Q: Tell us about your current role.
I’m the Executive Chef at Heritance Negombo. I joined Heritance Negombo as a sous chef in 2015 after working in the Maldives and Dubai. I currently oversee the operation of three in-house outlets – Bluetan, See lounge, B-bumps and the banquet. There are also four more outlets located opposite the hotel. These are Swiss Bakery & Café, Mad dog’s Bodega, and Rouge.
Q: You have worked at multiple brands under Aitken Spence Hotels, most recently Adaaran and Heritance. How has this influenced your culinary journey?
Heritance and Adaaran are two independent brands and their approach to food has taught me different skill sets. At the Adaaran hotels, I learnt about documentation, process, planning and kitchen designing.
When I joined Heritance Negombo in 2015, the Executive Chef at the time was Amila Silva, a batchmate from hotel school. He had just arrived from Saudi Arabia and we were given the responsibility to create something new for the hotel. This gave us the opportunity to explore and understand the Sri Lankan culinary scene as we had been overseas. We spent a lot of time researching and dining at restaurants in Colombo and Negombo. We used this experience to design a menu based on what people wanted. I feel this is the reason behind our success in Negombo.
Q: What do you focus on when you create a menu for Heritance Negombo?
I focus on presenting dishes that have a fusion of local and foreign ingredients. Sri Lanka has a lot of ingredients that many are not familiar with so we use many of these ingredients to create a tasting menu. We create several tasting menus till we get the flavours and quality right. The menus we have at our restaurants are unique to our hotel and I haven’t come across similar dishes at any other hotels in the area.
Q: What are the three most important things for you in fusion cuisine?
When you do fusion, the ingredients need to complement each other. When I prepare a fusion dish, I want people to be surprised by it from the presentation to the taste. After guests taste the dish, they need to talk about it and remember it. Those three things are crucial for me when creating fusion dishes.
Q: What challenges do you face when sourcing supplies in Sri Lanka?
Sri Lanka has many holidays and suppliers tend to be closed for days during these periods. There are some suppliers who inform me in advance when they are unable to provide goods and then I plan ahead and order extra. When you’re in the food industry, they need to forget about holidays and work around the demand for products and not the other way around.
Q: How much do you rely on local ingredients?
55 percent of the ingredients I use for my dishes is locally sourced and the remaining 45 percent is imported.
Q: Do you prefer local or imported ingredients?
If I’m able to match the taste and quality of the final product to around 90 percent by using a local ingredient, then I would use it. If not, I would rather go with the imported ingredients.
Chicken sous-vide and roulade served with pearl vegetables is Chef Ehelamalpe’s signature dish.
Q: What do you look for when you hire staff for your kitchen?
When I hire staff for the commis level, I don’t focus on their experience. I mainly look at their attitude. Respect and how they treat others are two things I observe. When I call people for an interview, I always ask them to prepare for a practical. At the practical, I don’t ask them to cook what I want. Instead, I ask them to cook what they make best. Because what they serve in a plate, is a representation of themselves. Afterwards, they have to prepare a rice and curry meal as well. As a Sri Lankan, you have to know how to prepare rice and curry!
Q: What kind of training do you provide?
I train them in skill and technique development and prepare them for competitions, particularly in the creation of aspic – an important component in competitions. In addition, I also train the chef de partie and the commis team in computer software that is related to food and beverage.
Nowadays, chefs should know about technology and that is another aspect we lack in the country. I encourage each member to browse the internet and find out what’s happening around the world and keep themselves updated. Sometimes, I start the daily briefing and ask a chef de partie to take over the meeting and talk about something they have read or learned. If they are going to be the next sous chef, they need to be given the opportunity to display their skills and knowledge. If you’re going to give them a position, you have to groom them for the position as well.
Q: What advice do you give young chefs?
I encourage them to grow and to not stay at the same place for too long. I have never worked at one property for more than four years. You should get the experience and then move out. If you’re willing to stay at an establishment for 5 to 6 years and get the experience that is up to you. But if you go to a new property, you will get the opportunity to sharpen your skills further. If they are in a position to get international experience, I always encourage them to do so.
Q: How do the skills of Sri Lankan chefs compare to the other locations?
Sri Lankan chefs are really skillful. Most of the chefs in Dubai are Sri Lankan. When you compare them to chefs of other nationalities, I believe they are the best. They are easy to teach, they have the passion, and they are willing to go beyond what is necessary. I feel this is why Sri Lankans have ample career opportunities in other countries.
Q: How do you think the hospitality sector can elevate the standards of chefs?
I feel that in Sri Lanka, the chefs are not given sufficient training. It would be great if we can bring in international chefs on a regular basis and conduct training programmes for local chefs so that they are aware of what’s happening around the world. We have a Chef’s Guild and they can organise regular training programmes with internationally recognised chefs to bridge the knowledge gap. That experience is necessary for chefs to learn and grow.
Q: How does Negombo compare to the other locations, in terms of work environment and the staff?
People in Negombo are really good. The youth in particular are helpful and are always ready to go beyond what is asked of them. They are kind-hearted and know how to enjoy themselves. In terms of work environment, I feel there’s a difference, especially when it comes to the people. They are straightforward and I admire that trait. I feel that Beach Road (where Heritance Negombo is located) offers an experience unlike any other place in Sri Lanka.
Q: Tell us about a defining moment in your career?
My family was living with me when I worked in Dubai but I barely spent time with them because I worked very long hours. I decided that it might be best for them to return to Sri Lanka and be with extended family. Six months after they left, I returned to Sri Lanka. I think that decision changed my life.
Q: Which chef do you admire the most?
I really like Chef Heston Blumenthal. His cooking explores the scientific aspect of how you can prepare food – I find that very interesting. I try and follow his practices, the way he approaches food and the ingredients he uses. I have ordered some of his equipment for our kitchen as well.