Unearthing Hidden Culinary Gems
By Shanuka Kadupitiyage
Supreme Chef is wrapping up its second season in a nicely produced platter. The televised competition which first aired last year was a novelty addition to the Sri Lankan reality TV genre and since, has become a well-received programme among many local viewers.
The show hopes to uplift the profession of cookery and generate interest among families and youth in the Eastern Province and Polonnaruwa District by accepting contestants and mentoring them to improve their skills. Their talent and techniques are then showcased for all of Sri Lanka to see.
However, Supreme Chef is more than an average cooking reality-show. It was created with the goal to create opportunities for people with cooking skills where they can find employment and even build a career. Contestants will all be supported to access training under local training providers should they wish to pursue employment in kitchens or set up their own food and beverage service.
A supreme search for talent
Created by the Skills for Inclusive Growth (S4IG) by the Australian Government’s aid programme, Supreme chef is a joint operation with the Ministry of Skills Development, Employment and Labour Relations. Over 500 applicants were accepted from Ampara, Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Polonnaruwa Districts and were whittled down to 24 who would don the Supreme Chef apron. These 24 then underwent the 7 month-long kitchen skills training conducted by the top chefs of the country in order to prepare them for the main competition. However, this is not the only thing that the contestants are groomed in. They underwent an NVQ Level 4 course with additional modules developed by the S4IG with the Chef Guild of Sri Lanka, making it a more internationally recognised cooking training programme. Soft skills and career guidance were given as well to help them develop as stronger individuals.
The selected 24 faced a variety of challenges afterwards, where their culinary limits were tested until finally, one contestant earned the title of ‘Supreme Chef’ at the end.
After beating a stiff competition and defying many odds which were not in his favour, the one who emerged worthy of wearing the ‘Supreme Chef’ hat at the end of the second season is Sampath Rathnayake. A farmer by profession and living in Polonnaruwa, Sampath picked up the mammoty ten years ago to support his family of wife, three daughters, father, and sister. Sampath kept looking for other work but wasn’t able to find proper employment to support his family members.
Thanks to Supreme Chef Sampath has now found a way to support his family as well as learn something more about himself.
“I never thought cooking could actually become an art”, he told Ceylon Today as he recounted his experiences.
“At first, I contested because I wanted to gain skills and experience. I never expected to come this far and become the winner of Supreme Chef.”
Although he might not have expected the win, it’s clear that Sampath is one of the hardest working participants, spending many hours reading, scouring over books and watching YouTube videos to improve his technique and knowledge.
However, making the decision to participate was a tough one for Sampath who was the main breadwinner of the family. He’s thankful for his family for supporting him all this way and hopes to provide a better future for them all.
Sampath, a soft spoken individual, had tears in his eyes as he recounted his story to us. Soft as his voice may be, Sampath’s words were charged with emotion as he shared his gratitude for Supreme Chef and the new lease on life he has won for him and his family.
Although he is now the ‘supreme chef’, Sampath didn’t fail to name and thank all the chefs who provided guidance and training to him. As a mean of showing his gratitude, Sampath added a promise, with a voice soft yet resolute.
“I don’t want to stop here. I want to keep improving myself until I become one of the best chefs in Sri Lanka.”
Hailing from Trincomalee, 26-year-old Bonney was exposed to cooking from an early age when he had to cook for himself after his mother fell ill. His passion for cooking continued throughout his youth. Struggling to find steady employment after his Advanced Level examinations, he was working in Colombo before he was encouraged to join Supreme Chef by his friends.
He has come a long way since joining the ranks of Supreme Chef. Being particularly talented in making Sri Lankan and Thai food, he is no stranger to adversity and hunger, especially after the devastating tsunami in 2004 which according to him, “Brought his entire family down to zero.”
No stranger to hunger, he and his family struggled to make ends meet on many occasions. With his experience, he is very careful in minimising food waste and does his best to maximise the best he can get out of every ingredient.
“Thanks to Supreme Chef, I was able to discover a new side of myself. I was able to achieve something I once thought was unreachable for me,” he said with tearful eyes when asked about his experience with the programme.
Bonney has a clear goal in his mind for the future. He wishes to return home after his training and gain more experience before he opens his own restaurant, named after his late brother to honour him. He wishes to serve meals to the people in his community that they wouldn’t have access to otherwise; meals he once dreamt of tasting as a child but never experienced until Supreme Chef turned his life around.
Nicknamed the ‘silent killer’ by her peers, Sarmini slipped into third place without attracting much attention to herself in the early stages, waiting until the spotlight came to her as she moved forward from each round.
Happily married to her husband and living in Batticaloa, Sarmini had a tough childhood. However, with hard work and perseverance, she braved the many odds against her in her life.
An employee in the insurance sector, she was introduced to Supreme Chef through social media and received the full support of her husband to participate. She told us of him being her main motivator and supporter, something she shared with us proudly.
Sarmini told us that thanks to Supreme Chef, her life has now made a change for the better. She told us that her participation has helped her win honour and respect from her family. She has now become a respected personality in her village and community.
Overjoyed at making third place, Sarmini shed tears as she told of how thankful she is of her husband being supportive of her travelling to Australia and undergoing culinary training. She told us that she takes her husband’s trust seriously and wants to return to Sri Lanka as a master of the culinary arts.
Ceylon Today learnt that Supreme Chef was a transformative experience for Sarmini, who had a timid attitude at the start when she auditioned for the competition according to what we heard from organisers and her peers.
As a caterpillar breaks out of a cocoon, Sarmini’s challenges in the competition have led to a complete change in her. Even while being emotional, her voice was resolute, words infused with drive and willpower. Truly she has become a better cook and a stronger individual after being through this refining fire.
Preparing food and serving it to her guests bear a spiritual meaning to Sarmini, who believes that the satisfaction of a guest goes beyond the superficial act of serving food ordered. This is why she has a clear vision for her future; opening her own restaurant and serving traditional flavours and cuisine infused with the values passed on to Sarmini by her grandmother many years ago as she learnt to cook.
To all women who also wish to join the culinary ranks but fear to do so because of social pressures, Sarmini advises, “Explore yourself and your passion. Then step forward, be confident and the people you love will support you.”
Usama Bin Yaseen
Cookery is a part of 31-year-old Husama’s life long before he contested in Supreme Chef. Living with his family in Ampara, he helped in his father’s restaurant from a young age.
However, life wasn’t easy for Usama and his family. His father had to work overseas in the Middle East to provide for his family. For almost 13 years, he didn’t know his father’s face.
Learning much from his time in Supreme Chef, Usama became talented in many styles of cuisine in his short months of training, mastering various international flavours such as Chinese, Indian and Arabic.
Usama’s talent in a wide range of flavours attributes to his ability to replicate dishes he sees being prepared easily - a talent he discovered from his earlier years.
Although talented, Usama takes his work in the culinary arts very seriously, which is evident from his slogan, ‘dreams don’t work unless I do’.
Unfortunately, many of Usama’s dreams were dashed irrespective of his hard work. He was dealing with the aftermath of the collapse of his business and the separation from his wife.
“Supreme Chef helped me find a new career and a future,” said Usama as he shared his gratitude for the opportunity he received from the programme. He dreams of becoming a professional chef for a famous hotel in Sri Lanka in the future and knows that he now has the opportunity to become one.
The second season
Season two of Supreme Chef follows on the great success of its first iteration. Focusing not only on the culinary talents of the districts where they search, the programme also does its best to highlight the great potential tourist attractions of the area and its cuisine, which is a welcome effort in hopes of helping communities of these districts bounce back after the massive drop in tourism that occurred after the Easter bombings and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
With this considered, there is no doubt why the second season of Supreme Chef has become a massive hit for many viewers across the country. The show succeeded in discovering new talent in rural areas of the island who wouldn’t have gotten the chance to showcase their talent and passion for the culinary arts and find a career for themselves otherwise.
This is especially true when it comes to female participants because of the stigma and misconceptions that many communities of rural regions have regarding the hospitality and culinary sector. Supreme Chef has become a valuable tool to discover such talented individuals and develop their talents into skills.
A bright future after
One unique aspect of Supreme Chef is the concept that everyone is a winner. The exposure that contestants receive from Supreme Chef as well as NVQ qualification they receive after completion of the training can be exactly the springboard they need to dive into the culinary world and build a career in the field.
Also, the winners of the show win chances to go overseas and train in top schools and kitchens in Australia. Afterwards, the winners return to the country and join Sri Lanka’s tourism and hospitality industry as movers and shakers in the culinary world. Even contestants who didn’t make the cut into the winning group are placed in top hotel kitchens around the island if they have what it takes.
(Pix by Amitha Thennakoon)