We are early for our meeting with Dharshan Munidasa, but he emerges from the kitchen, unruffled. He is the gracious host as he sweepingly invites us into the latest jewel in his crown. It’s the brand new Kaema Sutra restaurant, housed in the newly-opened Shangri-La hotel in Colombo.
Having first stamped his expertise as a culinary artist with his prestigious Japanese restaurant Nihonbashi, and then making more dramatic headlines with Ministry of Crab and then Kaema Sutra, Dharshan Munidasa now enjoys the distinction of being the first Sri Lankan chef to run an independently operated restaurant in a five star hotel in Sri Lanka.
We at the Colombo Gazette caught up with him over an iced tea soda, and he invited us to sit in clear view of the glorious sun taking its dip into the sea. ‘I’m not a culinary expert’ he laughs, almost demurely. And yet he has many a distinction up his sleeve. In addition to making a brand out of crab in Sri Lanka, Dharshan’s Ministry of Crab has earned the distinction of being one of the 50 best places to eat in the world.
What makes him the sort of celebrity chef that he is? ‘You keep on learning, and you learn from so many people,’ he says, adding, ‘I learnt how to touch and grade crab from a crab-monger in Pettah. I have no issue going there, sitting with him and asking him to teach me how to do it.’
Born to a Sri Lankan father and a Japanese mother, Dharshan talks of how his Japanese heritage influences his aesthetic and culinary skills. ‘The Japanese culture strongly relates itself to nature,’ he observes, referring to arts such as bonsai and ikebana and explaining how young children in Japan are encouraged to have a pet such as a beetle or a turtle, even in a tiny home. In the same way he observes how the interaction with fish in a Japanese household is very strong. He observes how the average Japanese can often identify different varieties of fish on a plate, hence his affinity to sea food and its preparation.
As an unofficial ambassador of promoting Sri Lankan cuisine overseas, he is passionate as he talks of how as Sri Lankans, we should be proud of what we have, displaying different types of tea and using rice from different harvests in our homes. ‘For some reason we never paid attention to our own ingredients, so my paying attention stands out more.’
He talks of how important it is that the best ingredients go into his preparations. He explains how restaurants in the past operated without freezers, but used fresh ingredients, instead. However, now freezers are used for convenience. ‘But there are some things that you just cannot use a freezer for, like fruits and vegetables. So I thought I’ll take the extra step by using chicken, fish and prawn without freezing it but by only using ice, so that we don’t solidify the fibres,’ he explained. ‘As restaurateurs we should be taking the best ingredients,’ he says. ‘And we are lucky, because Sri Lanka is a country in which we are blessed with ingredients. We can’t do this in any other part of the world. People don’t understand how good we have it.’
Talking of the success of Ministry of Crab, he says how reservation policies, menu and prices were challenged by some. But he says sticking to what he believed in made things work. ‘The most expensive restaurant in Sri Lanka today is a 100% local ingredient restaurant,’ he concedes with pride, adding, ‘It was not done to make money. It was done to meet a demand.’
Now with all three of his restaurants becoming go-to spots for tourists and food enthusiasts, we ask him how he manages to split his time between them and maintain standards. ‘It’s all in one straight line along the Galle Road now, now,’ he laughs, ‘so it’s easier.’ But he immediately looks sterner as he adds, “It’s what I created; It’s my responsibility. I have to make an extra effort to make it work.” He talks of the importance of setting up a good team and investing in the staff.
As much as he is known for the fineness of the food he dishes out, Dharshan is also known for his collaborations with celebrities in their own right. Star cricketers Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene partner with Dharshan on Ministry of Crab, while top model and Bollywood actress Jacqueline Fernandez partners with him on Kaema Sutra. “It’s been an amazing journey to be able to do these restaurants with them,” he says. He adds he has more restaurants in the pipeline as he speaks of upcoming ventures in Bankok, India and Dubai.
As the sun completes its business for the day, the business of the restaurant begins. The cosy lights that come on take on an appeal of their own, and patrons begin to trickle into the restaurant. “The location is important,” says Dharshan. Pride and optimism shine through. He has to soon excuse himself, but not before he introduces the black hopper with flair. The squid ink hopper, drizzled with olive oil, accompanied by a curd and cream dip is the perfect wrap up for a pleasant meeting with Dharshan. (Colombo Gazette)