My boys – he calls them and there’s utmost pride in his voice as Gerard Mendis talks of the dream team that represented Sri Lanka at the 23rd World Culinary Olympics held in Frankfurt, Germany, bringing home a stunning tally of 15 gold medals, 14 silver and one bronze. The Culinary Olympics, held for the [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Lankan chefs taste sweet success at Culinary Olympics


My boys – he calls them and there’s utmost pride in his voice as Gerard Mendis talks of the dream team that represented Sri Lanka at the 23rd World Culinary Olympics held in Frankfurt, Germany, bringing home a stunning tally of 15 gold medals, 14 silver and one bronze.

Gerard Mendis

The Culinary Olympics, held for the first time in 1900, takes place every four years. The team of 24, experienced as well as amateur chefs from around the country was selected and given intense training over the past year, under the watchful eyes of Chairman of the Chefs’ Guild of Sri Lanka and master chocolatier Gerard himself, and Dimuthu Kumarasinghe – one of the most highly regarded chefs in the country, who had bagged five gold medals at previous Culinary Olympics in Europe. “We have some marvellous young chefs, and I wanted to pick up talent from all parts of the country,” Gerard adds, saying that their selection scope was wide – the results now justifying their faith in their proteges. Every single member of the team bagged a medal in their respective events.

The team comprised chefs from Jetwing Lighthouse, Galle, Cinnamon Grand, Heritance Ahungalla, Hilton Colombo, Grand Hotel Nuwara Eliya, Cinnamon Lodge, Habarana, Water’s Edge, Eden Hotel, and Perera and Sons as well as young chefs from various parts of the country. The categories included Five-course Set Dinner Menu, Plated Desserts, Buffet Platter, Tapas, Salt Dough Carvings, Chocolate carving, Pastilliage sugar sculptures and Wedding Cakes.

Chef Dimuthu Kumarasinghe and Chef Shrimal Kulatunga, bagged the gold medals for the overall pastry challenge. Chef Thilak Senaratne bagged two golds, Chef H.P. Kumara De Silva bagged a gold and silver, Chef Kodikarage Athula won two golds and a silver, Chef M.M. Laxman bagged the gold at the ‘Wedding cake’ event, Chef N.P Wijesiri Jayawardena won two golds and Chef Anuraddha bagged another gold medal.

Silver medals were won by Chef Shrimal, Chef Manjula Wikrema, Chef Chamaka Perera, Chef Kasun Premachandra, and Chef Sanjeewa Niroshan, representing the Regional event, as well as Chef Nimal Rajapakse and Chef Narampanawa.
Chef Dimuthu Kumarasinghe and Chef Srimal Kulathunga stunned the audiences by winning the gold medal for the overall pastry challenge – a field regarded as a European stronghold. Carrying their sculptures and utensils with them all the way to Germany was no cakewalk.

Gold at the Pastilliage sculpture event: Chef H. Prageeth Kumara’s creation

Chocolate gold: Chef Thilak Senaratne’s winning creation

“Imagine carrying boxes and boxes on your lap, in an economy class ticket, cramped up for 10 hours – it’s not a very nice experience,” Gerard recounts, adding that the eventual victory meant all the hardships were worthwhile.

Kurunegala-born Chef Shrimal, 32, who started his career back in 1999, as the receptionist at Kandalama Hotel had a tough road to success. “Chef Dimuthu was my guru, he is my mentor, and I cannot explain how great it was to partner with him and stun the world,” he says, adding “we went up against the masters of pastry, but we proved our mettle.” Now part of the Jetwing Lighthouse Hotel, he expresses his gratitude to the management and says he aspires to tread the path of his guru and motivate youngsters to reach for the stars.

Chef H. Prageeth Kumara, 36, a master sculptor from Eden Hotel, bagged the gold medal in the Pastialliage Sculpture carving event, and the silver in the vegetable carving. It was the magnitude of the event that served as his motivation, the adrenaline rush bringing out his creativity, he smiles. Hailing from Aluthgama, Chef Prageeth too had a rocky road to get to where he is. “Api lokema hollala awey”, he tells us with pride stating that they took the world by storm.

Chef M. M. Laxman, 36, from Perera and Sons known for his marvellous wedding cakes has never been to Hotel School but scored a full 100 marks, winning the gold medal at the ‘Wedding Cake’ event. Scoring full marks is a feat only achieved by three nations in this time’s Olympics. “The biggest challenge was to carry and work with the delicate structure,” he says modestly, “The judges were amazed as to how everything was intact.”

The winning team from Sri Lanka

Chef Kasun Premachandra, 37, who was part of the regional team that bagged the Silver medal started his career back in 1997 as a receptionist, yet had the determination to make it to the top. Being an expert in the ‘Hot Kitchen’ dishes, Kasun says his biggest hurdle was to adapt to the new climate.

The prelude to the journey however, was quite a contrast to its fairy tale ending. As the first Sri Lankan to win a medal at the competition back in 2004 it was Gerard’s cherished dream to share that sense of pride with the young blood. “I’ve been trying to realize that dream for the past decade, but as with everything in this country – money became a barrier.”

“Getting through all that red-tape, cancelled appointments, and refusal from the authorities to financially support us was indeed harder than the competition itself,” Gerard says. Undaunted, he went ahead. “I decided to take a long shot and register for the event without even having the necessary funds for the team expenses,” he recalls. To his relief, things started falling in place, as the team that would eventually put Sri Lanka on the world culinary pedestal was selected.

Finally private organisations sponsored their travel, realizing that the rewards would be for the entire country. “This is in fact for the greater good of tourism in Sri Lanka, and the authorities should market such feats, as it is ultimately the country that reaps benefits,” Gerard says.

Sri Lankan hotels pay little attention to the culinary aspect, but that is what needs to be given prominence. “A hotel is as good as its food. Our objective is to nurture a set of competent chefs who will set a standard for food in the tourism industry,” Gerard adds. “We don’t have to look far, the local talent is in abundance and getting them involved like what we did at the Culinary Olympics is imperative.”

The groundwork has to be done in our very own hotels, he feels. “I don’t want the boys to be lost to the Middle East or UK. The hotels and authorities need to give them the credit they deserve, and motivate them to be prime stakeholders of the tourism industry,” Gerard says.

For now though, winning chefs are still savouring the sweet flavour of success. Chef Thilak Senaratne recalls how the German public cheered them on. The night after their sweeping wins, the boys were surrounded at supermarkets and malls in Germany. “The people loved our team and the chefs absolutely loved their newly acquired stardom,” Chef Thilak said.

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