Mastering the Flavors: Chef Maria Bennan

She saw the ocean in front of her,

The waves danced and she let the sun pierce,

But every call followed her spur,

For this day and the tales of her fierce.

When the opportunity to fly knocks at your door, it takes a lot of courage to say no to it and focus on something that most would just ignore. When the wings of stardom take you to great heights, it takes consistent efforts to spend worthy moments with the loved ones. The tale behind the road that led to her stardom would inspire minds who just need that activation potential to step out of their comfort zone, leaving the conventional career that promises safety, to a brand new horizon where you are on your own, with every move of yours having a say in the direction where your ship is headed to.

Here is a chef from Kerala who proved her mettle in the world of culinary arts, whose passion for flavor took her to the land of the long white cloud. Hers is a tale where childhood curiosity kindled the professional fire. In conversation with Chef Maria Bennan, whose trained hands have been creating marvelous flavors that enchant the tastebuds.

Tell us about yourself, your background, and your previous ventures.

I am Maria Bennan, am a professional chef currently working in New Zealand with a Michelin Star Chef led team. My passion for the culinary world brought me to New Zealand where I initially completed a Diploma in Professional Cookery from the reputed culinary school of Western Institute of Technology at Taranaki (WITT), New Plymouth. During my time at WITT, I also successfully completed my City and Guilds London qualifications in food safety with distinction. Following my study years, I was blessed to work with highly supportive teams at several cafés and restaurants catering to an elite clientele.

However, my venturing into the culinary industry wasn’t a natural progression from my university education. During my university years in India, I chose a field that would allow me to incorporate elements of food science. Along with my studies, I began a small-scale venture called Maria’s Chocos and Cakes and this really helped me fine-tune my strengths and identify areas that I needed to correct. 

How did you fall in love with food? When did you realize that this was your passion?

Hailing from an extended family in Kerala with roots in the FMCG industry, my passion for culinary arts began right from my childhood. Working with my father in the food manufacturing units of Pavizham group in the state of Kerala immensely helped me gain that much needed industrial experience.

I was always inspired by the way my mom cooked and the flavors she would create. Somewhere in my heart, I always wanted to be able to recreate the same and take up cooking as a full-time career.

What are some of the challenges you faced while setting a career in this field? How did you overcome these?

I would say that long before one sets into a career, even if it is something one is passionate about, challenges of various sorts begin. 

Personally, the lowest point of my life coincided with the time I was preparing to leave the shores of India in pursuit of my culinary dreams. Soon before I was to make the trip, my father, who supported me in all decisions in life, was diagnosed with cancer. It was then and there that I made one of the most important – and looking back, one of the best decisions of my life – which was to put my travel plans on hold and support my father. Following a long and painful battle with the end stage of cancer, my father sadly passed away. 

Another major setback came in the way of not having the required funds to support my further education. Not wanting to back down in the face of a challenge, I applied for a student loan and with it being approved, I decided to resume my journey. Once in New Zealand, with God’s grace, dedication, and hard work, I was able to repay my loans.

Another challenge I have faced in this industry is the time-constrained and physically demanding work environment. While balancing multiple roles as a mother was initially a bit difficult; over time, I was able to find the balance and the time to spend with my family and friends. I am very grateful to have always found a supportive team at all places I have worked. 

While the above challenges may be on a personal level, from a career perspective, managing food wastage is something that I always place prime importance on. It is important that food wastage is minimized, and this can only be done through proper planning and visualizing what should go on a plate much before beginning to prepare the dish.  

Being a chef, which cuisine have you specialized in? What is your niche in the culinary world?

I would say that my strength lies in Italian cuisine. 

What sets me apart is my ability to juggle multiple roles in the kitchen, designing innovative menus, advising on ways to reduce food wastage, and providing consultancy on optimizing kitchen operations to improving the bottom line. 

Do you have a role model you look up to? If yes, what are the qualities that you admire of that person? If no, then why?

Chef Naveen “Navin” Thomas, who inspired me to aim higher and pushed me to work harder, spending long hours in the industrial kitchen. Chef Navin also taught me to think outside the realm of Indian cuisine and explore food preparation styles from around the world. Some of the qualities that sets him apart are his ability to think outside the box combined with hard work and dedication to the job.

While chef Navin is someone who has personally mentored me, I also follow chef Gordon Ramsey whose family commitment and work-life balance has inspired me. Another chef whose working style I admire is chef Marco Pierre White – his dedication and commitment to work is truly what any chef ought to follow. The Roux brothers, and their contribution to the culinary industry, are also on my list of role models whose great works I would love to emulate. 

When was the big break for you? What are the highlights of your journey as a chef?

The first defining moment of my career was winning the New Zealand Chef Association Hospitality Competition held at Taranaki. 

To pick out one day or an event and mark it as a highlight in my life as a chef would be extremely difficult, if not impossible. What I have experienced during the course of my journey as a chef is that each day presents a new challenge, a new opportunity. Seeing people cherish what you have prepared with love is definitely a highlight on any chef’s day.

What else do you pursue outside of the culinary arts? And how does a regular day in your life look like? What is your schedule?

I am a person with a plethora of interests but one field that I pursue with the same amount of passion that I have for cooking is modelling. I would call myself an accidental fashion model, given that I wasn’t actively looking into working in this field. As it stands now however, I do collabs with several prominent photographers. Along with fashion shoots, I also spend a lot of time painting and designing. 

Being a chef means working long shifts and mostly to a dynamic rostered schedule. Some days can start very early and finish quite late. While this may be the case, I always give prime importance to three factors in my life which are faith, fitness, and family. I always ensure that these elements make up a part of my daily routine.

I am also really grateful to my PS for helping me schedule and effectively plan most of my days and appointments.

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

My dream always was to travel the world; however, circumstances and lack of funds prevented me from pursuing this further in past years. With God’s grace, I now have the time and resources to invest in fulfilling this dream. In addition to this, and as an avid reader of books on the life of legendary chefs, I would like to travel to various restaurants around the world to experience the hospitality and cuisines first hand. 

Five years from now, I see myself focusing more on my entrepreneurial ambitions and developing a few businesses that I have jointly invested in with a partner in the Middle East. You can expect to see more from this partnership in the coming years. 

In dedication to my mom, I have also launched the Tresa Bennan Foundation to help people in need by offering them our quality time and financial support.

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