CONFESSIONS OF A GLOBAL GYPSY
By Dr. Chandana (Chandi) Jayawardena DPhil
President – Chandi J. Associates Inc. Consulting, Canada
Founder & Administrator – Global Hospitality Forum
Working for Free
During my work at the Dorchester in Banqueting and Food & Beverage controls departments for over a year, I had never spoken with the celebrity chef of this iconic hotel in England – Anton Mosimann. He left his native Switzerland, when he had been appointed Maître Chef de Cuisines at the Dorchester Hotel in 1975 at the age of 29. Under Anton Mosimann’s leadership, the Dorchester kitchens reached unprecedented levels of gastronomic heights and reputation. Also, the Dorchester’s restaurant achieved a two-star rating in the prestigious Michelin Guide (the first hotel restaurant outside France to do so).
Anton Mosimann was simply a legend and his culinary art had been influenced by his experiences growing up on the family farm and in the restaurants operated by his parents in Switzerland. His diverse gastronomic experiences gained while working in Italy, Canada and Japan, prior to moving to England, also influenced his style. He was fond of Japanese styles of food garnishing. He had commenced publishing books sharing his unique culinary concepts. Mosiman was an inspiration to a generation of young chefs from around the world.
I had read a lot about him and was an admirer of this great chef. Towards the end of my work period at the Dorchester as a Banquet Waiter, I decided to talk with Mosimann for the first time. I gathered up my courage and went to his office to introduce myself. He said, “I have seen you in the banquets for some time. I also know that you came in first in the banquet service training program and were chosen to serve the Queen.”
I told Mosimann, “Before I leave the Dorchester in a few months’ time, I would love to work in your kitchens.” On his advice I met the Personnel Manager of the hotel, who informed me that there was a long line of culinary arts students waiting to get an opportunity to work under Mosimann. She then said, “If you include your name on the list now, you may get an opportunity to work under the chef in about two years’ time!
My career plan then was to work as a Food & Beverage Director of a large hotel and then progress to become the General Manager of a five-star, internationally branded hotel. Having worked as the Executive Chef of two hotels when I was in my early twenties, I was not going to work as an Executive Chef again. However, my gut feeling was that working two months with Mosimann would be a very useful experience for me.
That night, based on what I had read about him and what I had observed during my one year at the Dorchester, I wrote an article about Mosimann titled ‘Cuisine à la Mosimann’. That was the first article I ever wrote. The article was published a few years later in the trade magazine of the Chef’s Guild of Sri Lanka.
I went to see Mosimann again. When I showed my article to him, he said, “You are a good writer. You should become a biographer.” When I repeated my request to work in his kitchens, he was rather annoyed. “Sorry, I can’t help you now. You have to join the line and wait for your turn”, he attempted to conclude our discussion. “Mr. Mosimann, I really cannot wait for two years, as my student visa in the United Kingdom will expire in a few months. Please give me an opportunity to learn under you. I will work for free” I told him. “Free! Why?” when he asked, and offered me a chair in his office, I realized that it was the right time for me to close the sale. Timing is important to convince important people to say “Yes!”
The next day, I commenced working under Anton Mosimann as his Special Apprentice, but without any pay. A few of my close friends felt that I was out of my mind to work for free. My wife wondered how we would be able to pay our rent in London, when I was working for free. I told her, “I am sure that the time I will spend in working free for the most popular chef in England, would be an investment for our future.”
Quickly I managed to convince Mosimann that our work relationship would be mutually beneficial. He became fond of my hard work and dedication. He was always certain of the outcome of his decisions. Mosimann created a special program for me. I spent a week in each of the six specialized kitchens of the Dorchester. I also learnt many useful things other than cooking from Mosimann during that short period of time. Every morning, I spent two hours with Mosimann. First, I walked in the six kitchens with him, when he shook hands and greeted all 100 persons in his brigade. After that I attended a daily breakfast meeting with his team of Sous Chefs, when he announced special menus and gave directions to his deputies.
I then went to my specialized kitchen of the week. On some days, he gave me interesting, special assignments. Mosimann was a great motivator, delegator, food artist, writer, showman and public relations expert. He was shrewd but was also kind, gentle and friendly. He was unlike most of the other Continental European Executive Chefs leading five-star hotel kitchens and top restaurants in England at that time.Mosimann read people well.
One morning during our rounds, he noticed that a commis cook looked upset and asked, “What’s wrong, John?”. On hearing that John’s wife had cheated on him with his best friend, Mosimann offered to give two weeks full-paid leave to John. When John said that he had used all of his leave and he didn’t have any more paid leave, Mosimann called the Personnel Manager immediately, and approved two weeks special paid leave for John.
John nearly worshipped Mosimann and left quickly. I was most impressed with the Chef’s kindness. I asked Mosimann the reasons for his kind gesture. “John was very emotional and sad. I did not want him in my Kitchens until he solved his personal issues. I am very keen that all of the members of my brigade are in happy moods when they work here. Otherwise, they may make a mistake, which will affect our standards of quality, as well as my reputation!” Mosimann explained.
One morning, Mosimann asked me to coordinate photographs for his new book and help with the arrangements for a media briefing. That day I learnt that food photography was a different ball game! Nice looking, glossy dishes that were photographed well were not edible! When the media briefing commenced with around 20 top British journalists, one English lady asked a trick question, “Chef Mosimann, what is your frank opinion about English food?” Unlike now, in the early 1980s, English food did not have a good international reputation compared to the Continental European food. “English food is the best in the world!” Mosimann stood and announced in his Swiss German accent in the midst of cheers and flashing camara lights.
When Mosimann was asked to justify his statement about English food, he said that, “English food is natural. You do not drown the natural flavours with too much seasoning, wine and long cooking times, like what we often do on the continent. My next book is titled ‘Cuisine Naturelle’. Its main characteristic is that it does not include such ingredients as butter, cream and alcohol. The focus is concentrated even more on the flavour of the individual, fresh ingredients. The dishes are only lightly cooked. In nouvelle cuisine and also cuisine naturelle, the main emphasis is put on the presentation of the dishes.” His second book, Cuisine Naturelle, published in 1985, was an international best-seller.
“Chandi, tomorrow, don’t come to the kitchen in the morning. Meet me at the Billingsgate Fish Market at 5:00 am”, Mosimann directed me. Just after I arrived at this famous fish market, Mosimann, as well as a few journalists and photographers appeared, dressed appropriately for a cool autumn morning. The whole visit was cleverly choreographed.
Chef Mosimann personally buying fresh fish for his ‘Menu Surprise’ concept received much publicity in the British media. Many diners paid high prices to book tables without any idea of the items on that menu. Mosimann decided on the menu based on the fresh ingredients available in the markets on the same day. Every dish was a surprise to the diners, until white-glowed waiters gently lifted the silver dish covers. This concept was not an ideal adventure to a vegetarian!
Having heard that Mosimann had never tasted a Sri Lankan meal, I offered to cook an 11-item Sri Lankan buffet menu for Mosimann and his team of senior chefs, on my last day at the Dorchester kitchens. The General Manager and the Food & Beverage Manager also attended the special lunch in the kitchen. They loved the Sri Lankan meal that I had prepared. They all autographed a copy of Mosimann’s first book which he presented to me. Mosimann also gave me a great reference letter.
Breaking the Glass Ceiling
I gained valuable experience in three departments within the Dorchester between 1983 and 1985. When I went to invite a fellow Ceylon Hotel School (CHS) graduate, Wilfred Weragoda (who was the Food & Beverage Controller of the Dorchester) to the Sri Lankan buffet that I had prepared, Wilfred was pleasantly surprised.
“Chandana, until you came to the Dorchester no one has ever cooked a Sri Lankan meal before today, in that great kitchen. You are also the first Sri Lankan to work in that kitchen. You have broken the glass ceiling!” Wilfred said with a proud smile. Wilfred, six years my senior at CHS, was the first ever Sri Lankan to hold a management position at the Dorchester. “Wilfred, actually you were the one who broke the glass ceiling and you were the person who arranged for me to get into the Dorchester” I thanked Wilfred for his genuine support.
In 1984, apart from doing good work in their motherland, none of the Sri Lankan Chefs were internationally known for culinary arts. Thirty-eight years later, the situation has changed dramatically for chefs of Sri Lankan origin. Today, many Sri Lankans have made names as great culinary masters, celebrity chefs and award-winning executive chefs, pastry chefs and culinary artists. Today, around the world they excel in Australia, Canada, Japan, the Middle East, the United Kingdom, etc.
In 1995, a young Sri Lankan chef left Hotel Taj Samudra in Colombo, to move to England. He managed to join the Dorchester at the lowest level, as a commis in the kitchen. Fifteen years later he re-joined the Dorchester. Sri Lankan, Mario Perera fulfilled his childhood dream by taking on the highly coveted role of the Dorchester’s Executive Chef in 2020.
Return on the Investment
Most of what I learnt from Mosimann in 1984 was useful in my career, particularly when I worked as a Food & Beverage Director in five-star hotels. The real return on the investment of that unpaid apprenticeship happened 10 years later, in London.
In 1994, I was facing the final interview to join Trust House Forte Hotels (THF) as an internationally mobile General Manager. The Vice President who did the final interview said at the end of the interview, “Mr. Jayawardena, you are well qualified, well experienced and very much focused on employee and customer satisfaction. However, I am looking for a person who is more focused on bottom-line profits.”
From that comment, I realized that I would not get hired. THF had spent some money flying me from Colombo to London especially for my interviews, and providing me with complimentary full-board accommodation at the Cumberland Hotel for three days. I was happy to visit my favourite city in the world, although I
felt that was not getting my dream job. I said, “Mr. Giannuzzi, I fully agree with your analysis. Yes, I am more focused on employee and customer satisfaction, but I have also done well in optimizing profits in the previous five hotels that I have managed. I have some testimonials from my previous employers indicating that. Would you like to see those?”
He went through my folder of testimonials quickly without much interest. Mr. Giannuzzi stopped flipping pages when he saw the reference letter given to me by Mosimann. He read it twice and asked me, “How did you get a chance to work as a Special Apprentice under such a great professional?” I told him my story. Mr. Giannuzzi was impressed with my determination, and nodded his head with a smile. I was immediately hired as the General Manager of two THF hotels in South America. Sometimes, one has to follow the gut feeling, irrespective of advice given by well-wishers.
That experience in 1984 at the best British hotel with Chef Anton Mosimann became very useful to me once again in 2012, when I did an additional job for my then Employer – George Brown College. As the Academic Chair of the largest Chef School in Canada, I led a team of 24 Chef Professors and 1,600 Culinary Arts students. My team was impressed that I was trained by one of the greatest Chefs of our time. Thank you, Chef Anton Mosimann!