Internationally acclaimed chef, TV personality and successful restaurateur catches up with Hi!! to talk about his current life, his own personal tastes and a few things we didn't know!
Dharshan, put me in the picture here and tell me a little about each of the restaurants; 'The Ministry of Crab', 'Nihonbashi', 'The Tuna & Crab' and 'Kaema Sutra'? In what ways do they differ?
Well, Nihonbashi is my first restaurant that I started back in 1995 when I was 24 years old. It serves up an extensive selection of inspired fine Japanese cuisine and was where I learnt to focus on highlighting ingredients in my cuisine.
The Ministry of Crab is the culinary homecoming of Sri Lanka’s Lagoon Crab which has for decades been more famous in Singapore than on our island. Mahela, Kumar and I are humbled by the heights the Ministry of Crab has reached around the world in the 7 years since it opened.
The Kaema Sutra is a contemporary Sri Lankan restaurant that I started with Jackie Fernandez and it has been my favourite kitchen to experiment in. As Sri Lankan cuisine is so versatile, it can be elevated in so many simple ways through knife skills and cooking styles. The recent move to Shangri-La Colombo helped us gain a new following.
The Tuna & The Crab is situated in the Dutch Hospital in Galle and serves up a selection of Sushi, Seafood and Steak. It's in a great location and offers up something unique that was not previously experienced in this part of the country.
Looking back at your career, you certainly have accomplished a great deal in a short time. What have been the highlights for you?
I don’t think of it as a career, it’s a life! Out of all my accomplishments, the most humbling was receiving The Minister’s Award for Overseas Promotion of Japanese Food in 2014. Receiving this award from the Japanese Government and being accepted into the ranks of the prestigious past recipients is one of the highlights of my life up to now.
The other would be the first opening of Ministry of Crab overseas. So many places had been talking to us about franchising for years, it was amazing to finally see Shanghai being opened, followed by Manila and then Mumbai. Our pop-ups bring a lot of joy and I think cooking in my hometown of Tokyo last year was definitely a highlight. This year, we are looking forward to cooking in Paris and then we shall have covered two of the great culinary cities of the world - Tokyo and Paris!
How difficult was it at the beginning to promote authentic Japanese cuisine in Sri Lanka? Do you combine Sri Lankan ingredients with Japanese?
In the beginning, Nihonbashi was mostly patronised by Japanese living in Sri Lanka. We would have about 20 non-Japanese guests in one month. Making our food without any compromises to suit the Sri Lankan palate was quite hard, but I think we stood out because we never localised.
We do not combine Sri Lankan ingredients with Japanese ingredients, but we take Sri Lankan ingredients and cook them the way the Japanese would, using Japanese knife skills and cooking philosophies. Everyone thinks that everything needs to be imported from Japan in order to run a Japanese restaurant but that is not the case. Like Buddhism, Japanese Cuisine or Washoku is a philosophy and if you apply those philosophies to the ingredients around you then you can make something great.
Tell me about Centella, your Ayurvedic Gotu Kola drink. Am I likely to look younger if I were to drink it?
Centella was conceived as a necessity after overindulging on Champagne the night before! It's a drink that has no water, no sugar and no sugar substitutes. Gotu Kola is known as an Ayurvedic green that aids intelligence and memory, combats stress, treats skin impurities and premature ageing (which will keep you looking younger). You are going to love the taste!
Your signature dessert, 'What The Hopper' has great reviews. Can you describe it for our readers?
'What the Hopper' is the world’s largest hopper (pancake) sweetened with Kitul Pani (Palm Treacle) and served with a dollop of whipped cream that has been mixed with buffalo curd making it almost like the creamy Italian cheese, Mascarpone. Organic treacle is drizzled over the hopper and it's topped with chopped strawberries. 'It is so simple that everyone relates to it and loves it. I would describe it as being the sweet hopper of Colombo's streets 'on steroids'!
I know a number of people share your love for visiting fish markets. What is it do you think that draws them?
I think fish markets were always places that people avoided going to. Even in Sri Lanka many chefs and even housewives have never been to one. However, for me, that’s where the best ingredients can be found and, as a restaurateur, we need to see that. I find visiting Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market and now Toyosu is very inspirational because I enjoy speaking to the fishmongers, crab-mongers and eel- mongers and, personally, I have learnt so much from them.
On a more personal note:
What do you cook at home that you never cook at the restaurants?
What is the most essential item in your kitchen?
Sharp knives, cutting board, salt and soy sauce.
How do you relax away from business?
Name three great wines you love to drink.
Laurent-Perrier Cuvée Rosé, Pol Roger Brut and Dharshan Pinot Nero.
If you weren't a chef, or in the food business, what would you be?
Have the tastes of customers changed during your career?
I don’t think their tastes have changed but I think they have become more adventurous in the food they eat and are more accepting that taste is something that has been decided by a chef or restaurant, not by the consumer.
Can you give advice to young entrepreneurs who would like to follow in your footsteps?
Find the ingredient first, That’s half the battle won.
Keep it simple and remember you are cooking something you believe is good, and not the other way around.
I know our readers would love a culinary tip. Can you share one with us?
Sharp knives make a huge difference in anything that you do.
Has there been a kitchen disaster that still makes you cringe?
Once I mistook sugar for salt. You can only imagine what happened!
Finally, can you give me a favourite quote about life?
Keep it simple! Good food is always simple and that makes a difference. The same applies to life.
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