Sunday, January 11, 2015

Chef Ruwan of Ruwanwella

Being a chef isn't easy. It's tough. You need to adjust and you need to adapt. You need to take note of tastes that differ from person to person. You need to customise. And most importantly, you need to be confident. No matter how flexible you may be, no matter how quickly you can bend and adapt, you need to be at home wherever you are. Food, after all, is universal. However you make it, wherever you make it, that's the rule of thumb. Always.

Ruwan Jayakody has traveled. Crossed the world. Seen much. Taken it all in. Adapted. And won acclaim. Yes, Ruwan is a chef. He knows how difficult the job is. But it's a sign of how confident he is that he isn't ruffled by it. That's rare. Then again, however, he's not your ordinary chef. As I've written before, he has traveled. That means he has seen. A lot. It's inevitable, therefore, that he has taken in what he has seen and has ceased to be intimidated by those challenges that come with his craft.

Ruwan tells me his story. I listen.

He was born in Ruwanwella. That's in Kegalle. He tells me that he never wanted to be a chef (or cook) back then. Educated firstly at Ruwanwella Maha Vidyalaya, he came to Colombo to complete his A/Levels at Royal Institute. He then entered Moratuwa University to study engineering (his first love). But fate decided otherwise: owing to his financial situation, he was forced to stop going there after just three months.

Almost out of the blue, things started to unfold. 1977 had come. The economy had been opened, and with it, the tourist industry began to boom. In 1981, Ruwan joined the Oberoi Colombo. He went there courtesy of the National Apprentice Board, which trained up-and-coming professionals like him in their preferred line of trade. Strange, considering that Ruwan never took to cooking at an early age. By way of explaining this, he says it in his own words: "Before this, I had no idea how hotels worked."

Three years later, Ruwan left Oberoi. He was taken in as the chief baker at the Randenigala Dam Project. That's when he began to specialise. At Oberoi, he had engaged in every area in cooking, from butchery to pastry making to bakery. That's how cooks evolve, I suppose. They learn everything and tend to focus on an area they are good at. In Ruwan's case, what he would be good at would define what he would do wherever he was for the rest of his career: pastry making.

Apparently he hadn't liked working at Randenigala Project that much. So he returned to Colombo in 1984, joining another hotel (the Taj Samudra, which opened that year) as a cook. Three years later, he shifted again, this time to the Airport Garden Hotel in Seeduwa. A stint at the Hilton Colombo would follow in 1987.

Cooking is a hands-down job. You either like it or leave it. That's what Ruwan emphasises when he tells me how important it is to get down to what you're doing. "It's serious business," he tells me, "To be honest, it wasn't a very good job at the time. But I learnt it. My first teacher was a Swiss man named Bloom. He taught me the basics of cooking, and eventually, I took to pastry and baking. That became my niche."

According to him, the way pastry making is done in Sri Lanka is quite different to the way it's done elsewhere. "In here, it's all about décor and surface-allure. We are more concerned about getting the texture and colour right. Abroad and especially in the West, however, getting the ingredients right, making sure what you're cooking is of the right taste, is more important." He attributes this to the way different cultures operate: "It's very hectic over there. Everyone is busy. They really have no time to care about décor. They are more concerned about taste. Here, on the other hand, we are more leisurely. We can afford to worry about 'surfaces'."

Ruwan has traveled. He has learnt much. After his tenure at Hilton, he left to Oman, getting employed at the Novotel Hotel. From there, he went to France, getting trained at Novotel Group. The list unfolds thereafter: Europe, Thailand, Laos, the United States, Canada.

There were also competitions. The first had been in Sri Lanka, called "Culinary Salon", in the 1980s. Again, the list unfolds: Dubai (the Emirates Culinary Competition), France (in Lyon), Germany (the Culinary Olympics), Luxembourg (the Culinary World Cup), Singapore (Food Asia), the US, and ultimately, Canada.

Ruwan has been living in Toronto for the last 20 years. The best years of his career have been spent there. As member, pastry chef, captain, and manager (in that order), he has represented the Canadian team. He founded his own team, "Trillium Chefs", and participated at the 2012 Culinary Olympics in Erfurt, Germany. In all this, be it at a regional, national, or international level, he has won, been applauded, and been championed. All the way.

There have been other accolades. He was the Pastry Chef of the Year (in Canada) in 2008. He became the first Certified Culinary Judge (recognised by the World Association of Chef Societies, or WACS) from Sri Lanka that same year. And last year, he was applauded here too, when he was awarded the coveted "Deshamanya" title by the Sri Lankan government.

All this pales before his biggest achievement yet. Two months ago, he was given the title of “Amitie Gastronomique Francois Vatel” at Luxembourg. This in effect made him an honorary member of the Vatel Club, which is affiliated with WACS. No mean feat, you must admit.

His story doesn't end here, of course. For the past 25 years, he has seen. He has also hobnobbed, with people and personalities. He has met and served Oprah Winfrey, the Royal family, and three American presidents (the two "Bushes" and Obama). "We met them quite regularly, to be honest. There's no hustle and bustle involved when we are serving them. We go there, we meet them, we serve them, we come back. That's it. After all, you must remember that unlike here, those people over there don't have much security around them, which means that when we meet them, it's not considered out of the ordinary or something to brag about at home."

The final word to all this, I believe, belongs to Ruwan himself. It's not easy, being a chef. It's even tougher when you're crisscrossing continents and adjusting yourself to wherever you are. Is it all about hard work? Yes. Is the outcome worth it in the end? Yes. But this isn't all. Be it in America, Europe, or Asia, the man knows his roots. That's what he implies when he tells me just how thankful he is to call this country "home". We should keep that in mind. As he has.

Yes, he truly is a figure. He is Ruwan. Chef Ruwan. Of Ruwanwella.

Written for: Ceylon Today LATITUDE, December 11 2015