Chef Eraj Jayawickreme knew that he wanted to take the culinary path in life from an early age. With the support of his parents, he was able to start pursuing his dreams at the age of 15 when he did a co-op at the King Edward Hotel under Chef John Higgins. That co-up became an apprenticeship. After he finished his training at the King Edward, he took an accelerated culinary program at George Brown College. Jayawickreme worked in a variety of restaurants under well-known Canadian chefs like Michael Potters after graduation.
Canadian Chef Profiles: Eraj Jayawickreme, VG Restaurant & Lounge, Winnipeg MB
Chef Eraj Jayawickreme combines a flair for creative, innovative food with locally sourced ingredients at VG Restaurant & Lounge in the Fairmont Winnipeg Hotel.
Chef Eraj Jayawickreme
Jayawickreme opened his own restaurant at the age of 21 but the partnership dissolved, so he started working as an executive chef to gain knowledge and skill. He says, “I wanted to work in different demographics at different places in the city to see what the eating patterns are and what the average spend would be.”
Jayawickreme focused on working in hotel kitchens after his stints in various restaurants. He was the executive sous chef at Sutton Place Hotel and then worked at the Hilton under Chef Kevin Prendergast. Jayawickreme considers Prendergast to be a mentor of his who helped him to learn about the finer side of management. After that, he had the opportunity to start cooking at the Fairmont Winnipeg, so he seized the chance for a new opportunity.
One of Jayawickreme’s goals as a chef is to elevate the food at the hotel. He explains, “I’m trying to provide the outlets and even room service with dishes that are more in line with what an independent restaurant would serve as opposed to standard hotel food.”
Jayawickreme has made the decision to work with local Manitoba farmers and artisans in sourcing most of the ingredients that he uses at the restaurant. For example, the chef says, “Last year, I made calls to some farmers in the winter and went through heritage seed catalogs with them. We went chose the seeds that we wanted to grow and they planted them in the spring. We purchased everything that came up exclusively for the hotel. We’ve pickled, cured, salted, dried and fermented all of the produce that we had and we’re going to use it through the coming winter season.”
Crispy frog legs w/ kunafa phyllo, watercress coulis, faro risotto, crispy shallot, foie gras powder.
Having realistic goals about what he can do is part of being a hotel chef. The banquet market won’t support the locally sourced approach as readily but Jayawickreme adds, “For the restaurant and room service I stay as Manitoba centred as I can. We’re at the ninety percent mark for that.”
Molecular gastronomy has a place in Jayawickreme’s food, but he only uses some techniques from that toolbox when he wants to elevate or highlight elements within his dishes rather than creating a whole dish using those techniques.
When creating a new menu Jayawickreme weighs many different factors. Firstly, he assesses the eating patterns and trends of his guests to see what’s selling and what isn’t. His next step is to look at seasonality and what products he’s got available. After that, he considers what cooking techniques he'd like to use and how he’d like to plate each dish. He says, “My kitchen isn’t very autocratic. I make a dish and everyone tastes it, right down to the dish washer. Everyone’s suggestions come into play because it’s a team effort.”
Communication is key to the relationships that Jayawickreme is developing with local producers. He tries to have lunch with each of them once per month to get an update on what’s happening with them and what he can anticipate down the road. He’s also forging closer ties to the producers with projects like having a pork producer raise hogs just for the hotel. His team will feed them and look after them before they’re slaughtered for use in the restaurant.
Lamb rack, smoked aubergine pureé, roasted radish, crispy garbanzo beans, oven dried feta, wilted kale, black olive jus.
Jayawickreme’s main focus as an executive chef is on developing his team. He wants to take his diverse team of cooks and motivate them to excel. He explains, “I want to find different and interesting ways of engaging people. I want to keep them excited about cooking and about everything that goes on.”
One way that Jayawickreme keeps his cooks engaged is by involving them directly in menu writing. He has a weekly tasting menu that is fully developed by his sous chefs. Jayawickreme realizes that it helps them to learn about food costs, portion control and how to take those factors into account. He adds, “I’ve told them that I don’t want them to show me any of the plating until the day they roll it out. If there’s anything I need to interject, I tell them at that point but I don’t physically take over and change the menu for them. It’s really helped to get them excited and planning ahead.”
The standards that Jayawickreme sets for his kitchen team are high. He wants his team members to behave and carry themselves as though they were already promoted to the next step in the hierarchy. The chef points out, “I’m all about developing all my cooks and chefs because my legacy will be creating an army of professionals down the line. Everyone’s noticing the shortage of quality cooks so developing better cooks within your ranks is crucial. “
Motivation comes from reaching his goals and continually learning for Jayawickreme. He says,”Food excites me to this day whether I’m in the restaurant or at home making something for my wife and family. One thing you notice with some chefs is that you can see in the way they plate and how it tastes when they’ve stopped doing research and learning. I spend about four hours a week seeing what’s going on in the world of food.”
Chocolate cake, rice crispy crunch, aerated chocolate, dulce de leche cream, banana leather, bruleéd bananas
This profile is based on an interview with Eraj Jayawickreme conducted via telephone and recorded on Oct. 27, 2015.