How Aussie Chef Peter Kuruvita wears many hats
He’s a storyteller, TV host, restaurateur, and consultant, and Australian chef Peter Kuruvita couldn’t love his busy schedule morebrunch Updated: Dec 15, 2018 20:28 IST
One of Aussie Sri Lankan chef Peter Kuruvita’s most abiding memories is the time he cooked on a northern beach in Sri Lanka just after the war. “There was a very tense situation with Tamil fishermen and the Sri Lankan army,” he recalls. “I cooked Jaffna Kool (the Jaffna version of French bouillabaisse) right outside the army barracks and around the fishermen’s houses; everyone was watching, intrigued by what I was doing.
“When the dish was done, I brought it to the fishermen. They loved it. A soldier walked over with his gun to see what was happening, and I politely told him he would not get a taste till he put his gun back in the barracks. After a discussion with his CO, he and another soldier returned unarmed and joined us. I asked them all one simple question: ‘what are your food memories?’ Everyone shared their stories with smiles and laughter. Afterwards, the soldiers returned to their guns, and the fishermen to their village, but we had shared a meal and memories where we were all equal.”
Kuruvita had been filming for his popular travel cooking show My Sri Lanka with Peter Kuruvita, and is a firm believer in food memories as bearers of happiness and peace. He should know: his whole life has been filled with memories like those shared by the soldiers and fishermen. Born in October 1963, in Fulham in London to a Sri Lankan father and an Australian mother, after four years in 1967 they moved to Colombo in Sri Lanka. In 1974 Kuruvita moved to Sydney with his family, he has been cooking professionally since he was 15 years and six months old.
“My father said, ‘I noticed you like cooking with your grandmother. Get into that restaurant and ask for a job’,” Kuruvita remembers. “He was right: I loved it. And I have been doing it for 38 years.”
He started at a small suburban restaurant, then moved to work with one of the best chefs in Australia aka Neil Perry to finish his apprenticeship. “During that time, I worked for others as well, so I got a very good culinary education,” says Kuruvita.
“When someone compares south Indian food to Sri Lankan, the chutney will immediately separate the two!”
Through his initial career, Peter went back to England to work at Michelin-rated restaurants such as Rue St Jacques in London and The Waterside Inn in Bray. And then back home in Sydney where he became a head chef at 24, and attained 1 Hat status, Australia’s version of the Michelin star. By now, he owns and runs Noosa Beach House in Noosa, Australia, and Flying Fish Tokoriki & Flying Fish Samoa in Fiji Islands, has written several books about his exciting travel and cooking life, including Serendip, My Sri Lankan Kitchen, hosted cooking shows on TV counting My Sri Lanka with Peter Kuruvita (a 10- part series), Island Feast with Peter Kuruvita (a 10-part series), Mexican Fiesta with Peter Kuruvita (a 10-part series) and Peter Kuruvita’s Coastal Kitchen and been a restaurant consultant.
He’s able to juggle all of this not by multi-tasking, but by focusing on that old adage, ‘do one thing at a time to do it well’. “I dedicate all my power to each job, so I never really think about the next till the current is completed. It is fun and exhilarating,” Kuruvita says. “My life revolves around food; most of my memories have food in them. My childhood was exciting and ever changing, and I told a lot of those stories in my books.”
The tales he tells
Kuruvita is self-deprecating about his books. “My literary skills are not the best, but I have a story I love to tell,” says Kuruvita. “I have also cooked around the globe and have a very deep knowledge of many cuisines. Put that together with a good editor, and life is good.”
His need to tell stories extended to television as well: he loves to remember and romanticise the events in his life, especially those in Sri Lanka. “A producer told me that he thought they were very interesting. I had been told I was an okay talent for TV too, so we set out to get the money to make the shows,” says Kuruvita. “This is the biggest problem, raising the cash to make a show. I love making the show. For me, it is about meeting real people, normal people going about their lives, and learning from them while putting my own spin on the food without disrespecting it. If anyone is interested in me doing a show on India I would love to talk to them.”
“Albert Einstein said, ‘Nothing will help human health and increase chances of human survival on earth than the evolution of a vegetarian diet!’”
Although Sri Lanka has cuisines of its own, connections of history and geography make much of its food quite similar to the Indian cuisines of the south. “The glue to the cuisine of south India is all the chutneys,” says Kuruvita. “They are fantastic; they bring all the food together, and when someone compares south Indian food to Sri Lankan, the chutney will immediately separate the two.”
He’s travelled reasonably extensively in India since his father drove his whole family from London to Colombo in 1969. “I was in Old Delhi for a year when the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984. It was a day I will never forget!” he says. “My next time was in the 1990s for over six months, and recently I conducted a culinary tour from Chennai to Kerala.”
Challenges and wins
Though Indians have the reputation of being fussy eaters, with all sorts of religious taboos, Kuruvita begs to differ. Australians, he says, are pickiest diners in the world. “Diets and allergies are the two big issues restaurateurs have to deal with, but there are hundreds of others, including pregnant ladies. So I totally comprehend religious limitations too,” he says. And then he grins. “I love Indians. When you are in a restaurant in India, there is always one question: “veg, or non-veg?’ Most people would understand that there will be no beef, and I have a good grasp of Jain preferences, so there’s no challenge at all. I am thinking of adopting the veg or non-veg question for Australia. All in all, Australian chefs are put to the dietary challenges every day, and fully understand that they have to be conscious of all requests.”
He’s also used to working with Indian chefs, albeit chefs of the Indian diaspora who have grown up in Fiji. “They are now Indo Fijians and the food has become less regional and more Fijian, but they are responsible for bringing the spice and colour in the food over there,” he says.
Kuruvita is now working on a book encompassing the vegetarian food of India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Afghanistan, dotted with stories from his travels in the region, as well as over 150 purely vegetarian dishes.
“Albert Einstein, who was better known for his physics and maths than for his interest in the living world, once said, ‘Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances of survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet’,” says Kuruvita. The book, as yet untitled, will be released next year.
Meanwhile, he has a message for Bollywood, given how popular its stars are. “I would make putting a message about keeping India clean in every movie compulsory,” he says. “In fact, in every movie I would make a Bollywood actor pick up a piece of garbage and dispose it thoughtfully, sending a message to all ardent fans that this is the way they should behave.”
From HT Brunch, December 16, 2018
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First Published: Dec 15, 2018 20:28 IST