AT 24 years of age, accountant-turned-restaurateur Sarah Singh has embarked on an ambitious project, that many would think are beyond her years.
Four weeks ago, she opened the restaurant and tapas lounge bar Digress on Akuna Street, a unique dining concept that draws on a fusion of Indian and Italian cuisine.
“We are hoping that this is something really exciting for Canberra,” Sarah says. “Something Canberra really needs – a little bit of spice at night.”
No stranger to the restaurant game, Sarah’s parents are Gurmer and Surinder Singh, who own the successful, Indian Affair restaurant in Phillip.
Sarah was 12-years-old when she first worked for the family business, and by 16 she was cooking alongside the restaurant’s head chef Sritharan Sinnathamby.
“I’ve always loved food. I love eating it, love making it, everything to do with it,” she said. “But more so, I love learning about it.”
When Mr Sinnathamby left the restaurant to return to Sri Lanka, it was Sarah who was thrown into kitchen to take his place.
“I was at uni at the time and got thrown into a 70-hour work week dreaming about samosas and do we have enough potatoes, do we have enough this, and enough that,” she said. “Just dreaming about it and going crazy!
“And that’s when I really felt the pressure and where I learnt how to cope with the pressure.”
When Sarah completed her accountancy degree, she “wanted to get out of Canberra and live in a big city”.
Living in London, she worked in the accountancy department of Red Bull.
It was her time overseas that inspired the concept of the restaurant.
“I’ve travelled a lot, which is where this idea really came from,” she said. “It is a real European concept to have a lounge bar and restaurant in the same vicinity.”
Working as an accountant “never sat well with her”, so when she moved back to Australia, naturally, she turned to cooking.
She visited the premises that was the Akuna Club 19 times before she signed the lease.
“The old Akuna Club was an absolute dungeon – they were going to turn it into a car park,” she said.
“My parents asked if I was 100 per cent sure I wanted to take on these premises. But I had this feeling, we could make something of this space.”
Completely refurbished, the premises has undergone a transformation into a restaurant and lounge bar.
The menu took seven months to research and develop, Sarah said during this time she found an amazing amount of similarities between Indian and Italian cuisines.
The base cuisine of the menu is Italian – pizza, pasta, risotto and salads but infused with Indian flavours. Dishes include chilli chicken fusilli and Kadhai paneer pizza.
The fusion also transfers to the drinks menu, including a chilli infused cocktail.
“The dishes come in mild, medium and Indian hot,” she said. “Every single bite is the same – consistency of flavours is really important to us.
“The flavour that a tandoori oven has the potential of producing is different to what you cook in a pan or oven.”
In the future, Sarah plans to continue to grow her business and also help her parents, her biggest inspirations, prepare for retirement.
“I’m not interested in replicating what I’ve done,” she said. “I’ve never been big on franchises – I think that’s where a business loses its elegance.”