July 18, 2024
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Chef Pillai: The Making of a Culinary Empire

In this social media era, brands have come to dominate all aspects of our lives. But seldom do we know the fascinating story behind the making of certain iconic brands. One such brand is Chef Pillai, whose journey to fame is nothing short of fascinating. Like the proverbial alchemists of yore who could turn base metals into gold, Chef  Pillai acquired the golden touch by blending his passion, skill and relentless pursuit of excellence that spans more than three decades. A journey that began on the shores of the Ashtamudi Lake in Kollam has taken him to kitchens across the seven seas making him a gastronomic wizard committed to both innovation and tradition. Join us as we uncover the secrets behind Chef Pillai’s culinary mastery, the making of the brand, and the spawning of an entrepreneur.

Tell us about that remarkable journey of transformation that began on the shores of the Ashtamudi Lake?

My journey from Suresh to Chef Pillai began in a quaint village in the backwaters of Kollam district. I was born into an ordinary family and stumbled into the culinary world by chance after completing Class X. My circumstances in those days prevented me from pursuing a formal education in that field. However, as I immersed myself in the kitchen, I discovered my natural talent for cooking and became fascinated by the endless possibilities it offered.

My fortunes changed for good when I travelled to the UK for work in 2005 armed with 15 years of experience and a strong work ethic. When I landed in Britain, I initially went by my name, Suresh Pillai. However, due to the significance of surnames for work permits, I soon became known as Mr. Pillai. Working at Veeraswamy, England’s first Indian restaurant established in 1927, I was the sole representative of Kerala cuisine among chefs and staff from North India. Hence, I earned the moniker “Chef Pillai”.

When I ventured into social media, I encountered difficulties creating an account as “Suresh Pillai,” leading me to adopt the persona of Chef Pillai. Despite never envisioning a return to India while enjoying the comforts of life abroad, my fame grew through social media and appearances on BBC’s Masterchef. That paved the way for recognition as Chef Pillai in my homeland.

In 2017, an opportunity to work in Kerala at The Raviz Hotel in Kollam came knocking, prompting a return. Initially, the plan was to return to England after the contract was over, given our citizenship status and children’s happiness. However, fate had other plans, leading to the decision to establish my own venture in Bangalore post-COVID. Within six months, another restaurant was born in Kochi’s Le Meridien owned by the Marriott Group. This was yet another milestone. Within a year, four more enterprises were started, including one in Qatar.

Transitioning from chef to entrepreneur proved challenging, requiring attention to various aspects beyond culinary skills, such as marketing and finance. Despite the hurdles, my vision of promoting Kerala’s flavours worldwide fuelled the expansion of my restaurant empire. With the support of investors and a dedicated team, I am on the verge of completing 60 restaurants within this year, following three years of development. Each establishment will offer a diverse array of tastes and price ranges.

Suresh Chef Pillai

Chef Pillai

The journey from Suresh to Chef Pillai symbolises not just personal growth, but also a commitment to sharing the essence of Kerala cuisine on a global scale. And the journey still continues.

What circumstance led to your journey to Britain?

The desire to venture to Europe, America, or Australia had long been a dream of mine, despite numerous job offers in the Middle East. I held out for the chance to fulfill my European aspirations. The opportunity finally arose in 2005, when I received a call while working at Kumarakom. I was summoned for an interview in Mumbai for a job in the UK. After five days of interviews, I was selected and I swiftly found myself in London within a week. Securing a position at Veeraswamy proved to be a significant milestone. Amidst a vast array of chefs, I was chosen as the sole representative of Kerala cuisine—a role that opened my eyes to new experiences and learnings on an international scale. Reflecting on my career, those 15 years spent in the UK stand out as some of the most valuable.

What aspect of your culinary journey has brought you the greatest joy and fulfillment?

The journey of establishing eleven new brands, launching sixty successful restaurants, and fostering a sense of community among over a thousand individuals over three years has undoubtedly been the most rewarding aspect of my career. Throughout my professional life, I have received numerous awards and recognitions for my culinary expertise. I have been fortunate to receive letters of commendation congratulating me on various distinguished personalities. Despite that, what has brought me the most joy and satisfaction over the past thirty years is not just the work itself, but also the opportunity it has provided for me to contribute significantly to the livelihoods of many families. For me, that has been the most fulfilling aspect of my journey, bringing me the utmost happiness and contentment.

What are the secret ingredients to becoming an exceptional chef?

To become an excellent chef, one must have a passion for the culinary art. The willingness to continually learn new things and the humility to acknowledge that there is always more to learn are essential. It’s not enough to just study; practical experience is crucial for gaining a deeper understanding. Trying to correct mistakes and improve based on our knowledge gaps is necessary. If we accept and acknowledge our inadequacies, we can strive to achieve excellence. Otherwise, if we assume that our learning is complete, success will always elude us. Success comes from adapting and incorporating lessons from our experiences, both good and bad, into our practices.

Could you define the learning and training phase that moulded Chef Pillai?

In my experience, pursuing a formal course over several years can certainly be beneficial. However, I’ve also come to recognise that proficiency can be achieved through dedication and effort alone. Despite not having studied Hotel Management, I’ve ascended to senior positions in prominent hotels and restaurants, albeit with numerous challenges along the way. This isn’t to discount the value of education; rather, it emphasises the importance of how one applies their knowledge and skills. I’ve encountered individuals who, despite obtaining degrees and undergoing training, failed to excel. What truly matters is the mindset we cultivate between learning and practice, remaining open to the lessons that surround us. Whether it is skills acquired from humble beginnings or insights gained from observing others, embracing continuous learning and adaptation is key, particularly in an ever-evolving industry.

In your global palate-hopping journey, what is your favourite dish?

During my three decades as a chef, I’ve had the privilege of sampling a vast array of dishes from around the world, ranging from the most refined to the simplest fare. Each culinary creation originates from the culture of the country, shaped by its landscape, climate, and the customs of its people, evolving over the years. If one can appreciate the history behind it and savour it with understanding, everything will taste not only delicious but also fascinating. Personally, I hold a deep appreciation for the diverse flavours of Kerala cuisine, but I also have a penchant for Japanese food due to its health benefits and nuanced flavours.

Suresh Chef Pillai

Chef Pillai

Are you planning any specific initiatives to support economically and educationally backward individuals aspiring to enter the culinary sector?

Certainly, during this period when Malayalis are globally everywhere, there has been a surge in the popularity of Kerala cuisine among admirers worldwide. This presents a significant opportunity for Malayalis, whose upbringing and familiarity with Kerala’s culinary traditions uniquely position them for success in the field. Recognising this potential, I aim to establish a skill centre or academy that offers practical, hands-on training alongside theoretical study, with the goal of equipping individuals of all ages with the necessary skills to thrive in the industry. This initiative seeks to provide accessible education and employment opportunities, transcending traditional four-year courses and catering to the diverse needs of aspiring chefs. With the impending launch of numerous restaurants and my vision to establish a hundred establishments, these initiatives aim to empower individuals to pursue rewarding careers in the culinary arts, regardless of their background, age or circumstances.

What does ‘skill training’ entail?

Allow me to illustrate with an example. ‘Appam’, a beloved delicacy among Malayalis, is a dish familiar to many. Crafting a delicious and well-made appam involves a meticulous process of grinding rice flour, making a batter out of it,  fermenting it for several hours, and skillfully cooking it to perfection. While many may know how to prepare appam, the true skill lies in maintaining consistency and quality with every batch. A skilled chef can adeptly manage the fermentation process, ensuring that each appam maintains the desired level of sourness even when the quantity of the batter comes down. This level of precision, coupled with the ability to cook without over or undercooking, requires not just practice, but honed skill. By mastering this skill, one can earn a respectable income, potentially around Rs 35,000 per month.

How does cooking time differ across countries? Could you share your experiences working with renowned chefs worldwide?

Upon my arrival in the UK, I had to unlearn certain culinary habits, notably the concept of precise cooking times. While in Kerala, extending the cooking time for dishes like prawn curry might not pose an issue, in international kitchens, precision is paramount. For instance, even a slight deviation in the timing or spiciness of a dish can greatly impact its quality. Unlike in Kerala, where taste is paramount, international kitchens prioritize consistency and adherence to predetermined standards. My experiences working alongside top chefs worldwide have underscored the importance of precision and consistency in achieving culinary excellence.

All of Chef Pillai’s restaurants uphold international standards. How can ordinary folks enjoy Chef Pillai’s flavours?

Indeed, many have posed this question, and my aspiration has always been to make my culinary creations accessible to everyone. One strategy has been to establish a premium brand, Chef Pillai, which has facilitated partnerships with esteemed establishments like Marriott. While the premium brand has opened doors to new opportunities, my ultimate goal remains to offer high-quality cuisine at affordable prices. In forthcoming projects, I aim to introduce dining options that cater to a budget-friendly range, with the ultimate vision of creating restaurants where meals are priced at Rs. 100. This endeavour is currently in progress, with a focus on maintaining the standards set by existing ventures.

Can we anticipate the establishment of a Chef Pillai Institute in the future?

Absolutely. Efforts are underway to realize this vision at the earliest opportunity. Establishing an academy dedicated to culinary arts will provide aspiring chefs with the necessary training and skills to excel in the field. My goal is to preserve traditional recipes and culinary heritage while imparting knowledge to future generations. Creating a Chef Pillai Institute is a tangible step towards achieving this goal, ensuring that our culinary legacy endures for years to come.

Suresh Chef Pillai

Chef Pillai

 

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