaide have the TV cooking show to thank for the CBD being home to one of the local food scene’s most anticipated new restaurants.

Pirie Street’s ‘GAJA by Sashi’ is the first bricks and mortar venture from ‘season 2018 champ’ Sashi Cheliah and, while the doors only opened in November 2019, the restaurant’s already making inroads on both the food and social justice fronts.

Created by Sashi and his head chef Miles Davies, the ‘GAJA by Sashi’ menu is a flavour-filled array of Asian-influenced offerings, where traditional foods have been recreated with a contemporary twist. Dishes draw from Sashi’s familial ties to India, where his grandparents were born, as well as the Malay and Chinese cuisine of his own birthplace, Singapore. Oh, and yes – if you’re wondering – there is a ‘Sashi MasterChef special’ or two on the menu, including his famed lychee duck curry (Kaeng Ped Pett Yang).

Sashi cheliah in front of mural
photo-icon Skye Murtagh

SASHI CHELIAH IN FRONT OF 'GAJA BY SASHI'S' LOCALLY CREATED MURAL FEATURING An ELEPHANT (GAJA) SURROUNDED BY PATTERNS REPRESENTING SINGAPORE'S DIVERSE CULTURE (L-R): TURMERIC LEAVES (MALAYSIA), CLOUDS (CHINA) AND HENNA ART (INDIA).

For Sashi, opening a restaurant in Adelaide was something he'd dreamed about long before holding the coveted MasterChef trophy up high.

The eldest of seven children, Sashi relocated to Australia with his wife, Rabicca, and two young boys in 2012 – moving to Adelaide after two years in Melbourne.

“Rabicca was the first to experience Australia,” said Sashi. “She studied in Wollongong and was in love with Australia from then on. As the eldest son I had a lot of family commitments to fulfil, so it was more than ten years before we were able to make the move here.”

The shift west from Melbourne was motivated by a craving for a change of pace.

“Melbourne was too busy. We wanted a quieter lifestyle and after we took a road trip to Adelaide for a wine tour of the Barossa Valley, I just fell in love with the place.”

While his parents and siblings still reside in Singapore, Sashi – now an Australian citizen – retains strong family ties with regular visits and enjoys a close connection to his culture through his love of cooking, which began early in his childhood.

“I used to see a lot of cooking done at home by my mum and my aunties, and mum also ran a small café during my younger days, where we helped her out. But my real interest in food started with barbeques which I loved putting on for friends and at school events.”
Sashi Cheliah, owner, GAJA by Sashi

A cooking career wasn’t on the cards for Sashi from the get-go. After two years mandatory national service, he joined Singapore’s police force before shifting to a correctional services role in Adelaide. Eventually though, the kitchen’s call became too loud to ignore.

“I always wanted to do something a bit more adventurous and about three years ago my wife and I wanted to start a small café here in Adelaide.”

Sashi was doing some groundwork, even eyeing off a potential venue just north of the city limits, when fate – in the form of the call-out for MasterChef hopefuls – took things in a different direction.

“I thought it could be a good advertising tool for a new café if I went on the show, but I didn’t think I had the standard required to make it. My wife was the one who pushed me all the way saying, ‘You’ll never know unless you try’.”

Try he did and it wasn’t long after his win before Sashi had rolled up his sleeves in the real-world. A three-month stint operating a high-pace pop-up venue in Melbourne provided valuable practical experience managing staff and dealing with legalities – but a permanent venue was always in his sights.

“Being my home, I wanted to start from Adelaide. I had a lot of offers from interstate and overseas, but without starting something in my hometown first, I didn't want to do anything else anywhere.”

With the venue Sashi originally had in mind no longer an option, a new location was needed.

“I decided on the city because of its central location where people from all the suburbs, even up the Hills, can easily get to.”

Gaja by sashi front bar
photo-icon Skye Murtagh

PREMIUM WINES, REFRESHING BEERS AND CHEEKY COCKTAILS ARE ALL SERVED UP AT THE LONG FRONT BAR.

Maybe the restaurant’s name had something to do with the convenience of the location as well. Gaja means ‘elephant’ in three languages: Sanskrit, Tamil and Malay – and symbolises majesty, prosperity, loyalty, long life, and the removal of obstacles.

Gaja by sashi elephant detail
photo-icon Skye Murtagh

Designed by local outfit Malbarosa & Co, the venue’s bright interior also reflects Sashi’s roots with its modern twists on elements of colonial Singapore. The dining area’s round tables replicate marble-topped tables seen in old Singapore coffee shops, while orange, a colour prevalent in Singapore hawker markets, is used in stool seat coverings and the bar tiling.

Inspiringly, Sashi is also using his restaurant to offer employment opportunities to former prisoners.

“Prisoner recurrence rates are very high in South Australia and one of the reasons for that is a lack of opportunity for people who want to have a go at life again. Having my own business now, I’m able to support that kind of second chance.”

Sashi currently has staff on his books who are on parole and, while the initiative is in a trial period, he hopes to provide job opportunities to others seeking a positive change.

GAJA by Sashi

4/86 Pirie Street, Adelaide

Website

Article by

Skye Murtagh

Skye Murtagh

Skye is passionate about sharing stories from all walks of life. When she's not busy weaving beautiful words together, she's singing a line or two from her favourite song.