“The Covid situation gave me a bit of room to think about next steps,” McCaskill tells Broadsheet, a day before her last service. “I got to a point where there’s things I want to do that I won’t be able to do if I stay in the same role.”
Her almost 20-year career has taken her to Tetsuya’s in Sydney, Ezard in Melbourne and Sat Bains in Nottingham, England. She then headed home to front Magill Estate Restaurant and later The Pot (now Nido). And she was the first non-Japanese chef to work at Narisawa in Tokyo, a two-Michelin-starred restaurant and number 22 on the 2019 World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
Most recently she’s evolved Sparkke’s offering, serving approachable pub grub alongside a more elevated restaurant menu. McCaskill launched 60-seat restaurant Fare “two weeks before the bloody pandemic happened”, with a menu that merges Indian flavours – inspired by her Anglo-Indian heritage – with techniques she acquired in high-end kitchens.
As Covid hit and she steered Sparkke into takeaway-only territory, she also jumped on board with Chefs on Wheels, a new service delivering chef-standard, ready-made meals across Adelaide, by former Botanic Gardens Restaurant chef Paul Baker (who McCaskill worked with last year) and his wife Annabelle, as well as Soi 38’s Terry Intarakhamhaeng.
“We all got together … and came up with something that’s just gone fucking crazy,” McCaskill says. Baker has since left Botanic Gardens to pursue the project, telling Broadsheet, “It turned into something bigger than we thought it was going to be.” Other star chefs, such as Simon Bryant, Karena Armstrong (The Salopian Inn), Jonny Pisanelli (Abbots and Kinney) and Brad Sappenberghs (Comida), have also been involved.
Like Baker, McCaskill will now become a more permanent fixture at Chefs on Wheels, prepping at its Glynde HQ instead of at Sparkke. On her most recent menu: spicy pork vindaloo with smoked eggplant and chickpeas, and red lentil dal with potatoes (both her grandma’s recipes – “she makes the best vindaloo!”); “epic” free-range chicken tikka masala; and pan-fried roti pockets stuffed with spinach, silver beet and ricotta.
But it’s not the end of the road for McCaskill and the Whitmore. She’s stepped down as head chef into a new consultancy role. While the finer details are still being ironed out, she’ll work on business development and support the kitchen team (some of whom have been with her since the Magill Estate days) from afar. “I’m only a phone call away,” says McCaskill, who’s personally invested in the brewpub. “But this means I can still contribute without leaving.”
She also has plans for further studies, which will allow her to teach budding chefs at Tafe, Le Cordon Bleu and other culinary schools. “The thing about cooking is you can do it for a lifetime but there are so many avenues … it’s not just limited to a restaurant or pub.”
While McCaskill admits she’ll miss the hum of a busy restaurant – “When [Sparkke] closed for three months, I missed having people around and hearing the chatter and laughter” – it doesn’t sound like she’ll be much less busy.
But, with a four-year-old and a six-year-old at home, this change-up means more family time. “Going on adventures with them – that’s what I’m most excited about,” she says.
“And finally having some sleep-ins.”
Pre-order from Emma McCaskill’s latest Chefs on Wheels menu here for delivery or pick-up next Monday and Tuesday.