Grand Old House’s Chef Thushara Jayalath Siriwardana is no stranger to culinary awards, having enjoyed great success at the past four Cayman Culinary Society competitions. This year he won the ultimate accolade – Chef of the Year – and he speaks with The Journal about his training and route to success.
Sri Lanka is a popular tourist destination and is therefore a haven for budding chefs who want to learn their trade. Chef Thushara knew that he wanted to be a chef from an early age, learning the art from his grandmother who encouraged him to study in the field.
“The Sri Lankan government run hospitality schools via its National Apprenticeship Board, and encourages people to enter the industry, paying for training and transportation to the college and so on. In 1997 I therefore joined a government-run college while gaining work experience at a variety of hotels and restaurants at the same time.”
Chef Thushara says he had to start at the very bottom and work his way up while studying.
“I started at the first hotel washing dishes. From there I progressed to the cold kitchen, then the hot kitchen, then through to butchery and pastry until I had gained experience in every aspect of the business.”
He says that the three years he spent training were tough. “We started with a class of 36 students and that went down to just 12 by the time I graduated. We worked long hours and started early in the morning; however I did not miss a lesson because I wanted to be a chef so much and loved cooking,” he confirms.
After he graduated Chef Thushara opted to undertake a further set of studies in cake making, which has long been the chef’s particular passion.
Once qualified, he worked in a number of five star hotels in Sri Lanka, including the Intercontinental and the Gold Star Beach. In 2000 Chef Thushara got his first taste of culinary competition, taking part in Sri Lanka’s own culinary society competition. Out of around 3,000 entrants he was delighted with his 16th place for his bread showpiece.
As with many young people within his profession, Chef Thushara decided it was time to travel and see a bit more of the world and had no problem finding a job first in Dubai and then Los Angeles, spending two years at each location.
“People like employing Sri Lankan chefs,” he says. “They know they will work hard and they are confident that they will be professional.”
While in Los Angeles, Chef Thushara got his first taste of the Caribbean, working for Carnival Cruises and visiting the Mexican islands as well as the Caribbean.
He came to Cayman in 2006, helping to establish the Fisherman’s Reef restaurant in West Bay. He and his two colleagues decided to enter Cayman’s Culinary Competition in that year and took home 11 medals between them.
Chef Thushara joined Grand Old House that same year and has gone on to win top medals in every culinary competition since, including best showpiece in 2007 as well as best of show, best main course in 2008 and best showpiece, and best showpiece again in 2009, along with best main course.
This year, as well as winning chef of the year, he also took home medals for dessert (gold), cold appetiser (gold), best Caribbean recipe, hot soup (silver) and hot appetiser (silver).
Chef Thushara says his recipe for success is to always push the boat out each time he cooks.
“I trained in classical French cookery and I like to mix this with my Asian influences. Obviously now that I’m in the Caribbean this style of cooking now plays a big part in what I like to cook,” he says. “Each time I enter a competition I like to try something new, whether that’s a new recipe or a new style of cooking, I like to keep it fresh and interesting.”