Vasantha Caldera – Executive Chef at Showtime Event Group
How did you begin your journey as a chef?
I got my inspiration from my grandma back in Sri Lanka. I started as a trainee chef back in 1979, when I was nineteen. It was a tough time during the civil war. There were no culinary schools back then.
But I loved the minute I stepped into the kitchen. I worked for a year, and then took a management course. By 1984, five years later and lots of hard work, I had already became an executive chef at a hotel in Sri Lanka.
Yet I always wanted to travel overseas, work for a five star hotel – If you don’t work in a five star hotel you have doubts. Working in a five star hotel meant you had the best, learnt the most and can perform to the highest standard.
In 1988 – I took a job at the Ramada Renaissance in Doha, Qatar as their Chef de partie. I worked as hard as I could there and every two years, I got a promotion. Junior Sous, Sous and then Senior Sous, almost running the kitchen.
New management took over in 1996, the first big turning point for me. Eight years I had been at the Ramada and new management came in. I was observed for three months by our new general manager. He started changing the hotel, renovating, implementing a new brand and a new structure.
Those three months go by and I get a call at three in the afternoon from the GM, I went to the office and closed the door. “I’m going to fire the executive chef” he said. “There’s an opportunity, at this hotel, it doesn’t always come, and if you don’t take it now, you’ll never get it again” he said “I’m going to give you the opportunity to become the executive chef of this hotel”.
I thought, “wow”, this had always been my dream. However, I was a bit hesitant, not because I could not do it, but will the team have the same respect for me? Will the kitchen support the change? He said that the current job “will always be yours if you want it, but I need an answer in 24 hours if you want the job” or not.
The team supported me 100%, the next day I said yes to the GM, but ‘yes’ wasn’t enough. He wanted a presentation. “Where will you take the hotel in 2 years” I had two weeks to come up with a two year plan about where I was going to take the hotel. Those days there was no PowerPoint, but luckily I did a fantastic presentation. He loved it, and I got the job.
At that time I had lived away from my family for 9 years. I missed the birth of my son and it’s was very difficult, but I don’t regret it with what I have achieved for me and my family.
We grew the hotel from four outlets to twelve outlets, I ended up building a team of 79 chefs at that hotel.
One day the GM left and two weeks later he gave me a call and said to come work for him at the new Hilton in Oman. So I couldn’t refuse, the guy who gave me all this opportunity offering me another executive chef position. I thought it was a big challenge, as Hilton is a very strong brand in the world. And to open a hotel, to become a Sri Lankan to open a hotel is a great privilege. It was a very difficult three months opening a new hotel but we did it and that’s where I gained my foot into the international chains. After a year I transferred to Hilton in Dubai and spent seven and a half years there. Then I migrate to Australia, the second turning point of my life.
That was 2007 and it was the same story as coming from Sri Lanka, to the Middle East and having to climb the ladder again. You cannot come straight to Australia and get a job as an executive chef. I started as the Sous Chef at The Grand Hyatt, a beautiful property and one of the best kitchens I had ever worked in, the standards were really really high, but they were stuck, nobody left, the team was happy and had been there for the last fifteen or twenty years but unfortunately there was no further opportunity.
I wasn’t chasing my dream; I was no longer living my dream as an executive chef again. I knew that Australia was the land of opportunity and could follow my dream.
I was then offered a role in Melton at a new $42 million development. I had a look and said “I can make this place great but I need 100% support” It was a big venue we would do 3000 covers on event nights, I did this for three years but always wanted to come back to the city.
A vacancy opened up at the Hilton here in South Wharf, I applied, after a phone call and a meeting in three days, within 7 days I got the job. I was there for two years, and then got a call from what was Showtime Event Centre. As much as I loved the hotels I worked in what I really enjoyed was doing events. I had a talk with Showtime and saw where they were headed and was told what the big plans were, that excited me. I started here at Showtime at the beginning of 2017.
I really appreciate it here because there’s a lot of exciting things happening. I am back to planning in the kitchen, new menus, new creations, and new launches. My favourite aspect being the really big events we do, some with five thousand covers! My goal now is to build our new team to achieve our goals and where we want to be, as the company grows we have to grow within the company as well, otherwise we will get stuck one day.
I always believed in my dream and chased it. You have to have a dream in this world. I am very happy with where I am now. Australia is very lucky and has a lot of respect for its people, its food and luckily for its chefs.
What is your favourite style of dining?
I really like fine dining, that is one of my babies. I always try to find that edge in my menu. If you look at my menus there is the fine dining flair and presentation but on a grand scale. I like being able to take that edge and turn into a dish that can cater for big numbers. One of my key strength’s is to be more creative finding a marriage of flavours. Ingredients here are endless and you can always find something new.
What’s a favourite dish to cook at home?
If I am cooking at home, inviting someone, I go fine dining, I go to town! If I’m cooking for myself, I go simple, spaghetti, olive oil, garlic, chili and a little parmesan. That’s it.
If I maybe want Asian, I go basic fried rice. That’s the simple food I like. When you work as a chef for a long time you see all the food and flavours, you mostly enjoy when other people cook for you. Because if you cook for yourself, before you put it on in your mouth you already know what it tastes like, because know all the flavours, you’re not surprised.
I get the most joy out of cooking for others, seeing there expression. That’s the greatest feeling, the greatest satisfaction.
In your travels what has been a place with great local food?
Barcelona, the city itself, one of the best cities I have been to. When you get there you are in a sort of different world, the freedom, the flavour of the food is different, the culture. I really love it, Barcelona is one of the best destinations, I would love to go anytime.
How do you build a custom event menu?
It take a lot of time and concentration, I can spend five straight hours in a quiet office just writing a menu. You have to get the melody right, like a symphony, the combination of flavours the presentation and elements. It’s a long process. I build the menu up for an event backwards so I never miss anything, napkins, boards the little details other people miss. This has come from my experience. Planning all the details.