Chef's Pass - inploi meets Lahiru Jayasekara, Head Chef at Pétrus inploi Team | 20.12.2016
Crowned National Chef of the Year 2016, Lahiru Jayasekara, the softly spoken Michelin-starred chef has gained a reputation in the upper echelons of London’s culinary scene, working his way to the top at some of the country’s top restaurants, including Marcus Wareing’s ‘The Berkeley’, Raymond Blanc’s ‘Le Manoir’ and most recently, Gordon Ramsey’s restaurant, ‘Pétrus’.
Growing up in Sri Lanka, Lahiru ('Larry') was first inspired to cook by his father, who was a chef at a local five-star hotel. Keen to work in the same industry, Larry started working in kitchens as a pot-wash. At the age of 18, he and his wife moved to England, but finding a job proved challenging without an in-country reference. Larry therefore enrolled at Southend College for two years to gain his NVQ Level 2 & 3. During this time, he also worked part-time, one day a week in the kitchen at a local hotel. It is now 14 years since Larry aspired to move to London, “I saw all the fantastic ingredients and how people work with food - and how fast they work, how clean they work, how efficiently”. The pace and vibrancy of London’s food scene fascinated him, and once he moved to the city, he never looked back.
However, Larry is the first to discuss how challenging the cheffing world is in the city commenting, “It’s not easy - If you want to cook at this level, you sacrifice a lot of things. So it’s really important that you have the commitment, and respect your ingredients. Otherwise there’s no point in cooking”. One particular chef he aspires to is two Michelin-star chef, Raymond Blanc. Similar to Lahiru, it was Raymond Blanc’s mother who inspired him to cook - being one of the greatest influences on his career and culinary style.
Lahiru’s interest in culinary competitions began in 2004, when he entered Young Chef of the Year - winning it for the first time three years later. “You want to challenge yourself in front of other people to see what you’re good at”. He was quietly confident, but also uncertain of whether his skills were up to scratch. Lahiru then went on to represent the The Craft Guild of Chefs (organisers of the National Chef of the Year competition) at an international level in 2008, winning 3rd place in the New Zealand-UK competition and Culinary Olympics in Germany respectively. “I never thought of it. 93 countries - it was just an honour to be part of it.” In spite of his talents, Lahiru’s modesty shines through. When speaking to him about competitions, his face becomes animated with a mixture of competitive spirit, admiration for his competitors (and the judges), and excitement for challenging himself to cook something that may win first prize, but is also unique to his simple style.
However, The Craft Guild of Chef’s National Chef of the Year Awards (NCOTY) was the jewel in the culinary crown. As the most prestigious competition in the country, Lahiru had always wanted to enter. “Every year I’d look back and think, “I want to do it”. But like many chefs, he shied away from entering, worried that he wasn’t ready. Lahiru didn’t just want to enter, he wanted to compete with the chance of winning. It was three years ago now that he plucked up the courage to put himself forward. He made it into the top ten, but not to the top three. Lahiru was disappointed, but determined to try again. “The good thing about the competition is that they give you feedback. You have got to listen to the judges. They’re there for a reason”. However, for the second time in a row, Larry missed a spot in the top three. “I thought, “I”ll try one more year, that’s it”. The demands of the competition on the entrants’ time, as well as keeping up their full-time jobs is challenging. Unlike most of the other competitors, Lahiru had no formal mentorship when entering NCOTY. “I just cooked the dishes I believed in. The flavours - I knew that they worked”.
Lahiru’s confidence in his knowledge of flavour combinations is clearly one of his greatest strengths. He commented, “Everyone has different ways of looking at the same ingredient”. But that does not mean that all will be plain-sailing on the day of the competition - a trait that was evident from Lahiru’s previous experiences at NCOTY. With 34 Michelin stars shared amongst the panel, the entrants are judged not only on their final plate of food, but also their cooking technique and preparation - nothing will be missed. “Don’t even look to short-cut, don’t try to hide things”. Ultimately, the entrants must cook food that they believe in and dishes that fit the brief, as they are put under immense time pressure, required to cook 3 courses in just 2 hours.
In the NCOTY 2016 competition, Lahiru wondered if luck wasn’t on his side. “In the first 15 minutes, I burnt everything, and I was stressed out”. But somehow, he regained his composure and ended up finishing with 20 minutes spare. With everyone else’s dishes on display, it’s easy to wonder if you have done enough to be in the top three, let alone win. Similar to the assessment of whether a restaurant is awarded a Michelin star, the competition is judged on consistency. “It’s all about what you put on the plate. Three consecutive, consistent plates, not one”. As the top three were announced, Larry closed his eyes, and finally after three years of competing, his name was announced as champion: “It was the best feeling ever”.
For past winners of both National Chef of the Year and Young National Chef of the Year (YNCOTY), the competition has opened up an array of opportunities, from job opportunities internationally, through to book signings and increased publicity. For Lahiru, his aspirations have largely remained the same since winning NCOTY - although the next big challenge is to take Pétrus from one Michelin star to two. “All I want to do is cook simple food. The tastiest food, with the best ingredients that I can get hold of. And to have a stable team, and a happy team. They come up with good ideas and when you see it - Wow. You can see how they’ve grown and the menu grows as well. And anything is possible.”
Despite the recent news about chef shortages and skill deficits in hospitality, Lahiru has a positive attitude towards the future of the industry. “It’s all about how you treat them. If you train your guys, they will become skilled”. Working in hospitality takes long hours and time commitment to training, particularly from senior management. However, this investment Lahiru argues is invaluable to help build a strong and happy team; providing the consistency restaurants like Pétrus need to maintain their Michelin star. “Everybody wants to learn. So the more they learn, the longer they stay with you. If they’re not learning every single second, no one’s going to work for you”. As far as Lahiru is concerned, everyone on the team at Pétrus is important, with 50% of the job being completed in the kitchen, and the other 50% by the front of house staff. There has to be a harmony between the two - a shared philosophy that runs from the kitchen to the table.
When asked what his favourite memories of his career were thus far, Lahiru responded, “Winning National Chef of the Year, and retaining the Michelin star this year. Those are the two highlights of my career really. Couldn’t ask for any more”. However, with one Michelin star under his belt, Lahiru is determined to be awarded a second at Pétrus. There’s still more to play for at 1 Kennerton Street.
More of our Chef’s Pass series here: Chef's Pass - inploi meets Tom George, Tim Healey and Lawrence Hartley
Photo credit: Gordon Ramsey Restaurants
About the author: Victoria Bushnell is Head of Marketing/PR at inploi.