Growing up in a family where every living, breathing moment revolved around food that was prepared with love and care meant that a passion for food was deep in my DNA. But I had no idea it was there until I was forced into the kitchen at age 16.
Due to increasing violence and political unrest, my parents immigrated from Colombo, Sri Lanka, to Australia in 1974. I was 11 years old and the move to Doonside, western Sydney, where my brother and I were the only "dark kids" in the school, was a huge shock and I didn’t settle in well. By Year 10, the school and I wanted the same thing: me out of there. Dad talked them into letting me complete my School Certificate, but there was a catch: after being banned from woodwork and metalwork, I had to choose between needlework or home economics. I’d rather stick pins in my eyes than do needlework, so I joined the ladies baking scones and, much to everyone’s amazement, I topped the class.
To my surprise, I really enjoyed cooking, but it was Dad who coaxed me further down that path. While out driving with him one afternoon, he stopped outside a seafood restaurant, Crabapple, in Mortdale and said, "You like this cooking thing. Go in and ask for a job." They took me on. It was rough and ready, which suited me. I broke my nose while attempting to break a block of frozen scallops with my head – that was one of the competitions we had in the kitchen. Within a few months, I was cooking main courses and it just felt so natural.
Two years later, in 1981, after answering a two-line ad in the paper, I finished my apprenticeship under Greg Doyle at Rogues, one of the best restaurants in Sydney at the time. That was the first time I saw a fresh scallop! Greg was in with all the young-gun chefs, including Tony Bilson and Peter Doyle, and whenever any of them needed an extra pair of hands, I jumped at the chance. I was hungry to learn from them and my learning curve during that time was very steep.
From 1982, I spent two years in the UK where I worked in Michelin-starred restaurants, Rue St Jacques and The Waterside Inn. Upon returning to Sydney, there was all this fuss about a chef named Neil Perry. I became sous chef at his Bondi restaurant, Blue Water Grill. What blew me away about Neil was that he was dishing out Asian flavours in the contemporary dining arena. I loved putting an ethnic twist on food. Neil opened my eyes and helped me to realise that deep inside me was a half-Sri Lankan kid [Peter’s mother is Austrian] who yearned to share the flavours of my heritage.
Over the next 15 years, I worked in many kitchens, with greats like Bilson, building my profile and chasing a style of my own. When my wife and I began a family, I thought it was time to get serious, so I took an executive chef role at Hayman Island Resort in Queensland. I had nine kitchens and up to 120 chefs in peak times. I was up there when I heard about Flying Fish and it sparked my interest because of my love of seafood.
Con Dedes was building it and looking for a head chef. I wanted a piece of the action and Con agreed to me acquiring part of Flying Fish, but only if I maintained a top-notch restaurant for five years. We opened the doors in 2003. With so many restaurants offering the same concept – fresh seafood, water views and fine dining – I needed to find the hook that would be our point of difference. Dad was in my ear telling me to open 'a rice and curry joint", so I decided to introduce Sri Lankan flavours to the seafood menu. It started with a snapper curry with all the condiments, served in a contemporary way, and the concept evolved from there. The Sri Lankan flavours are now something that people search for on our menu.
Flying Fish at Sheraton Denarau in Fiji followed and, having just opened Flying Fish and Chips in Sydney’s Future Star complex [formerly Star City], I’m hoping my next project will be Flying Fish Colombo, where the Sri Lankan flavours will really shine.
At home, I cook curry three times a week and I’m always experimenting with the flavours that connect me to my heritage. There are some memories that only come back to you when you put a flavour in your mouth, and most of those are wonderful memories from my time as a kid in Sri Lanka.
Location Flying Fish Restaurant & Bar, Jones Bay Wharf, 19-21 Pirrama Rd, Pyrmont NSW (02) 9518 6677, flyingfish.com.au.
Photography Alan Benson.
As seen in Feast magazine, November 2011, Issue 3. For more recipes and articles, pick up a copy of this month's Feast magazine or check out our great subscriptions offers here.