As Executive Chef and co-owner of Sydney’s Flying Fish, Peter Kuruvita has enjoyed great success. However, nothing gives him more satisfaction than giving something back.
Published Selector Spring 2009
Walk through most Australian cities and you’re bound to encounter mouth-watering aromas from a mix of Asian cuisines. Asked to name your favourite and your answer could be anything from Thai to Japanese, Malaysian to Indian. The possibilities are diverse, but is it likely you would answer Sri Lankan?
Although there’s a population of over 80,000 Sri Lankans in Australia, knowledge of this island’s cuisine is limited.
To help fill the void, chef Peter Kuruvita has written a Sri Lankan cookbook called Serendip. Beautifully presented, it offers not only a collection of recipes, but also an understanding of the history and traditions of this unique cuisine.
As well as being informative, Serendip is entertaining. Peter intermingles the serious business of food with evocative stories of the six childhood years he spent living in his father’s homeland.
The theme tying Peter’s story together is family. Together with his parents and two brothers, Peter lived with 22 members of his extended family in a ‘compound’ made up of three houses.
This created an incredible sense of security that Peter remembers with great fondness, “As I ponder my childhood years in Sri Lanka, I cannot remember one bad time. My world was full of love, respect and family. There were people everywhere and I was related to them all. To be a child in this household was bliss – people were always talking, laughing, joking and cooking, and although there were occasional disagreements it was a tight-knit unit of closely related people.”
One of his favourite family members was his grandmother, or Achi. Being too young to start school when they first arrived in Sri Lanka from London, Peter spent all his time in his grandmother’s kitchen. It is these hours of watching the women at work that Peter credits with fostering his “understanding of passion for food.”
The idyll of Sri Lanka, however, was broken when political pressure forced Peter’s parents to move their young family to Australia. Compared to their “beautiful house with servants and drivers, cooks and nannies”, Peter describes his family’s first home of Doonside in Sydney as “the armpit of the world”.
Isolated in an all-white school, Peter became rebellious and developed a strong hatred of authority. By the time the family moved to the more culturally diverse southern suburbs it was too late, Peter despised school and wanted to get out.
By the age of 14 he’d been kicked out of all the traditional male subjects of metalwork, woodwork and tech drawing. The only two electives left were needlework and cooking. Peter chose cooking, and excelled. But despite this newfound talent, he still lacked the motivation to choose a career path. When it came to finding a work experience opportunity, it was his father who gave him the necessary shove.
Peter remembers driving through their local suburb with his father who asked, “What are you going to do? You don’t want to follow my path into engineering and you don’t want to study anymore.” To this Peter gave the infuriating teenage response of, “Whatever, I don’t care.”
In desperation, his father stopped the car and said, “weren’t you doing cooking at school? Go into that restaurant and ask for a job.” Peter did, succeeded, and stayed there at Crabapple, a seafood restaurant in Mortdale, for two years.
The life of an apprentice chef suited the wayward Peter down to the ground. As he explains, “I just loved it and it was instant freedom because I worked at night and didn’t have to be home.”
From the outset, mediocrity was not an option. Peter describes that “from the day I started I didn’t just want to be a chef, I wanted to be the best chef or one of the best chefs.”
To this end, after his stint at Crabapple, Peter finished his apprenticeship with one of the greats, Greg Doyle of Rogues restaurant and nightclub. Greg turned out to be Peter’s greatest influence, taking him under his wing both professionally and personally. Through him, Peter saw what you could achieve if you remained focused.
Keeping his eye on the prize, Peter went on to gain experience at Michelin-starred restaurants in the UK, before returning to Australia and achieving Chef’s Hats in several different roles, including executive chef at the legendary Bilson’s.
Peter’s career over the next nine years was a whirlwind of positions that took him to Fiji, back to Sydney, then to Bali and Hayman Island.
He finally returned to Sydney again in 2003 to set up Flying Fish restaurant at Pyrmont with co-owner Con Dedes. Flying Fish has gone on to become one of Sydney’s best restaurants. It has an enviable reputation for not only superb food, but also a warm welcome, free from the pomp and ceremony of fine dining.
While focused firmly on building his reputation, Peter has always kept the Sri Lankan influence of his early years close to his heart.
Serendip has allowed him to tell his story and open up the delicious possibilities of Sri Lankan food. However, it was a chance encounter in the 1980s that enabled Peter to really give back to the country that helped instil his love of food.
While at Bilson’s, Peter was called from the kitchen to meet one of the diners. Being Sri Lankan, this gentleman had recognised the origins of Peter’s surname and was curious to hear his story. The man was Merrill J. Fernando, the founder of Dilmah Tea, and on listening to Peter’s story said, “I’ll be watching you.”
Throughout the 20 years since this meeting, Merrill would find out where Peter was and they’d catch up. But it was the 2004 tsunami that really brought them close.
Since establishing Dilmah Tea in Australia in 1988, Merrill has been helping Sri Lankans, particularly women and children, through the Merrill J. Fernando Charitable Foundation.
Peter had a great desire to help those affected by the tsunami, so he hosted an event for the Foundation at Flying Fish which raised $US25,000.
With this money, the Foundation was able to build a school and community centre in the village of Maha Ara, which had lost 2000 people in the tsunami. When the school was finished, Peter went with his mother, wife and children to open it, an experience he describes as “incredibly emotional.”
Since then, Peter has closely followed the Foundation’s charitable projects and offered to assist where he can. In the near future he’ll help with the second phase of a project to improve life for Sri Lankan fishermen. Having already been provided with ice plants from the Foundation, the fishermen will benefit from Peter’s teaching in areas like cooking and hygiene.
Over the years, Peter has also created recipes that use each of the new Dilmah teas. Therefore, when their 20th anniversary was approaching last year, Dilmah wanted him to create a recipe using each of its 32 new teas.
Pushed for time, Peter thought, “how about we give a chef from every state in Australia four teas each and get them to come up with an entrée, main, dessert and a meat course.”
Never one to do things by halves, Peter expanded his idea, deciding it would be great to take these chefs to Sri Lanka and introduce them to Dilmah’s charitable work.
With a film crew and photographer in tow, Peter set off with his team of eminent chefs from New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia.
They toured through Sri Lanka, participating in tea production, farming education, cookery demonstrations and in various activities of the MJF Charitable Foundation.
By all accounts it was an eye-opening experience for these chefs, especially exchanging the comforts of their modern kitchens for makeshift set-ups where they had to use open fires.
Most importantly, Peter wanted to instil the message that “there’s a lot more to charity than just giving money and forgetting about it.”
Relatively simple gestures like cooking breakfast for a group of orphans allowed the group to see what they could do to make a difference.
Currently, the result of this journey is a recipe book published by Dilmah entitled The Chefs and the Tea Maker, which includes all the chefs’ tea-inspired recipes. It’s a revelation in terms of the possibilities of tea in cooking, with inclusions such as tea crusted Atlantic salmon with beetroot, wasabi and a soya caramel and Vanille Blush tea, tonka bean and cinnamon poached meringue.
Peter, though, is hoping to take it much further, with a documentary in the making and plans to start ‘Serendip Tours’ for people who want to see Sri Lanka through his childhood eyes.
It was these small eyes that first began observing passion in action, passion for food and family. Applying this observation to every aspect of his life has enabled a once unhappy and rebellious teenager to create not only an incredibly successful business, but a fulfilling personal life as well. All in all, you could say he’s written the ultimate recipe for happiness.
Reproduced with the kind permission of Wine Selectors.