by Iyath Adam
This month, we have a chat with Chef Deen Mendis who has crafted the menu for some well-known restaurants in the Greater Male’ Area.
Read on to find out more and about his extensive experiences in the culinary industry!
Lonumedhu: First of all, tell us about yourself. How you find yourself here in the Maldives’ culinary scene?
Deen: I’m from Sri Lanka and everyone calls me Chef Deen. After high school, I left Sri Lanka and travelled to Japan where I studied for two years. Then, I did hotel management for two years after that. When I was 19, I started working part-time, dishwashing in restaurants in Japan. From there, I started kitchen work, moving on to commis and eventually head chef positions while working in different restaurants. So, I was able to experience a wide variety of food and cuisines. I got married in Japan and I was there for about 17 years.
After that, I moved back to Sri Lanka, and I got married to my current wife – who is Maldivian – and ended up coming to the Maldives. That was in 2014 and I’ve been here for around nine years now.
Lonumedhu: Tell us a little bit about your experience in the Maldivian culinary industry. Where are you currently working?
Deen: I first started working in Paradise Island Resort & Spa as a chef de cuisine. I was there for a while, but I had to move back to Male’ due to family obligations. I also wasn’t very happy or familiar working in buffet-style restaurants as I had mostly worked in ala carte before.
In Male’, I first started in Shellbeans, and I was there for around two years. I then opened a restaurant called The Kitchen which followed a fine dining concept. I was there for about one and a half years. After that, I switched to working as a consultant chef and I’ve set up quite a few restaurants; menu crafting, staff training, food costing, marketing strategies etc…
My base food techniques are Japanese, but I have experience with many different cooking styles as well. This turned out to be an advantage in Male’; it’s a small place, everybody knows everybody, and all the places and you can’t have the same menu in three or four restaurants.
I’ve done consultancies for around 10-12 restaurants here now, including High Tide Restaurant, Papa Sam’s and Coba Cabana Hulhumale’, all of which have my menus. Currently, I’m working for a restaurant called The Garden Restaurant – TGR – a multi-cuisine restaurant.
Lonumedhu: You have worked in the kitchen before as a chef and now you’ve taken on a more consulting role. How would you rate the two experiences?
Deen: Yes, I’ve done a lot of kitchen work and experienced many different restaurants. Unfortunately, in the Maldives, especially in Male’, the kitchen environment is not that good. Not much of an effort is put in the kitchen; the space is usually too small and it’s not comfortable to work in. That’s one of the main reasons I switched to consultancy.
I think if I had stayed in Japan or Sri Lanka, I would definitely have continued on the kitchen side of things. Especially in Japan, the culinary scene is another level – very systematic whereas in the Maldives, it can be a bit unpredictable.
Lonumedhu: Can you tell us about your menu crafting process?
Deen: The main points I focus on when crafting a menu are the location of the restaurant, the space itself, and the capabilities of the people who work there. Plus, the mindset of the owners and if they are able to financially execute the menu and the vision. It doesn’t matter what menu I put up unless the other parties are able to commit and carry out their parts successfully.
From a customer point of view, I focus on taste. Maldivians prefer spicy, sweet, and sour tastes with bigger portions. Not the fine dining style, but where everything is eaten together, similar to the culture in Sri Lanka as well. I’ve worked on Mexican dishes, Thai food and right now I do a lot of fusion food. Umami also works well here, and I can bring that to the base flavour.
Lonumedhu: Do you have a favourite cuisine? Why?
Deen: My favourite dishes are Japanese. In Japanese cuisine, the ingredients will do the talking, not the chef. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to get good quality ingredients here in the Maldives. Because of that, I actually have a lot of trouble cooking or setting up menus to cater to the tastes of people here.
Lonumedhu: You’ve been in the Maldives for a long time, and I’m sure you’ve sampled our local cuisine. Do you have a favourite Maldivian food?
Deen: I love garudhiya. It has that umami taste – simple but deep depth of flavour. I can eat it even seven days a week!
Lonumedhu: What do you think makes a great chef? What qualities do you think need to be present?
Deen: Anyone can be a chef by learning and working hard. But to be a great chef, you have to do all that plus bring a certain creativity, imagination, love and dedication to the craft. You have to think about how you’re going to put a certain dish in place – the taste, the different elements and how they can be executed.
Being a chef is very different to being a home cook because as a chef, you have to make several dishes exceptionally well every single day and maintain that quality. So having that discipline is what defines a great chef as well. And that’s what I always tell my guys too, do it right but don’t work like a machine; taste and feel your ingredients.
Lonumedhu: Who is your inspiration or role model in the culinary world?
Deen: When it comes to Japanese cuisine, Nobu (Chef Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa). He’s one of my idols. When I was younger, he was working in Japan, and I went to one of his restaurants. He is certainly a character and someone I look up to.
Lonumedhu: What’s next for you? Any future plans you could share with us?
Deen: I’m right now working on different projects as I think I’ve come to the end of my journey as a consultant chef. Now, I want to go to the next step and open a deli mart where I can sell different products. Ingredients are always really important to me, and I want to source products that people can’t really get here.
At the same time, I want to do cooking in a show kitchen where people can come, chat, and immerse themselves. I want to show people what food is about, especially with different ingredients and techniques because you can’t really get that experience in Male’. So right now, my target is to do that within a year.
Lonumedhu: Thank you for your time, Chef Deen! Good luck, and we’re excited to see your plans come to fruition.