Sash Simpson's fairytale life, from Coimbatore's footpaths to vodka on gold-topped ice

April 6, 2024
For those who believe rags-to-riches stories are the stuff of fairy tales, Sash Simpson's life will make them wake up and dig into the caviar

For those who believe rags-to-riches stories are the stuff of fairy tales, Sash Simpson’s life will make them wake up and dig into the caviar. It is ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ played out in real life. And it will bring back memories of ‘Lion’, the Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman-starrer based on the amazing story of Saroo Brierley and his search from Melbourne for his original home in Khandwa, Madhya Pradesh.

The story of Sash Simpson, an orphan found off the streets of Coimbatore who’s now one of Toronto’s top chefs, is the subject of a documentary, ‘Born Hungry’, by Canadian filmmaker Barry Avrich, which was just premiered at the Palm Springs International Film Festival and then picked up by Priyanka Chopra Jonas’s company, Purple Pebble Pictures.

In the words of ‘The New York Times’, “Sash Simpson made his name as a chef for Canada’s rich, preparing them chardonnay-poached lobster and $27 foie gras-smothered burgers” and vodka served with gold-encrusted ice.

It’s a magical world away from the dumpsters where he would forage for food when he was just another street kid.

So, who is Sash Simpson and what is his roller-coaster story? Sash (or Sashi) was found on the streets of Coimbatore, a five-year-old orphan who only remembered that his mother had long hair and his father was a deaf and mute labourer, by volunteers of a Canadian charity named Families for Children.

They gave him shelter at their orphanage in Tamil Nadu’s textile city and it was there that he caught the attention of his adoptive mother (and Families for Children co-founder), Sandra Simpson.

Remembering how she and her husband Lloyd ended up adopting Sashi when he was eight years old, Sandra told a local publication, ‘Streets of Toronto’, “Sashi persists in whatever he does. Every time I visited our Indian project, Sashi would be front row and centre asking, ‘Canada, mummy, please’.”

In a dramatic reversal of fortunes, Sashi ended up from the floors of the Coimbatore cinema theatre that he cleaned for the privilege of sleeping on them at night, to the upscale Toronto suburb of Forest Hill, where he started living in a 22-room mansion with 32 other children from South Korea, Spain, India, Vietnam, China, Cambodia and Bangladesh, according to ‘Global Indian Times’. The mansion had been gifted to the Simpsons by a philanthropic banker.

Not a gifted student, Sashi started delivering newspapers from the age of 12 and he was 14 when found his first full-time job as a dishwasher in a restaurant. Dropping out of school, he continued with his gigs at restaurants till he discovered North 44, which was to become his workplace for more than 25 years.

Run by one of Canada’s top chefs, Mark McEwan, North 44 was one of that country’s leading restaurants when Sashi first tried to find a place in its hallowed kitchen.

He was turned away twice before he showed up the third time, offering to work for free for three months so that he could be tested out. He did not have to wait for that long. Within a week, McEwan hired him.

It was at North 44 where Sashi rose from peeling potatoes to chopping onions, as ‘Global Indian Times’ puts it, to becoming the restaurant’s executive chef and running North 44 caterers.

Sashi also helped McEwan launch ByMark, a popular restaurant in Toronto’s financial district, and helped his mentor produce three seasons of episodes for the Food Network TV channel. North 44 closed in 2018 following the expiry of its rental lease.

With North 44 shutting down, Sashi had to look out for himself all over again, and he did what he was best at — he opened Sash to rave reviews in 2019, and the average check for a dinner for two was C$230.

But if you go there looking for the welcoming whiff of Coimbatore, you’ll be disappointed — the international menu (“Modern American dishes with international twists” is how ‘Toronto Life Magazine’ described the offerings) has just two nods to Sashi’s origins: Gunpowder Lamb Chops and Sambar with Masala Rice, and Masala Beef Short Ribs cooked with coriander seeds, mustard and curry leaves, served with heirloom carrots and broccoli.

The Toronto Star gushed: “His two-month-old restaurant is as elegant and understated as a cashmere twinset and pearls. He slides foie gras into his burger, shaves Perigord truffles on to his pasta and bakes chocolate souffle to order.”

Talking to Nuvo Magazine, the self-taught, self-confessed workaholic chef had this to say about how he goes about putting together his menu: “Flavours come to me constantly and whatever hits my palate and I go — wow, this is really good — it could be Indian, French, Italian, Japanese, Korean — it doesn’t matter, if my crew, my colleagues and I feel it — it’s hitting that menu.”

Like a lot else in Sashi’s life, Covid struck barely a year after the restaurant opened and so it had to be shut, forcing its owner to live off loans and government grants, and taking up small home catering assignments — just enough to keep his home running.

This phase, painful though it may have been, turned out to be a blip that lasted for two years. Sashi was back at work in his restaurant about as soon as Covid ceased to be a threat, and it’s now doing as well as it did before the epidemic swept the world.

Married to Robin Pitcher, an event manager he met in 2008, Sashi is 54 years old and a father of two children. He could have turned his back on his past and lived the good life, but in 2018, Sashi opened a professional kitchen at the Coimbatore orphanage where his story began.

The idea was his adoptive mother’s. Indian laws do not permit orphanages to keep young women who are not adopted by the time they turn 18. Once they leave their orphanages, these women often find themselves in very difficult circumstances. The kitchen is to help them develop skills that would equip them to find jobs in the hospitality or allied industries.

In his own little way, Sashi is paying back the debt he owes the orphanage that changed his life, which is about to experience yet another seismic shift, now that his story has gone global, thanks to Priyanka Chopra Jonas.

Latest Articles

Related Posts