Catching up with Dharshan Munidasa
The brainchild behind the formulation of success recipes for some of Sri Lanka’s best restaurants such as Nihonbashi, Ministry Of Crab and Kaema Sutra, Dharshan Munidasa is idolized for his gastronomic success – something he describes as going hand in hand with entrepreneurial skills.
Speaking to The Entrepreneur, Chef Dharshan shed some light on new developments such as the Colombo City Restaurant Collective and entering new markets in the Maldives.
What led to the establishment of your first restaurant?
I’d say that it happened by accident. During my studies in the US, my father passed away just six months before I was set to graduate. When I came back to Sri Lanka to settle his matters, my mother told me about opening a restaurant that my father had been planning. As time went by, the restaurant was established but I was no longer happy with the quality of the food. To learn more, I began walking the alleyways of Tsukiji fish market during my visits to Japan and collected a wealth of knowledge from Japanese fish mongers and butchers. Eating a lot and talking to those who deal with these products also helped. By this time, Nihonbashi had become quite a unique dining establishment.
In terms of Ministry Of Crab and Kaema Sutra, what resulted in their formation?
The idea for Ministry Of Crab came about when I was filming an episode for my TV show – Culinary Journeys with Dharshan. As this episode was dedicated entirely to crab, a friend of mine asked me why I haven’t started a crab restaurant. The idea took off from there. What we did was purely organic in terms of ideas; no consultant or PR agency was involved. Crabs are among Sri Lanka’s most expensive ingredients, and as the civil war had just ended, the concept really fit the time and occasion. In terms of Kaema Sutra, I had always wanted a Sri Lankan restaurant of my own. The idea behind it is to celebrate all the ingredients that Sri Lanka has to offer. There is a stereotype that Sri Lankan cuisine is cheap, but it is only cheap if low quality ingredients are used. For instance, a cutlet made using canned fish versus fresh tuna are worlds apart in terms of taste and cost.
Tell us more about the Colombo City Restaurant Collective and how it benefits restaurateurs like yourself?
Before the formation of the Colombo City Restaurant Collective, there was no apex body which represented Colombo’s restaurateurs. Considering that as a collective, we employ more than a thousand people and contribute billions of rupees to the economy, the time was right for the formation of the CCRC. Our priority has been in engagement with the local authorities. This came about after the many raids that took place in restaurants. As all of us strive to better our product, our engagement with the authorities ensure that there is enough communication between the two entities. Our other purpose is to be a source of knowledge for the industry, where colleagues within our collective can share information, dole out advice and grow together as a whole.
You’ve recently expanded your presence into the Maldives, please elaborate
I have been cooking in the Maldives since 2003, in fact I’ve even taken my staff from Nihonbashi to prepare 18 course degustation menus. These experiences fostered a strong interest to open a restaurant there. While I did explore these ideas, Maldives is a challenging market to execute such a venture. However, with the launch of CROSSROADS Maldives – an extraordinary multi-island, fully integrated leisure destination, we had the chance to rent out a space and establish a restaurant. We initially signed up Ministry Of Crab and an offshoot of Nihonbashi soon followed. I just opened my third restaurant, a steak house using ovens that cook at a temperature of 750 Celsius. These projects are still in their infancy but when they do catch up, I’m sure they will create waves in the Maldives.
What is an enjoyable meal to you?
An enjoyable meal is a great dish that makes you want more of it, in a setting that is remarkable, making the entire dining experience memorable. All in all, it’s a dish which makes that memory last and while there’s no set formula to describe how a dish is best made, to create one that everyone remembers is the ultimate experience.
What is your secret to pairing gastronomy and entrepreneurship?
Always being on top of the game. Becoming a success in this industry is like playing a game of chess. There are so many variables, from changing weather patterns resulting in a poor catch, to the health and safety factors associated with dealing with live crabs. You must be on top of every possible move as many things can go wrong.
Your story is one that has inspired many aspiring chefs and restaurateurs, what do you have to say to them?
Try to have experience in a restaurant. The hotel industry in Sri Lanka mainly focuses on buffets. Curating a la carte menus and using good ingredients are not seen as a priority (find one that does). This results in people going around the same circuit, switching between jobs while preparing for the same menus. Additionally, it is important to start paying attention to local ingredients. I would urge all those interested to come and work with us, what you will experience with us is something very different, you will be able to grow in terms of skills while gaining a unique insight to food.