One of the reasons I became a chef was for the prospect of being able to travel. I saw cooking as a way to see the world and get paid while doing it, and so far it is working out reasonably well. I was lucky enough to be invited to judge at the most recent Hotel Asia cooking competitions in Sri Lanka. Having never visited the country before was relishing the opportunity to see the competition entries, meet some new fellow chefs and to hopefully get out and about and see a little bit of the city while I was there.
Sri Lanka has for a long time been in a state of civil war and is just starting to enjoy the positive influence peace time brings. As we were driving along some of the streets in Colombo to and from the event centre where the competitions were held I asked one of the chefs I was with what Colombo was like. He said now it’s great. The country is becoming prosperous again and growing with increased foreign investment and in the next few years the city is going to grow and will be the place to be.
Colombo is an interesting city in a developing country. The poverty gap seems quite large. In the central city there are grand 5 star international hotels but you drive past slums on the way to them during the hour’s drive from the airport. This is the same as many Asian countries although here you feel that the place is still trying to catch up from the mess that is war. You won’t find the same massive shopping centers as in Kuala Lumpur or Singapore but you will find smaller shopping centers and shops, much the same as in Bangkok or Saigon.
Colombo is on the coast and the temperature although humid, is actually quite nice with the sea breeze. Getting around is easy and there are a lot of tuk tuk’s if you’re not going too far. Although be careful to check out the distance of where you are going on the map first and always agree on the price beforehand or go on the meter. Crime doesn’t seem to be a massive problem unless you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time although unless you’re careful you will probably get ripped off. The best bet is not to accept anyone’s help and to be informed about where/what you want to do and look up how much it will cost before you head out. There are some nice parks in Colombo and some beautiful Buddhist temples with Buddhism being the major religion. The artwork in some of these temples is amazing and it is customary to remove your shoes before entering and to give a small donation for the privilege.
I love Sri Lankan food and for me it is like a mix between Indian and Malay cuisine with beautifully fragrant curries with their own unique curry blends and the frequent use of coconut and rice for both sweet and savoury dishes. If you get a chance do try a hopper. Hoppers are very much the Sri Lankan version of a crepe and my favorite had an egg cracked into it, cooked and folder over and served with a very spicy sambal.
All is calm now and it’s easy to forget the troubles that aren’t that far in the past. Apparently driving around now takes 10% of the time it used to as now the road blocks and bomb checks are no longer there, although there is still a very visible military presence. The hotel I was staying at was nice I remarked to a colleague, a little bit tired but the lobby seemed a bit newer. Yeah that’s because it was bombed a few years ago and the General Manager killed was the response. Walking around the lively city civil war almost seemed worlds away.
Salamat Datang Ke Malaysia.
Welcome to Malaysia… Kuala Lumpur, what a wonderful city. For me it is one of my most favorite places in the world. Having worked and lived here it has fond memories for me and is a fantastic place to be. KL is a melting pot a different cultures, food, sights and smells. More developed than Vietnam but less developed and sterile than Singapore, in KL you can find anything you want. Kuala Lumpur is a place of great variety and contradictions but this is where in lies its charm for me. One moment you can be in a sprawling shopping mall walking past (but not often into for me!) shops named Gucci, Versace, Dunhill and 5 minutes walk away can be in an area with open drains with people washing dishes and cooking on the street. Whatever your preference and price range you can find it in KL and this goes also for food and drink. You can have dinner at a 5 star deluxe Shangri-La cooked by an ex-French Laundry chef for several hundred dollars and then walk 5 minutes down the road and have some amazing street food sitting on a plastic stool on the road paired with a cold Tiger or Carlsburg for a fraction of the cost of your starter.
If you’re into shopping the two most up-market malls are Suria KCLL which is part of the Petronas Twin Towers and Pavillion which is at the end of Bukit Bintang and accessible by an overhead walkway to and from KLCC. Other more value for money shopping centres are BB Plaza, Lot 10 and Sunei Wang which are all on or near Bukit Bintang. If you want to go for a more local and cheaper experience then Chow Kit Markets are fun and about a 15minute (15rm) taxi fare away but be prepared to barter especially if you look like a tourist!
The main street where all the action is is Jalan Bukit Bintang. Jalan translates to something like “way” and you can “jalan” yourself if you are going somewhere. Behind Bukit Bintang is Jalan Alor, this is a whole street just full of street food, whatever you want here you will find it. If there is a heaven I think it will be some sort of ground hog day with me sitting here having some amazing food with great friends all washed down with some cold bottles of beer. After you’ve eaten yourself silly you can then head down to Jalan Ceylon where you will find a lot of bars and more up-market restaurants. My favorite place on Jalan Alor is Restoran Dragon View and their crab is awesome. A great snack to be found everywhere are charcoal grilled corn with salt and butter and a Ramley burger although probably the reason for many heart attacks can’t be beaten, especially after a few pints on Jalan Ceylon, just make sure you get ‘the works’! If Indian food is more to your taste then off Jalan Ceylon is Jalan Nagasari where there are a few good curry houses open 24 hours. The best of which used to be Nagasari Curry House.
If you love food and haven’t been to KL, hurry up and book your ticket.
Living and working on a tropical island
The standard remark from people when I tell them where I work is “wow it must be great working in paradise!” Although I think people forget that working somewhere and being on holiday there are two completely different experiences! Working somewhere with a stunning view is great but unless you manage to have a good life/work balance then the inside of the kitchen walls all look the same no matter which part of the world they are in.
Problems and solutions
Living on an island can feel a little bit like Alcatraz sometimes and the boarding school mentality can sometimes set it. The saying “don’t shit where you sleep” is not applicable in these circumstances! It is important to stay away from the gossip and the politics for once you start down the dark path forever will it dominate your destiny. Make sure you get your own space so you can separate yourself from work. Working and living on site can be great because you’re nice and close to work and can be at work quickly if something goes tits up, but it can also be difficult because you’re nice and close to work and are often back at work quickly when things go tits up. Whether you go for a swim, go to the gym, play some Xbox or go on a day trip, it is a really good idea to get a break from the scenery, the people and the work to mentally recharge your batteries.
People in different parts of the world work and live in different ways. A multi-national kitchen brigade is no different. Often some nationalities will naturally have difficulties working together due to cultural differences. There are often language barriers also. It can also be a struggle sometimes trying to manage a diverse group of people. For example in one person’s culture it may be disrespectful to give someone a “no” answer, so one needs to take this into consideration when asking questions such as “is all the prep done?” Or “did you follow the recipe?” As a manager it is up to you to learn the right approach to get the best out of your staff and understand and embrace these cultural differences.
Working in a remote location or a semi-remote location poses a number of issues that one takes for granted when working in a city. When working in the CBD of a modern city you expect to be able to place your order at the end of the night, for the delivery to arrive by a set time in the morning and for the quantity and product to be correct and for the item to be of good quality. In remote locations, despite all your morals pointing away from it, sometimes you have no choice but to work out of the freezer. Perhaps you can only get a seafood or meat delivery one time a week or maybe even longer. You need to make a choice; do we buy in chilled and either run the risk of running out or serving old product? Not serve meats at all, or serve pre-frozen meats and defrost them carefully in the chiller overnight? Because of your location you sometimes have to make these difficult decisions. Often it is best to look at what’s available and work with that rather than trying to do something that is often unavailable or bad quality and end up pulling your hair out. All that you can do is do your best with what you’ve got.
Working on an island (third time for me now) can be a very rewarding and challenging experience. If you go back to civilization then things do seem a hell of a lot easier! Make sure you try to make the most of what you have and enjoy it while you can. Don’t focus on the negatives and how you would like things, go with the flow and embrace that which you do have, not stress over what you don’t.