Fine-dining the Kerala Way: Chef Jomon Kuriakose

The world is in a hustle, and you run along with it, just to avoid being left out. Was it this complicated years ago, when you, as a school-going student used to sit with your friends, on a summer evening, just wishing if you could for once, grow up and take charge of things. We yearned for that day when we could fly through the stars in the spacesuit and could order about people to follow. But the child in us started fading a bit and we lowered our eyes from the stars to the ground. How many of those sparkling eyes went after that passion which drove us?

Here is a chef whose love for food and ramblings as a teenager got him into cooking, and how his career took a different trajectory when the teacher to whom his mother complained, asked him to take up his passion professionally. The boy who worked in a chicken farm for his pocket money as a kid chose to be the captain of his ship and now is presenting the authentic flavors of Kerala to an international audience in the imperial city of London.

In conversation with Jomon Kuriakose, about his journey from a Malayalam medium school to being featured in a BBC show, a tale that proves that life takes you to your desired destination if you take control of it.

When did you realize that you had a flair for cooking? When did you take up this passion seriously?

I liked to cook by myself. While I was in high school, we had a chicken farm near our house and I used to work there for pocket money. I used to buy chicken while my mother was away and cook it by myself and pretend that nothing happened. My mother was concerned about my love for food and she took me to my teacher hoping for counseling to change my mind but my teacher advised me to take up Hotel Management as a career and I had made up my mind to take it up seriously and pursue this passion.

What were the difficulties you faced when you decided to take it up as a career?

It was extremely difficult for me to convince my father to let me choose the career. The stereotype of this unconventional career concerned my dad and he was reluctant to let me choose it and it took a lot of talks, even by my teacher who advised me, to convince my father to green flag this path of my career.

English was another trouble while I joined college, and when I shifted to London for higher studies. Being from a Malayalam medium school in Kerala, the initial days meant real struggle, and it took me time to hone my skills in this foreign tongue.

After I joined this profession, the long hours of toiling were daunting and the atmosphere was not welcoming. During my initial days in London, there were times when I walked all the way and stayed in claustrophobic rooms and I could not ask my parents back home to send me money. The initial path demanded perseverance and resolve from my side.

When was the big break for you as a chef, which led you to the limelight?

The opportunity to head the BBC event and train the participants for the competition would be a big break for me. When asked, I said Yes, just out of the spirit. But the decision to agree made me prepare for the situation and work to seize the opportunity. The event made me come out of my comfort zone and I was facing the camera and that demanded intense preparation. It was well received and the process was very rewarding.

The hotel where I am working, The Lalith London gave me this platform to shine. I was no longer in the background, making the dish. They gave me the recognition and I was playing in the foreground. The event led me to my series of masterclasses, as I realized that I had what it takes to train people in my profession.

How did your experience at Bombay Palace change you as a person and as a chef?

The four years I spent there molded my career. I was a fresher and the established chefs were not much friendly and warm. The chefs ensured that they got the work done, and knowingly or otherwise, they exploited the fresher in me and honed my skills, and they were stellar in that task. There was an incident when the chef made me cook Romali Bread for the staff for a week, which would be considered a not-so-welcoming experience. But as I rewind and look back at it, it is one of my strengths. All the skills that took me to this day, were honed by my experience there.

Plantain and Yam Steak a.k.a Koottu Curry

How do you formulate a new dish? Could you brief about the process right from the initial thought to the final plate?

I don’t create a new dish. I recreate them and bring a new perspective to view an authentic flavor of Kerala. The mathi fry of Kerala and chammanthi or erissery is given a modern twist in the looks. I present the food with all its authenticity and all my heart, transforming the outlook of the dish yet maintaining the unique taste of it.

It takes me weeks to finalize the plate. I know the taste and how to make it but the path to be taken to give it that look takes creative brainstorming. I ponder over it for days to work out the perfect way to present it.

Seeing the expression as they cherish each morsel of food can be an enchanting experience. Do you have such an experience when the food you presented overshot your expectations from the customers?

The first bite tells it all, whether the food could please their tastebuds or not. I go watch them savor it and talk to them.

Once, in Kerala, we decided to serve lunch in an old age home. I was expecting around 100 and I was met with 450 people and I cooked biriyani for them. Till then culinary arts was just a career but that day taught me about the spiritual side of being a chef, it gave a deeper meaning to my profession. That was an eye-opening moment. I have received standing ovations and tokens of appreciation from people but that reward made me realize that there is a grateful and spiritual shade to this profession.

A modern twist to the traditional Pappadam pazham payasam

Who do you look up to as a role model in culinary arts?

I don’t have a particular person who I look up to as my role model. I see traits that I wish to inculcate in my personality. My teacher, who gave the spark for taking this up professionally would be my role model, and my dad would be. He asked me to send a part of my income while he came to set me off, and when I look back, his wish instilled that spirit to get to a position and give him back a part of my earnings.

Professionally, everyone who works with me would be my role models. I see the qualities and I try to pick the best out of my coworkers and chefs and try to bring it together in the way I work.

Which cuisine would you consider as the one with the potential of awing the taste buds?

I love trying out Chinese Japanese Thai cuisines but I have not ventured out to explore the flavors of it. I have tried many but what I love is Kerala cuisine. My hands have worked with the authenticity of my roots in Kerala in the dishes that I make.

What are your plans for the future? Where do you see yourself in the next five years?

I would like to be seen as an ambassador of modern Kerla cuisine here in London, but that would be a long shot. I would like to be recognized for introducing our wonderful cuisine in the arena of fine-dining. And if things work out well, and if the right opportunities come up, starting my own restaurant would also be on the list.

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