Four months after opening pan-Asian restaurant Gaja by Sashi on Pirie Street in late 2019, Sashi Cheliah was temporarily forced to close its doors for the federally mandated Covid shutdown.
Since then, the 2018 Masterchef winner saw a shift in lunchtime trade away from dine-in to takeaway, prompting him to launch Gaja Express, a tiny grab-and-go joint down the road on Arbor Lane in the 11 Waymouth Street development (beside Eleven, the new bar and cafe by fellow Masterchef contestant Callum Hann).
“Prior to Covid … people were still going for long lunches and could afford to go out and spend some time with their colleagues,” Cheliah tells Broadsheet. “After Covid [restrictions] and working from home, I’d say 50 per cent of the workforce is back, but they’re not going out to have lunch with their colleagues – it’s always grab and go. That’s the norm at the moment.”
The Gaja Express menu is light, tight and nutritious, featuring four pan-Asian-inspired protein bowls – tandoori chicken, beef curry, vegetable korma or vegan chickpea curry paired with either turmeric rice, pearl couscous or quinoa khichdi, plus salad and a yoghurt dressing. The curries are prepared by Cheliah’s chefs in the Gaja by Sashi kitchen each morning and then delivered to the Arbor Lane site.
There’s also a small range of sandwiches, and wraps made with one of two Indian flatbreads – rumali roti (a soft, thin tortilla-like bread) or the more rustic chapati – with fillings of tandoori chicken, spiced pulled beef and roasted vegetables. Snackier options include an air-fried vegan samosa chaat and kaya toast, a Malay and Singaporean breakfast dish with lashings of butter and coconut jam.
The Singaporean-born chef is also adding house-made Asian pastries to the menu, including Vietnamese coffee cupcakes, peanut mochi, macha cream puffs and pandan cake. For coffee, he’s serving his own signature blend, created in collaboration with Melbourne-based coffee roaster Veneziano.
“As a restaurateur and business operator, I have to evolve with the times,” says Cheliah. “Covid has forced us to adapt and move in a different direction when it comes to hospitality … Instead of putting my eggs in one basket I’ve had to diversify and look at other opportunities.”
He has plans to franchise Gaja Express and launch a line of merchandise, including tees, jumpers and caps, by the end of June. His first cookbook, Kampung Boy, is also in the works. Released later this year, it’ll draw on his childhood food experiences growing up in Singapore.