How This Chef Paved Her Own Untraditional Path To Restaurant

Born in Kentucky and grew up there in North Carolina. While working in the marketing business in Boston, I was exposed to food sporadic. I recall a specific day around 12 years ago when I replied to a job advertisement on Twitter. Jamie Bissonnette of Coppa restaurant was seeking web designers. I was exaggerating when I offered and demanded to include dinner in my compensation. I did not realize that the meals I was served were to be a beginning food education for me.

Before that, I could not order food or eat at renowned fine-dining establishments. My family came from Sri Lanka, and we had never seen butchered pork tails, smaller Italian plates, or the finest wines in the world. I began to study food by watching and tasting Bissonnette’s creations. He was awed by my abilities and recommended me to his colleagues. As I started creating websites for other luxury restaurant chains, I was taught about making menus and properties, setting up hiring policies, and designing collateral.

Being in Boston was costly. When my husband and I returned to Kentucky back in 2012 were convinced that cooking would help us connect with new individuals and form new friendships. Thus, I began to cook Sri Lankan food that I was raised on and procured local Southern products while also using the cooking methods I learned from my clients. A dinner out with friends became jam-packed brunches in my home, followed by a pop-up eatery. People who had never tried Sri Lankan cuisine loved Sri Lankan Bites‘ coconut sambal and curried deviled eggs.

“As I was a Sri Lankan kid raised in the 1980s in the Southeast my family and I always felt isolated. There were negative views of our nation and there was a lack of understanding of our cuisine. Through my food, I tried to find acceptance.”

However, I needed to gain experience in a chef’s kitchen or managing a restaurant. In addition, I did not have the money to risk my life. I thought about the cheapest investment I could make and spent $572 on equipment for a temporary dining establishment. The equipment was a canopy tent purchased from Walmart featuring three sides. It transformed into a pop-up restaurant that was 10 by 10 with a bar.

At first, I didn’t expand to farmers’ markets because it was $175 to rent a booth, and I needed to guarantee a profit. The word got out to central Kentucky and even further. Six months after, I was invited to be a guest chef, cooking pop-up meals inspired by Sri Lanka in professional kitchens. I was working with well-known, award-winning chefs across the nation. I was on the road to cooking at the top of the mountains, James Beard kitchens, Derby’s, and all that!

At first, earning my coworker’s admiration in the kitchen was challenging. They would tell me: “You haven’t gone to culinary school or worked in a professional kitchen, do you even belong here?” A chef threatened my dinner by taking my recipe book, and one resigned when he saw how my guests praised their food much more than he did. There were times when chefs would invite me to eat and then eat me out about some dishwashing error that their dishwasher made. Sometimes, I’d make an amusing game by introducing myself to them by calling myself “the dishwasher,” which was often more convincing than “chef.”

However, I was able to be tough to protect my food and the people. I continued to prove myself repeatedly since I needed a brick-and-mortar establishment to which I could return. In addition, I was representing my local community through my cooking. As a Sri Lankan kid raised in the 1980s in the Southeast, my family and I were always isolated. There were negative stereotypes about our country and little understanding of our food. Through my food choices, I aimed for acceptance. I did ten times as much as others and worked hard to make myself visible.

It’s not easy to create your road; however, when you try it, every day becomes an adventure and is more rewarding in the end.

“Growing in the midst of being a first-generation Sri Lankan in the South I’m not completely at home in Sri Lanka or in this country. My identity is often restricted to a single identity due to the way that society operates. I’d like to be known as a brown-cooking chef in the South as an Sri Lankan Southerner.”

One of the significant turning points in my professional life was when I taught cooking at the non-profit social venture Emma’s Torch. I worked with refugees who had survived human trafficking, war, and other challenging circumstances. They were starting from scratch and could not speak English; however, they had the common language of food. One of the women learning to make coconut roti with me fled to Ukraine in the last few months. People are constantly moving and altering their entire lives, yet those of us working in the food industry often can’t figure out how to be kind to one another!

I want to ensure we build communities where people are respected and heard. I have worked with chefs looking for reasons to enjoy cooking again after being burnt out and those who have experienced assault at work. I am also looking to help open doors for women of color to join the food and beverage industry. We should be paid fairly and not be pigeonholed. We shouldn’t be exploited or told. We must be thankful for the opportunities that we were given. We should extend fundamental human rights and respect each other for who we are, regardless of race and gender.

With Keiko Tanaka, I teach how food is available and its role in our society in a sociology of cooking program conducted at the University of Kentucky. However, this issue doesn’t just concern solely Sri Lanka. There are many similarities across different cultures as well. As a first-generation Sri Lankan in the South, I’m partially at home in the country or this country. However, my identity is often restricted to a single identity, as that’s how society operates. I want to be recognized as a brown-cooking chef in the South and a Sri Lankan Southerner. Can I integrate myself into the culture in this area?

I urge people in the cooking industry to let their minds, hearts, and kitchens make room for diversity. If they recognize commonalities, they’ll be able to build more diverse, better, and inclusive companies.


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