Chef Pillai and his Michelin Star Journey

Suresh Pillai made malayalees proud when he cooked our traditional Meen Curry at the prestigious Master Chef stage. He has had quite a journey from Kollam to London and then all over the World. He has now come back to Kerala to work at the Raviz. In this interview Chef Pillai talks about his love for seafood, cooking and his experience at the Master Chef event. The talented chef has reached many heights and is working towards learning and teaching culinary tricks and tips.

How and when did you realize that food and cooking is your forte?

I never thought in my childhood that I will ever become a chef. After my 10th standard, during my Pre Degree days, I wanted a part time job. This prompted me to take up a job as a waiter at the restaurant Chef King in a small town in Kollam. Sooner I realized that I have an interest in cooking. I used to cook at home but never realized I could do it at a restaurant. In between my waitressing job whenever I could get some time I used to help the chef by chopping onions, meat and other items.

Seeing my interest chef recommended me to join him in the kitchen. During those times there was no formal education in this field like a Hotel Management Course to learn or acquire skills needed to work in this industry. After three years of working in the same restaurant and acquiring basic skills, I decided to pursue the interest further.

Hence I moved to Calicut to learn Malabar cuisine and worked in the city for four years. Later shifted to Bangalore a bigger city and worked at Coconut Groove as a chef for 6 years specializing in South Indian cuisine. After 8 years I got a chance to work with the Leela Group of Restaurant a five star hotel where I got insight into the working of an organized hotel industry, their methods and best practices. This changed my career and helped me to grow as a professional chef. From here I moved to Kumarakom as a Su Chef and later moved to London to work at the first Asian restaurant. I worked in London for 6 years before moving to Kollam again.

Can you tell us your experience at the MasterChef Event? What was the classic dish you made for the event.

It was a dream come true for me to participate at Masterchef and also to be the second Malayalee chef to get selected there. I always used to watch BBC Master Chef and as we all know it is the best Cookery show. I always had dreams of going there to present a dish from Kerala. I applied for Season 10 but it was difficult to get in as there are around 1000 applicants and they choose only 46 participants based on different criteria. Once you apply for the programme they do a reference check, a telephone interview followed by an audition where they check your screen presence and confidence. I was lucky to be among the 46 participants selected.

For my signature round I made fish curry with mackeral(aiyla) and green mangoes, cake of potato and curry leaves something similar to the masala dosa stuffing, kate fish with sea salt and pepper crush, and also a pachadi with seaweed and hung yogurt with coriander and olive oil garnish. The judges really liked the dish and suggested that the fish was a bit overcooked. It was a happy moment to participate and present a Kerala dish on an international show like this.

Chef Pillai’s Traditional Fish Curry

Hailing from a small town in Kollam to working in Michelin Star restaurant in London. How was this journey for you?

The journey was very fortunate and I am so blessed to have had the experience. After getting the basic training, I started focusing on particular cuisine, tried to learn new techniques from housewives, cook books and top class chefs to make up for the lack of formal training. It’s been 25 years now; I have gotten the chance to work with good restaurants including Michelin Star restaurants. I worked at Veeraswamy, UK’s oldest Indian Restaurant, Gymkhana at London and at Hoppers London. I have been to almost all the countries in the UK, the US, Middle East and Australia for pop ups with different chefs. I was also able to open restaurants in Germany and Portugal. I was invited as the Guest Chef for the Bahamas University to teach Indian and Kerala cuisine to their students. Overall it has been a very good journey.

Chef Pillai with Cricketer Virat Kohli

In between you were taking classes for chefs in Bahamas. How did you enjoy the phase and what are the food delights of the place?

Teaching at the Bahamas University has been one of my biggest achievements mainly because I was not able to attend and complete college myself. The island has a lot of fresh products like mangoes and drumsticks, which they don’t use in their cooking. Their cooking style is entirely different and I showed them how these fresh sea food and fresh products could be cooked together, for example Bahamas prawns along with drumsticks and green mangoes. They only knew about green cardamom and black pepper but I introduced cumin, fenugreek seeds and demonstrated the difference between the spices and how to use them in different curries. Some of the instructor chefs made their dishes with curry leaves after I introduced it and they really enjoyed the taste. I was so happy to show our local food in a different country.

What was the inspiration behind coming to Kerala and taking up the job with Raviz.

Coming back to Raviz, Kollam was very special to me especially after working in UK for 14 years. I love my local produce, the fishes from the Lake Ashtamudi. Raviz is situated near the lake and for a chef that cooks seafood, it is a paradise. I have learnt so much from my experience from different parts of the world in terms of knowledge, ideas and hygiene standards. Whatever I have learnt I wanted to bring it to my people. This is my inspiration to come back to Raviz as an Executive Chef.

What are the exciting food traps you have set for you clients at Raviz?

At Raviz we have a guests from all over the country and the world. We have a custom made menu for each guest; we love to serve local seafood or local vegetable whenever possible. We have a regular menu at our A La Carte restaurant, plus every guest has the option to choose the fish type which is sourced from local fishermen. We have curated a seven course tasting menu for sea food lovers called, ‘Taste of Ashtamudi’. We have different menus which includes almost everything the guests ask for, from international, continental to Kerala cuisine. We also conduct theme dinners every month like Seafood night, Srilankan night, Malabar food festival etc to attract local guests.

The campaign “Cook for Kerala” to raise funds during the floods was a success and widely appreciated. How did you manage to organize such a social drive?

During the recent floods Kollam district was the least affected thanks to its sea and rivers. I was contemplating on how to help people affected by this and was inspired by the ‘Cook for Syria’ campaign that was conducted in many restaurants in London to raise funds for war torn children in Syria. So I came up with ‘Cook for Kerala’ and posted it on Facebook appealing to fellow chefs. It became viral and many chefs around the world supported me. Many restaurants also participated in this drive and made it a success.

Tell us a but about your family and how are they a part of your passion?

I have two kids, Aiswarya (12) and Sreehari (10) and my wife Remya Suresh. My father, mother, sister and brother live very close to us. It is a joint family. Another reason to come back to India was for my children to get them acquainted with India and its culture. They were living in the UK, and I realized that they need to know the culture and life of India. I wanted them to experience both cultures so that they can chose what they think is best for them.

Suresh Pillai and His Family

Apart from cooking and food what are your other interests?

I really like to play chess. I have played at National level once and also at the State level. I was a district under-18 champion for chess, so I really love to play and the game has helped me plan my career as well. I also like to listen to music and read whenever possible. I like watching different chefs at work, different cuisines, and different kinds of food. I also enjoy travelling to explore new ingredients and to incorporate it in our cuisine.

I recently did a charity program in my village to help a boy who met with an accident. To meet the expense for his treatment we conducted a huge Biriyani Festival for around 3000 people. We collected around 6 lakhs in a day for his treatment. It proved that food can connect people, it can help people, and this gave me great satisfaction. Whenever I have the time and opportunity to help with food, I am always happy to help.

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