Creating new avenues for disadvantaged youth with empowerment through education in the gastronomy and hospitality industry of Sri Lanka.
The MJF Centre’s Empower Culinary Hospitality and Inspirational School is one of the many initiatives undertaken by the Merrill. J. Fernando Charitable Foundation (MJFCF) to empower children from underprivileged and disadvantaged backgrounds. Located at the MJF Centre in Moratuwa, Sri Lanka, the school’s state of the art Culinary Training Unit, primarily focuses on training the youth in the field of commercial cuisine and hospitality. With the invaluable knowledge and skills acquired through the training course, the school hopes to provide its students with employment opportunities as future chefs in the tourism and hospitality sector, in both local and international kitchens, bakeries and patisseries.
The Culinary Training Unit at the centre is built to the standards of a commercialized kitchen, equipped with the latest technology and kitchenware needed to train chefs in all areas, such as hot and cold cooking and baking. Not forgetting those that maybe wheelchair bound, it also includes a station which is specifically designed to allow their ease-of-access.
18-20 students from underprivileged or war-affected homes enroll for the training course at a time, with each course taking place over a period of three months. Following a pre-approved curriculum and study plan, the course ensures the students receive a disciplined and focused training. The students enrolled include trainees with physical disabilities and youth from rural communities and the plantation sector in Sri Lanka. The lessons are conducted by MJFCF’s own Training Instructors/Chefs supported by culinary training professionals and WACS certified chefs from across the world.
The school also facilitates frequent visits from culinary experts from around the world - renowned Celebrity Chefs and Dilmah Ambassadors such as Simon Gault (chef, entrepreneur, food writer, television personality) and Peter Kuruvita (chef, restaurateur and media personality). With years of experience, they are able to provide the students invaluable insights and exposure that cannot be obtained even through some of the highest paid culinary courses. At the end of the training course, MJFCF aims to assist the students in finding jobs where they can best apply the skills and knowledge they have acquired.
A unique initiative by the MJF Charitable Foundation under the Women’s Development program, the Swashakthi Tea Room and Bakery set up at the MJF Centre in Moratuwa, Sri Lanka, offers a variety of wholesome organic food at an affordable price. Not only is the food sold at the bakery healthy, it is also entirely prepared at the Empower Culinary Training Centre under the supervision of qualified chefs and the bakery itself is handled by the students from the Rainbow Centre. MJF Charitable Foundation is committed to integrating the differently abled into society as productive individuals providing them with unique opportunities to enhance themselves. This initiative hopes to inspire more places across Sri Lanka to follow suit in promoting healthy food and providing the less privileged with a means to a sustainable income.
Three renowned chefs – Selvana Chelvanaigum, Head Pastry Chef at Vue De Monde, Sean Collins, Executive Chef at Novotel Brisbane and Volker Marecek, Executive Chef at Langham Hotel in Auckland have visited the Empower Culinary Hospitality and Inspirational School. As experts in the field of culinary arts, these three MJFCF heroes imparted their knowledge and skills and dedicated their time to teach the budding young chefs at the culinary school.
Selvana Chelvanaigum who enjoys giving the traditional dish a modern twist, and boasts more than a decade of experience in patisserie, gave the students a lecture on desserts and demonstrated the art of sugar work, piping techniques and chocolate work with cupcakes and marshmallows. Sean Collins, who has extensive knowledge in handling and procuring food and beverages and as well food production and service, gave the kids an essential introduction to seafood storing and handling. He also conducted a hands-on tea gastronomy lesson at the centre, teaching students how to make tea inspired Japanese scallop on green pea puree, cinnamon spiced tea and vinaigrette and candied spec crumble. Volker Marecek, who was a guest judge on the reality show MasterChef New Zealand and has 15 years of experience as an Executive Chef under his belt, showed the young chefs how to make fresh pasta and how to whip up a tea inspired Pasta Meat Strudel with fermented Ran Watta Tea.
During their visit, the three chefs cooked a delicious meal for the kids at the National Centre for Cerebral Palsy and Developmental Disorders. They, got together with the students of the Empower Culinary Hospitality and Inspirational School to prepare a phenomenal afternoon high tea for the grand celebration held to commemorate the First Decade of MJF Kids. The dishes included, but certainly weren’t limited to: scrumptious salted caramel lollipop macaroons, green tea and jasmine flower dusted poached salmon on crostini with apple relish and lively lime and orange sago pudding with citrus crisps.
19 year old R. Vijeyakumara is chasing a dream. His dream is to become like the celebrity chef, Peter Kuruvita, someday. Vijeyakumara finds the life story of this world famous chef very motivating; particularly how he started his culinary training at the young age of 15, Vijeyakumara says.
Young Vijeyakumara, from Kahawatte plantation was a student from the maiden batch of the Moratuwa MJF Centre’s Empower Culinary Training Centre (ECTC) who had their first classroom session recently. It was an introductory session into the culinary field and students found the personal message from celebrity chef Peter Kuruvita, featured in the form of a short video clip, very inspiring.
Vijeyakumara who enrolled at the culinary training programme after finishing his O/Ls says, so far, he learnt a lot of new things quite different to the standard practice he follows when he cooks at homes. “I learnt different ways of making fish and boiling eggs, how different chopping boards are used for chopping meat and vegetables, the proper use of the kitchen and various kitchen tools,” he explains adding that training also gives him a chance to improve his English language.
The culinary kitchen at the Empower Culinary Hospitality and Inspirational School has become Dunuri Rodrigo’s most favourite place for there she gets a chance to use all the modern kitchenware, unlike at home.
Dunuri, who came to the MJF Centre in Moratuwa in 2011 as a participant of the Rainbow Centre for Special Needs Children, has developed a passion for baking. Her continued involvement in the culinary kitchen has made this 18-year old pick up the art of baking quite fast. She speaks at length, of the “special chocolate cake” she baked on her father’s birthday last year.
Her sparkling eyes; as she recalls the feedback she got for her chocolate cake, speak volumes of the sense of accomplishment in her. “Everyone who tasted it said it was very tasty,” she adds.
Dunuri is even able to supervise the participants of the MJF Kids programme who come to the culinary kitchen to engage in their cookery lessons. From using the beater to operating the oven; it is Dunuri who shows them how to handle the kitchen equipment.
With a six month culinary training course on offer at the Empower Culinary Hospitality and Inspirational School, Dunuri has now taken to cookery in a professional level. The state of the art equipment and the output received by the MJF Centre’s own culinary training professionals coupled with exposure working with world class chefs who share their expertise with those being trained at the school, is sure to make her training a wholesome experience.
“I bake a cake or make short eats whenever there is a special event – Christmas, New Year or a family birthday now. I love to make cupcakes too, especially to do the icing,” she goes on to explain.
Dunuri is hopeful that, at the end of her culinary training, she would be able to give her family a chance to taste finer things in life beyond the cakes and short eats she makes. “I have a small oven at home but my mother has promised to buy me a better one and arrange some space for me in the house so that I could start my own baking and cookery business to earn an income to help my family,” Dunuri says.
The MJF Centre’s Empower Culinary Hospitality and Inspirational School empowers those from less fortunate backgrounds with the knowledge and skills required to enter a restaurant or hotel at an apprentice level. It is a compact, yet efficient programme that runs for three and a half months and covers the basic and advanced kitchen skills from culinary theory, knife skills, health and nutrition, and the business aspects of running a restaurant.
Listed below is an overview of the course modules covered:
English Lessons– English is an essential language to succeed in the Food and Beverage field. The school empowers students in this aspect by running daily English lessons throughout the programme.
Knife Skills –This practical, hands-on subject teaches students proper knifing techniques used in commercial kitchens. This is the most basic and essential skill and is taught on a daily basis. Students learn how to chop, slice, pare etc. quickly, efficiently and safely.
Cooking Methods –The course covers the most basic, to more complex methods of cooking. These include boiling, steaming, frying and grilling. For each method, students are taught how to prepare or marinate vegetables or meat and prepare a meal with accompaniments.
Vegetables & Fruits-Vegetable and Fruit courses teach the proper methods for identifying, washing, preparing and storing commonly used vegetables and fruits in a kitchen environment. Students learn which flavours complement certain types of meals, and which types of cuisine are best suited for specific fruits and vegetables.
Meat Preparation & Serving-This covers the basics of identifying, carving, preparing and storing meats. Students may learn about the various cuts of meat, as well as seasonings, flavours and safety associated with cooking and preparing meat.
Nutrition Science –A scientific approach to culinary arts and nutrition. A guest lecture from a certified nutritionist covers concepts such as preparing a nutritionally balanced meal, ingredients that provide the most nutritional value, and cooking with special dietary requirements in mind.
Physical Education- In addition to educating the students in Nutrition Science, we at the Empower Culinary Hospitality and Inspirational School encourage students to live a more active life. In doing so, students are required to participate in a 30 minute physical training programme daily before the commencement of classes.
Soups & Sauces -Soups and sauces can be one of the most challenging areas of the culinary arts. All the students at Empower Culinary Hospitality and Inspirational School learn the proper ways of preparing flavourful sauces and soups, including which ingredients to use, as well as proper storage and presentation.
Baking & Desserts -Baking and dessert courses instruct students on preparing pastries, tarts, cookies, pies and other dough-based food. Baking times, temperatures and baking ingredients are covered in these courses.
International Cuisine -Students learn about food from other cultures (including Asian and Middle Eastern) as well as other popular cuisines. Staple herbs, spices and other ingredients are discussed and incorporated.
Hospitality and Business Education -Culinary school offers business-oriented subjects such as; ‘Tourism and You’ to educate the students on tourism, hospitality and how students can utilise business opportunities in the industry; ‘Culinary Terms’- the language of kitchens; and ‘Job Application Seminars.’ These are further enhanced by visits to leading establishments such as Unilever and talks by their leaders.
Internship / Externship -Most commercial and professional culinary courses include a culinary externship or internship, where students work in a professional kitchen setting under the direction of certified chefs. The top performer of the Empower Culinary Hospitality and Inspirational School programme is given the opportunity of running a Swashakthi Bakery in a location of his/her choice, funded by Dilmah.
Guest Lecturers -The Empower Culinary Hospitality and Inspirational School has liaised with leading professionals in Sri Lanka, as well as chefs from around the world to share with the students their invaluable knowledge in their respective area of expertise. Some notable chefs include Celebrity Chef Peter Kuruvita, Chef Selvana Chelvanaigum- lecturer at William Angliss Institute in Melbourne, Chef Sean Collins of Accor Hotels, and Executive Chef Volker Marecek of The Langham Hotel in Auckland. Events with these chefs such as Masterchef style culinary competitions have proven to be a fun, effective and immersive way for students to learn.
As a very young man, he saw firsthand, how producers and their workers were exploited. He was inspired to believe that, one day he will have his own brand, which would be of finest Single Origin tea, in 100% Pure Ceylon Tea and share his profits with the poor. He laughed at himself of his impossible dream. From then until now, tea has become a cheap commodity, sold by heavily advertised and promoted brand names by trading companies. Consumers have to pay for brand names and not for quality.
Thirty four years after his impossible dream, he decided to launch his own brand. In his first press interview in Australia prior to the launch, he said, today, tea is a cheap commodity, I will bring integrity back to tea, by naming my brand “DILMAH”, after my two children- Dilhan and Malik, in Single Origin tea, as opposed to multi origin commoditized tea; the finest on the market and sharing profits with the poor and the disabled.
Indeed, he did so, by smashing colonial trading culture of taking raw materials to rich nations for value addition and branding, which is the only profitable segment of the industry.
Merrill launched, garden fresh, unblended, Single Origin Pure Ceylon tea, grown and packed at source, fully value added and branded. In doing so, he retained all the profits from branding and marketing, in his country. Until then, tea producers and workers watched in pain and anger, their raw sweat and toil enriching traders in rich nations, while they remained poor. In carrying out the full process of value addition and branding, right where tea is grown, every packet of Dilmah tea became the world’s first ethically produced tea and it remains so, even today.
Dilmah is globally renowned for the finest quality tea and for its philosophy of caring and sharing. The brand was established on Merrill’s unique philosophy of making business a matter of human service, a pledge that is fulfilled through MJF Charitable Foundation and Dilmah Conservation.
His MJF Charitable Foundation, changes over 10,000 thousand lives each year. All companies in the MJF Group, contribute 10% of their profits before tax, to the Foundation. He does not accept donations and believes charity must be forthcoming strictly, from his personal resources. He does not market his CSR, as it is what his parents taught him.
Dilmah Conservation promotes sustainable use of the environment as Merrill believes that every individual and business has an obligation to ensure that a sustainable interaction with the environment is maintained at all times. Through Dilmah Conservation, he pioneered a comprehensive commitment to foster respect for the environment and ensure its protection by encouraging a harmonious coexistence of man and nature.
Bernd’s culinary journey began when he walked into a commercial kitchen 50 years ago. During his career Bernd has worked passionately as a chef de Cuisine in many establishments. He has also owned two very successful restaurants and now teaches commercial cookery at various institutes in Melbourne.
Bernd is the recipient of many culinary awards, the most prestigious being the Sidney Taylor Memorial Black Hat Award, issued by the Australian Culinary Federation, Victoria. Only chefs who have made outstanding contributions to Australian culinary progress and development at the highest trade or professional level receive this honour.
Over the past 25 years Bernd has been invited to judge many culinary competitions, including being the international judge for Gulfood, Dubai, Melbourne Culinary Challenge and the Dilmah Real High Tea and Tea Sommelier competitions in collaboration with the Chefs Guild of Sri Lanka and endorsed by the World Association of Chefs Societies (WACS) at Culinary Art, 2003, 2005 & 2007.
Travelling Europe after completing his chef apprenticeship landed Peter his first role as a commis chef at the One Star Michelin restaurant – Rue St Jacques in London.
Now, after 3 decades as an award-winning chef and restaurateur, Peter’s career now encompasses the roles of TV presenter, author, industry speaker and restaurant consultant.
Well known for opening Sydney’s iconic Flying Fish Restaurant & Bar in 2004, Peter currently operates Flying Fish at Sheraton Fiji Resort, recently voted on Tripadvisor as one of the Top 10 Restaurants in the Pacific Region, and Flying Fish Tokariki located at Sheraton Resort & Spa, Tokariki Island, Fiji
His signature style of waterside locations and fresh quality seafood spiced with his cultural flavors can also be experienced in Australia at Noosa Beach House, his restaurant partnership with Sheraton Noosa Resort.
Peter’s childhood experiences cooking with his Grandmother in the traditional kitchen of his ancestral home in Colombo, Sri Lanka inspired his first cookbook “Serendip – My Sri Lankan Kitchen”
His next cookbook “My Feast with Peter Kuruvita” takes a culinary and cultural journey through the island communities of Asia and the South Pacific.
Peter has now presented 3 TV series; My Sri Lanka with Peter Kuruvita, Island Feast with Peter Kuruvita and Mexican Fiesta with Peter Kuruvita which air on many networks worldwide.
His shows combine beautiful scenery with sensational local cuisine and culture.
Peter also keeps busy with his ambassadorial work with Dilmah Tea, hosting food tours for World Expeditions and frequent guest chef appearances at leading hotels around the world.
DILHAN C. FERNANDO
Dilhan C. Fernando is the younger son of Dilmah Founder, Merrill J. Fernando. The names of Dilhan and his brother Malik form the ‘Dilmah’ brand, the first producer owned tea brand. Dilhan is the Director of the Dilmah School of Tea, the first international school of tea, which has sessions in Colombo and, in partnership with the Institute Paul Bocuse, in Ecully, France. His desire to share the pleasure in tea with a new generation of tea drinkers saw the birth of the t-Series, designer gourmet teas and an entirely contemporary approach to a traditional beverage.
He is described by Herve Fleury, Director of the Institute Paul Bocuse as, “A man who is passionate, totally supple in his expertise, simple and delicate in his approach and his words. In the very image of tea.” In addition to his responsibilities in tea, Dilhan also manages the humanitarian and environmental outcomes of Dilmah. These are the fulfillment of his family’s commitment to making business a matter of human service. The MJF Charitable Foundation and Dilmah Conservation utilise revenue from the global sales of Dilmah in implementing humanitarian and conservation projects in Sri Lanka.
Rohan Fernandopulle spearheaded the culinary operations at Hilton International for 27 years prior to assuming duties as the General Manager of Waters Edge in 2013. Renowned as the culinary hub of Sri Lanka, the property encompasses 7 F&B outlets and over 8 banquet venues with extensive services.
In 2002 he led the Culinary Team of Hilton to Japan for the Black Box Regional Championship (live cooking) winning Silver whilst whisking away Gold & Silver medals at the Culinary Olympics. He won the Chef of the Year Presidential Award in Travel & Tourism in 2008 and many medals at the Food & Hotel Asia International culinary competitions in Singapore.
Besides being the 1st Sri Lankan Executive Chef of Hilton Colombo, Rohan Fernandopulle is also the only Sri Lankan member of the prestigious ‘Le Club Des Chefs Des Chefs’; where, as a member of this elite group he had the privilege of visiting the White House in July 2013. He is also a member of the renowned, Chain des Rotisseurs as Chef Rotisseur.
He was appointed as the president of Bocuse d’Or Sri Lanka by the Bocuse d’Or International Committee in France in 2011. Having judged many international culinary events he also served on the panel of judges at the Bocuse d’Or world finals in Lyon in January 2013.
Presently Rohan – as the General Manager of Waters Edge, is associated as a culinary advisor for much institution including Dilmah. He was the ‘Culinary Coordinator’ for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, November 2013; where he had the honour of being involved in organizing the menus at each location for the visiting dignitaries.
The Empower Culinary & Hospitality School, Sri Lanka’s premier culinary and hospitality facility, which creates new avenues for underprivileged and marginalised youth with empowerment through education in the gastronomy and hospitality industry of Sri Lanka was granted World Association of Chefs Societies (WACS) recognition. WACS is a World Chefs body consisting of 10 million chefs and the Empower Culinary & Hospitality School is the only culinary training institute in Sri Lanka to hold this prestigious title.
Handing over the certification, WACS Education Director John Clancy acknowledged that Empower Culinary & Hospitality School is an institute having a high standard of training and skills development to continue professional development. The citation recognises the development and delivery of the culinary training programme, to be on par with global standards.
“When WorldChefs were invited to assess the programme, we were absolutely delighted and honoured to do so and we spent some time going through the programme. The learning material that is there is just absolutely top class. The facilities are just exceptional; right down to the whole learning environment, the facilities upstairs for students where they can study on computers. There's an array of cookery books. It's still building and I really do believe that it is going to be an amazing success story. The word, ‘empower’ says so much,” he emphasized.
Two graduates with distinction passes
The Empower Culinary & Hospitality School felicitated its inaugural batch consisting 13 young chefs at a gala graduation night held on February 7 at the school premises. Witnessing this milestone in their lives were Governors of the School -Bernd Uber, Peter Kuruvita, Rohan Fernandopulle, the Education Director World Association of Chef’s Societies (WACS) John Clancy, 140 odd participants who have flown down to Sri Lanka from different parts of the world to attend the Dilmah School of Tea 2017, Dilmah Founder Merrill J. Fernando, his two sons Dilhan C. Fernando and Malik J. Fernando and the parents of the graduating batch.
The event had two special awards being presented to R. Vijeyakumara and K. Danushan for their excellent performance at the final evaluation.
Nineteen year old R. Vijeyakumara from Kahawatte plantation was chasing a dream from the day he enrolled for culinary training. His dream was to be like Celebrity Chef, Peter Kuruvita someday. What inspired this young boy was a personal message from Peter Kuruvita featured in the form of a short video clip at the introductory session. Four months after, at the end of the culinary training, this aspiring chef graduated from the Empower Culinary & Hospitality School, on February 7 with a distinction pass.
Walking up to the stage, attired in a chef’s jacket to receive his special award, made him feel that he has taken another step towards achieving his ‘dream,’ Vijeyakumara says.
The young graduate K. Danushan’s thoughts reflect the positive influence the culinary school has on the lives of underprivileged youth.
“Until I came here, I never knew that there are this many opportunities in the culinary filed. I studied up to Grade 11. Although I managed to pass my G.C.E O/Ls, it was not with good results. So I wanted to get into vocational training. Now I know that, being a chef is an exciting career. During the training here, I got to see the standards of the international chefs who trained us. It was motivating to see how far they have gone in life in this industry. My ambition is to become an executive chef and work abroad. I felt so proud when I heard my name announced as a recipient of a special award,” says Danushan adding that his parents getting to witness this special moment was important to him as it was for the first time that they got to see him achieving something.
When the first batch of culinary students first joined the culinary school, they were without any exposure or knowledge in the field of culinary art. After months of hands on training at the Centre’s state of the art training facility, working with leading chefs from across the world, the students have gained an international perspective on cuisine and hospitality. Working with the international chefs and to have met their expectations, turned out to be a novel experience for the culinary batch. Notably, the students also undertook the challenge to prepare a three course menu for the guests attending the graduation night- a menu which John Clancy acknowledged to be “absolutely exceptional.”