CHEF TALK: FIRE IT UP! with CHEF INAKA GAMAGE DOM
Growing up, I always thought of Sri Lanka as my second home. Every summer holiday was spent in Colombo at my grand-aunt’s home and every time I meet a Sri Lankan it’s with great nostalgia that I tell them about how much I love the country and its people. So meeting Inaka for the first time was the easiest bond for me to make – I liked him even before I had met him. His dream of being a pilot was dashed thanks to borderline colour blindness and a chance meeting with Mario, one of the men behind the Pizza Express chain turned his life around. We have to be thankful to his daughter Maya, who is the reason why Inaka moved to Dubai – to be one step closer to her. So once again, a Sri Lankan helps me link back to my childhood and reinforces everything that is great about the people – friendly, humble and very very cultured.
Name: Inaka Gamage dom
Restaurant: Dusty’s, DIFC
From: Colombo, Sri Lanka
Culinary School: Thames Valley University, Slough, England
Knife Hand: Right
Were you a good kid, did you eat your veggies as a child?
I think so. My mum always said that I never had any problems, but my sister had all the problems – I would eat everything and anything. There was nothing special made for us – it was the same food, the same spice level as for the rest of the people of the house.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
A pilot. That was the only passion I had and I really pursued it. But I found out just as I was about to enter that I am colour blind – not severe but enough for me to fail the test to become a commercial pilot. While studying to be a pilot I had to do a mathematics and computer course which were all related to me becoming a pilot. At this time, like most people do to support themselves, I started doing a job – as a kitchen porter in a restaurant – Da Mario on Gloucester Road (London). That is where my career started. My boss, Mario, kind of saw that when I finished my work, I would rush to the kitchen because I was so interested in what was happening, where the ingredients were coming from, so after 3-4 months, Mario decided to teach me how to cook. It was very unheard of for a Southern Italian to kind of teach a Sri Lankan – because Italians usually think only Italians can cook Italian food. But for some reason he started liking me and he told me that in my spare time he would teach me how to cook. So after about a year of doing both the jobs, the pizza chef left, so Mario said since I knew the job, I could step up and take the pizza chef’s place. After that, about 3 months later I was doing really well – probably the only Aisan to have stepped into that kitchen, but the pasta chef – who was pretty much the head chef as he looked after the pasta section, the grill section – leaves. We were only 4 people in the kitchen serving 200 covers so Maria asks me to step over to the Pasta section. By the end of the second year, I was basically running the kitchen and I worked there until 1996, just over five years.
By 1996 I had kind of done everything in that kitchen and it had become routine to me with nothing left for me to achieve. So I asked Mario if he would allow me to leave so I can learn about the rest of the culinary world. So we agreed that I would still be with Mario for a couple of days in the week and then I joined Conran Restaurants with Mezzo. At Mezzo, I took a massive pay cut, went back as a Commi Chef but I met a bunch of people there who I am in touch till this day – and one of them was Colin Clegg who was my senior souz chef. And we as a team, moved on to open 5 new restaurants under the Conran Group.
Your career started with Pizza Express in a way, tell us of Mr. Mario and Pizza Express’ connection.
Da Mario has an interesting story – Mario was one of the pioneers of Pizza Express in England. He was on the starting line-up of the Pizza Express in 1965. Peter Boizot who started Pizza Express in England, brought Mario and a few others from Naples and they opened the first Pizza Express in Wardour Street, Soho. Mario then took his own Pizza Express franchise – and that is till today only one of the two franchises still allowed to be operated under their own name.
What was your most memorable restaurant job?
All jobs I believe have something to teach. But if there was one person I would be most grateful to, to whom I could not pay enough respect to would be to Mario. He turned me from somebody who was nothing at all into a Chef. So the skill set he gave me is the same that I have improved and built on from.
But I think The Grove was probably my most memorable job.
In 2003 I moved into hotels. There is this newspaper called The Metro in London which I picked up on my way to work one morning and I saw this ad for a place called The Grove in Hertfordshire that was hiring Chefs. It’s a 300 acre country house, and looking at the photo I just had to apply although I did not hear from them for two months. And then I got the call. I met my head chef David Coutts who asked me if I was a friend of Colin Clegg. It turns out that my CV did not get filtered down to him thanks probably to the HR department! But since David was still looking for a sous chef, he asked for all the CVs that had applied for the job initially and that is how he came across my CV. Till today, I will say it was the best place I worked in.
It was here that I was moulded to manage kitchens because it was a big project. Experience-wise I gained a lot in terms of openings, handling major events, running a kitchen to certain standards in very busy circumstances. Even though I had worked in very busy kitchens before, The Grove was very different.
What did you have for lunch yesterday?
I think it was a bit of rice and chicken curry – it’s one of those one pot dishes.
Place you eat most often on days off?
To be honest, I don’t go out eating a lot yet predominantly because I am alone in the city and I don’t really have the time. But when people visit me then yes, I do go out and have a meal. But I couldn’t really tell you that I go back to a restaurant regularly. I sometimes go and grab meals on my way home from Carluccio’s at The Dubai Mall which is quite accessible. They give you a decent meal. I eat something simple like a Burrata and Bresaola and they do a nice pesto and tomato bread.
What’s your favourite ingredient/ condiment to work with?
I quite like to use Cardamom. It’s one of my favourites. In Dubai it’s very common because of the culture and the cooking styles but cardamoms are a big thing in Europe. The reason I think I like using it is because it’s something from my childhood. It’s one of the flavours and one of the ingredients that has stayed on my palette and in my head. My mum used to make a crème caramel and that had a bit of cardamom in it and we also had these fish cakes which had cardamom and curry leaves and I think I quite like this flavour of cardamom in my cooking.
I also quite like Tarragon. Many people don’t necessarily use this in abundance because parsley and basil are pretty much your go to herb. When you go with tomatoes, a lot of people say tomato and basil, but I think tarragon also goes very well with tomato.
If it’s the last weekend on earth – what city are you eating in and what are you eating?
Hopefully, in Colombo, that is if daughter, Maya is in the city eating my mom’s food. My mom, Srima is also a Chef who used to work in a care home for the aged. Although I don’t know what I would want to eat, I would definitely ask her to make her crème caramel. You can put any fancy dessert in front of me, even to this day I would probably always have a crème caramel. In Sri Lanka we have our own version of crème caramel called Watalappam made with jiggery.
If you left Dubai to cook somewhere else, where would you go?
I would love to do something in Sri Lanka because it’s almost like taking a bit of what I have learned from all the different places and take it back home. I would definitely try and use ingredients available in the country but try and do something similar like what I am doing at Dusty’s.
What has been your most embarrassing cooking moment?
Way back, it’s still been in my head ever since. It was at Mezzo’s and there was a menu change which is always a stressful time as you are always changing half the menu. I was only a demi-Chef at the time and I had only just been promoted to run a section. And to this day, funnily enough I can still remember, we had to leave the kitchen at 11.15am, just before lunch service started, to wash the floors because it was a big place. So with the mneu change, there was a Thai red curry with pineapple that we were to sever and I was making the base which had to be made with coconut cream – so you are almost taking the coconut cream to the levels of burning to get the nutty flavour and then you add your coconut milk by which time you have extracted as mjuch of the nutty flavour as possible and then you are making the Thai sauce. The stewards came and asked us to leave at 11.15 in order for them to do the floors so we can have the kitchen back at 11.30 – they only had 15 minutes to clean up this massive kitchen. So I left my coconut cream to the side as I had to leave and when I came back everything was burnt and the lunch starts in about 30 minutes.
Oh! And I have many a times over cooked an item and made it into soups.
Who is the person you would most like to cook for?
My mum – Srima. I would definitely cook her things I am strong in. I cannot cook things that she cooks because I know that she cooks those better than I ever will. So it will be typical Thai or maybe Italian dishes. She is a big fan of Tiramisu. Being almost like a pastry Chef because she make a lot of cakes, I think she has a very big sweet tooth.
What is the dish on the menu you eat most?
I quite like our new Lamb dish – it’s a grilled and glazed lamb chops and had got a Korean kind of a spice glaze. It’s quite hot. It the flavours and how they combine with lamb. A lot of people think that lamb is a pretty strong flavoured meat but I think these flavours that’s in the glaze kind of balances that flavour and it also comes with a nice pickled cucumber which is a traditional combination – something hot with something cool but also something slightly pickled.
How would you describe your food philosophy?
I hate to waste. I think every Chef is like this – we want to turn every little thing into revenue. I am lucky to work in this kind of environment – not in the fine dining or Michelin star restaurants where I believe there is a lot of wastage – because everything had to be perfect and very rarely can trimmings be made into revenue – but in a more casual setting where I have always had the opportunity to try and develop a revenue from anything and everything that I have got in my kitchen and minimize the wastage.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
I have had the opportunity to have some very simple dishes prepare by my mum or sister, Ishara who is also a very capable cook.
Also about a year and a half ago, I had this Michelin meal in Jersey’s Bohemia Bar & Restaurant by Steve Smith. I had the tasting menu and I loved the cleanliness of every dish. It’s how the flavours disappear from your mouth before the next dish is presented and that has to do something with the Chef. The Chef is not going to throw in just anything and so the sequence of the dishes, the quantities of each dish, the methods used to make each dish all play a part and I think only when you are a Chef you kind of appreciate all that goes through the process.
What’s your biggest guilty pleasure food?
Chocolate probably – any kind.
If you were an ingredient what would you be, and why?
Coconut – its versatile, it can be used in many many different ways in many cuisines. It can be used in sweet and savoury dishes. And I believe I am mouldable and pretty flexible.
What’s the best piece of advice you have been given?
I remember John Wood (at The Grove) telling me that I don’t have the luxury to waste anything just because you are working for somebody else. Like when it’s yours you would guard it and you need to do exactly the same when it’s not yours as well because these are little qualities that you have to develop.
If you weren’t a chef, or in the food business, what would you be?
Apart from flying, if I was able to, it might be a Photographer – I really enjoy taking photos but I am not trained.
Best culinary tool? Knife. It helps you get your ingredients to a place where you can process them.
A chef that inspires you? Even though he is not alive today, it would have to be my first boss – Mario. He gave me that confidence in the kitchen. He was not trained in school, he was a self-taught Chef who learned everything from his mother. He kind of inspired me because of all the things he achieved with so little training. He showed me that if you are doing something that you really like and you have a passion for what you are doing you can achieve anything.
Favourite cuisine? I think it’s Thai. I don’t thinks it’s far away from Sri Lankan cuisine. The cooking methods might be slightly different but they also have similarities.
One dish you can’t live without? Has to be eggs. Any which way.
Favourite food from your childhood/ Describe one of your first food memories. Definitely my mum’s crème caramel. It’s got this seal in my mind which just won’t go – what I mean is that the flavour is pretty much sealed in my mind, like it has made a mental note of it. This crème caramel was pretty much made every single day for me, so when I came home from school there will be a crème caramel waiting for me.
Last thing you cooked for yourself? A leafy salad with boiled eggs, bacon, tomatoes and green chillies and some other ingredients which I can’t quite remember which were in the fridge.
Describe your cooking style in 3 words. Fresh, quick and authentic.
THIS OR THAT
Food on a skewer or food in a tiny spoon?
Hot curry or haute cuisine?
Buffet or sit-down dinner?
Mints or gum?
Soup or salad?
Greek yogurt or labneh?
Butter or olive oil?
Chicken breast or chicken thigh?
Baked or fried?
Waffles or pancakes?
Lobster or steak?
And lastly, cake or pie?
Well, that’s that! Thank you. Thank you. Thank you!