My conversation with Peter Kuruvita

Chatting to Peter Kuruvita, we encountered an engaging raconteur with a flair for nostalgia.

By Mark Hager.

Published on January 14, 2015 with No Comments

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It strikes me, though, that what great chefs do is more complex and demanding than what great popular singers do. My wife, Upeksha, loves cooking shows and she prepares great dishes, as our dinner guests always attest. So she from shared enthusiasm and I from admiration (for her as well as for him) were both keen on meeting renowned chef Peter Kuruvita last month. Chatting with him for two hours in Dilmah’s tea lounge at Independence Square Arcade, we encountered an engaging raconteur with a flair for nostalgia. It’s easy to see why he’s good on TV.

“I don’t watch cooking contests. With singing contests like ‘The Voice,’ you can judge and compare the artistic productions, but since you can’t taste what’s on, TV chef competitions elude me. I can’t cook for beans, of course (OK, maybe beans), so I conclude that only cooks can enjoy cooking shows.”

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In a rambling multi-generational extended-family Dehiwala compound dating back nearly four centuries, he watched as conclaves of aunties spent long days together in gossip and food preparation. “A grand house in the old days,” as he describes it: “grandmother, grandfather, his father, his brother and two sisters, and all their children – two central courtyards, two wells and an ayurvedic garden. I was my grandmother’s pet, with her all the time. That’s where I got my passion for cooking.”

“We’d go to the market every day, and come back and cook for the rest of the day – the morning always started by picking stones out of the rice grains,” Peter recalls. “Growing up in that environment–everyone arguing over how much lemon to put, grandmother getting upset over someone putting salt when they shouldn’t have. Nothing was ever put on the table until people were happy about it.” There was much more to childhood than food, however. Peter never imagined becoming a chef. It would be many years before his childhood in a traditional kitchen inspired his first cookbook: ‘Serendib: My Sri Lankan Kitchen.’

Besides this and his other cookbook, Peter’s claim to chefhood fame is multi-fold. He was already a renowned chef in 2004, when he started his prizewinning ‘Flying Fish’ restaurant group. With one location in Sydney and two others in Fiji, Flying Fish pioneers ‘fusion’ seafood as its main specialty. One of the Fiji outlets was recently voted among the top ten restaurants in the Pacific region on Trip Advisor. Peter replicates the Flying Fish signature–quality seafood ingredients, ambience and beach locations– in another recent venture, the Noosa Beach House in Queensland. Meanwhile, Peter conceptualizes and hosts TV series explaining and experimenting with various national cuisines while also featuring scenery and culture of lands visited. His curiosity about food and outgoing personality make for an engaging format. In every episode, Peter shops for local ingredients in local markets and prepares a meal with local hosts he befriends on location. His first series, ‘My Sri Lanka with Peter Kuruvita,’ explores Lankan culture and food in 10 episodes, from the deep south to Jaffna. It almost didn’t get made. After sweet talking his producer for two years on the concept, Peter begged off when told he could do it, but with only six episodes. Fortunately, the producer eventually came around. ‘My Sri Lanka’ was nominated for the ‘The Rockies Banff World Media Awards 2012’ and Peter was nominated for an Australian ‘Logies 2012 Award’ in the ‘Best New Male Talent’ category. The series is now airing in the UK, Asia, Africa, Europe, the Middle East and the Pacific.

The second series, ‘My Island Feast with Peter Kuruvita,’ celebrates Indonesia, the Philippines, Vanuatu and the Cook Islands. Peter’s forthcoming cookbook, ‘My Fiesta with Peter Kuruvita’, similarly tours the cuisines and cultures of island communities in Asia and the South Pacific. In production at present, the third series, ‘My Fiesta with Peter Kuruvita,’ eats its way around Mexico. If Peter stays true to form, a related cookbook will follow.

Another big part of Peter’s childhood was traveling Sri Lanka. “My father used to drive us everywhere. We’d go all the way up north. He could speak Tamil, Sinhala and English.” With that in his memory bank along with traditional cooking, Peter easily fell into the idea for his first TV series. “Going on that journey was not about going to five-star hotels: more about talking to the man in the street, and that’s what I still love to do because that’s where the real Sri Lanka is” he says.

His visit to Jaffna for the series seems to have been a special favourite. “When we filmed in Jaffna for the first time just after the end of the war, everything took a long time. When we weren’t filling (clearance forms), I got to go to the markets, and people started opening up – I love markets. The way I try and get in with people is I have a travelling kitchen with all my utensils. In any country we’ve ever shot in, we go and see what’s there in the market, and then I create something foreign and something local – this brings instant respect. There were four generations of ladies in one kitchen, cooking – it was amazing.”

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Lanka’s late-seventies turmoil drove Peter’s family to migrate to Australia. Though Peter is son of a career engineer, prolonged schooling was perhaps not quite the thing for his free spirit. At 15, he told his dad he was dropping out, no two ways about it. That led to the key turning point in his life. “Dad’s rule was that you can leave school, but I had to stay by dad’s side till I found a job.” He mentions that his dad was an engineer, but had a money-making hobby on the side. “By then, most of my most meaningful conversations with my father were had under a car – because his other way of (making) money was by buying, fixing and selling cars.” Peter laughs that “almost all the conversations would start with ‘can you please listen to what your mother says?’ Father and son spent “hundreds of hours” talking with each other under cars.

“I could by then pull a car to pieces and put it back together with my eyes closed. We built half of the house, so I was handy. I was a tradesman in the making. With my level of education, there was no other way for me to go. Every day, when I woke up, he would ask me ‘what are you going to do for a job?’” Fortunately, Peter had taken cooking classes in school: “It’s funny how my grandmother’s passion came through. It was the only thing I really excelled at in school. So we were driving down the road in our suburb, and my dad stopped in the middle of the road and says ‘you did cooking at school? –well, there’s a restaurant, go and ask for a job.’ So I went and my job interview was basically ‘my father is in the car and he said I have to come and ask for a job. Do you have a job for me?’ They asked me to come in. My dad had parked the car, so I went and told him that I got a job. He said, ‘OK then, let’s go home.’ But I said ‘no, I’m starting right now’– a French restaurant in November, 1979. So I picked up a knife and my first job was cutting bread for garlic bread. Within three months, I was cooking main courses.”

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Peter later practiced his craft in top London restaurants, working up to 90 hours a week, before returning to Australia, where he continued to move up in the business. He attributes his rise to hard work and hungry ambition. He would always learn everything he could about the position above him so that he could move up. “I just pushed myself: that drive was always there,” as he sums up: “I was going to be executive chef in a five-star restaurant.” He diligently followed his father’s advice. “I went and told my dad that I got this job at a restaurant in a tiny island resort, but it’s the best resort in Australia owned by Sir Reginald Ansett. Dad said ‘in every job, there is one person who wants to show you how much they know. So just be quiet, and someone will come and ask you if they can show you how much they know.’ Sure enough, I get there, and the executive sous chef says ‘oh, let me show you’ and he showed me everything for a week: six fine dining restaurants, two 24-hour kitchens, 120 chefs. At the end of the week, I was ready to get on to the floor. I knew what was going on, and I took over and did it.”

A key idea took root when he collaborated with another young restaurateur at Sydney’s Bondi Beach. “Neil had never been overseas, so while everyone was cooking French or Italian food, Neil’s first menu had Thai food. I still have the recipes in my head today. It was so basic that if we tried to cook that food today, we’ll be laughed at, but he had the guts to do it. People kept coming in and eating seafood mixed with what we were surrounded with, Asian spices, and I realized that all these flavours from my grandmother could be used.” The seed flowered a few years later, when Peter opened his first ‘Flying Fish’ establishment. “The thing I wanted to do was change the face of Sydney food. How were we going to break into this tough market? That’s when my Sri Lanka snapper curry was born. It’s still in all my restaurants: made exactly the same and tastes the same. Flavour-wise, it’s the same as my grandmother’s fish curry, but I’ve deconstructed it: I believe that if you’ve got a beautiful piece of fish, you need to taste it. The fish is cooked on its own and is the showcase, then gotukola/pol sambol is secondary, and tamarind chutney is used to decorate the plate. Then the sauce is poured. Mix it all together and it tastes like my grandmother’s curry.”

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Peter offers some interesting thoughts on TV cooking competitions. He likes their educational function, which he thinks makes restaurant patrons more sympathetic to the difficulties of culinary art but at the same time more discerning about what they are tasting. He is not necessarily keen on the contestants, however. He mentions one successful contestant to whom he offered a job. She was not interested in becoming a chef, she responded, but had competed mainly for the fame and money. Peter credits working in five-star establishments as key to his success because it taught him the business end of his trade, under constraints of turning a profit. “I hate the title ‘celebrity chef.’ I’ve been one for a few years, and the rest of the time I’ve been working my butt off. They got the fame without the hard work. I can’t recall any of them who’ve had a successful restaurant.”

As to the artistry of fine food, Peter offers another compelling comment, though it puzzled me for a second. The only thing I’ve learned from glancing occasionally at cooking shows is that success turns on timing. Even when everything else is perfect, imperfect timing can make it all go poof. Peter underscores the point, referring to what he deems maybe his greatest strength. “What I’m good at is remote logistics. People in hotels now know that they can offer me a job at a restaurant in a remote place, and I will take it and feed people with cutting edge food.” Remote logistics is not what people normally think about when they think about fine food.

One of Peter’s Lankan projects involves working with Dilmah on developing and disseminating recipes using tea. He serves every year as judge for Dilmah’s ‘Real High Tea’ cooking competition. As Upeksha interrogates him, he spends ten minutes or so describing sauces and other delicious tea-based preparations. “At home, I’ve got a test kitchen: I’m creating a whole row of essentials with tea. Mix green tea and jasmine oil, and you have a fantastic pure flavour.” Hearing about the fish curry and then the tea-based cuisine, I begin to feel my old cooking show frustration: I want to taste it. I ask Peter if he is considering opening a restaurant in Sri Lanka. He is critical of ‘fine dining’ in hotels here. “Most hotel chefs (here) are focused on anything BUT the cuisine. There is no creativity. All restaurants are doing similar things. He is cautious, however, about the market prospects for a restaurant like the ones he likes to operate. “I’m scared of doing stand-alones because of this culture here of going to hotels.” What other plans does he have concerning Sri Lanka? “I’m working on creative approaches to northern Sri Lankan cuisine,” he responds. Because he appeared in early episodes of ‘Master Chef Australia’ I ask him if he might attempt a cooking competition show in Sri Lanka. “I’ve got an even more interesting idea,” he responds, “but if I told you I would have to kill you.” Then he tells us (and it’s a great idea), but since I don’t want him to kill me I will not disclose it here.

Peter is keenly interested in Sri Lanka’s future and wants to be part of it. “Spent the day yesterday with three-wheeler drivers,” he says, “because they know what is going on: chatting with them about food and everything else, hearing what they’ve got to say, how they feel about life.” He tries to absorb both bad news and good. “People in Sri Lanka are still getting free education and free medical, so it’s better than most places, and with a literacy rate over 90% this country has got incredible potential to push ahead.” On the other hand, he worries lest the new Sri Lanka lose its traditional charm. Innovation that also conserves might be his watchword for both the country and its cuisine. The one thing he doesn’t discuss with tuk-tuk drivers is politics. “I don’t follow politics here or at home. My political agenda is reconciliation through food, and I stick to that.”

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