Chef Indrajith, ISSO

Dishes of succulent and vibrant seafood paired with natural elements from herbs and plants, fruit that vividly striking becomes a work of art. A chef’s canvas is his plate, and his creation, that of beauty, observed and consumed by his spectators. ISSO’s Chef Indrajith creatively curates the Brunner Menu that comprises a collection of dishes that are not only aesthetic but designed through careful consideration and scientific experimentation, a testing of flavours that osmoses through each other and tantalize one’s taste-buds.

We find, in his menu, a series of culinary works of art that are intrinsic to ISSO’s identity, yet decidedly innovative – a collection of Sri Lanka’s best seafood and spices while simultaneously, an inventive concept that presents alternate tastes; each dish, aesthetically and artistically culminated. In our conversation with Chef Indrajith, we discuss his journey in the industry, his perspective on the culinary arts and representing the nuanced identities of ISSO’s cuisine.

Throughout the process of our conversation, the Chef cooked, plated and created a series of three dishes from the Brunner Menu as well as ISSO’s signature dish, the decadent Jaffna Prawn Curry, made through an infusion of Sri Lankan herbs and spices. Served during the hours of 8AM to 11AM, some of the dishes that make up the Brunner Menu are the Smoked Salmon on bread, laid out with avocado salsa and mascarpone cheese, a brilliantly coloured dish of Tropical Pavlova filled with a jackfruit crème, a mix of coconut and the panden leaf, the Prawn Benny – a culmination of prawns, lettuce, poached egg and hollandaise or béarnaise sauce as well as micro-herbs, laid inside a giant croissant enhanced by a fennelac compote made of fennel buds and leaves, mixed with balsamic vinegar.

He explains, as he demonstrates each culinary work of art, that it is crucial that the dishes stay true to the Sri Lankan taste like tropical fruits towered in his Pavlova yet, are a blend of diverse flavours to suit the varied taste like his balsamic vinegar that’s significantly used in Italian cooking, a fruity vinegar that is often found in Italian salads.

Each dish presented on ISSO’s creatively curated Brunner Menu is aesthetic, from colours and textures, the sauce that overflows on to the plate or the fruit’s juicy succulence disappearing into its elements and counterparts, blending and fusing to create an eccentric taste. The design of each dish is a consequence of the Chef’s multitude of experience working in the culinary industry and the intrinsic principles that ISSO stands for in bringing out authentic flavours.

Q | What does food mean to you?

A | Food, to me, is everything. It is, in essence, something that stimulates joy within self. Throughout my career as a chef of thirty-two years, I have been a part of something greater than just providing nourishment, for when I create, it is to bring that same sense of elation to one who consumes. To myself as well, it is a medium of nourishment, a medium of consumption. I believe, food is essential to the living being in both the physical and mental landscapes. Thus, I consider food of great significance – I believe it is not just a want, but a need. And it is through those efforts that I prepare my dishes.

Smoked Salmon on bread

Q | How did you begin your journey in the culinary arts?

A | I began my journey from scratch; as a young boy, I was always a person who loved food. So, I decided to take it on as an occupation. I started off as a trainee in National Apprenticeship Board. Then I was blessed to work in leading five-star hotels in Sri Lanka and was privileged to learn under the most brilliant chefs at the time including Chan Shee Wan at Oberoy, Roberto Wanko from Hilton and Kumar Singh at Taj. So afterwards, I got a chance to work abroad. I was lucky enough to get work experience from more than ten countries and travel to more than 54 countries during this journey. It definitely expanded my knowledge on various cuisines of all parts of the world.

Q | In your opinion, how would you describe culinary to be of artistic expression?

A | You are more prone to eating something that’s pleasant and appealing than a dish that disturbs the eye. This is where the culinary arts takes an artistic and aesthetic turn. I believe a talented and experienced chef always focuses on how the food looks and if they can bring out that wow factor of the food just by its appearance – that’s pure talent. This is why there’s a separate section called garnishing in cookery because presentation really matters. So anyone should keep in mind that their guests first consumes the food not through their mouth but they take it in from their eyes. So presentation really matters. As a chef, I think I am a painter – I make ‘edible paintings’.

Q | What of the Sri Lankan aesthetic, flavours and cultural symbols seep into your dishes and culinary philosophies?

A | Sri Lanka is a country rich with a lot of spices and herbs. In fact, ancient travellers from other countries have been attracted to this island because of cinnamon so I always try to incorporate flavours from different herbs and spices in my dishes. There are two reasons; one, it adds a lot of flavour that pleases our taste-buds and two, there are health benefits to ones that consume them. As a chef, I can’t just focus on taste. I must ensure that I provide something safe and healthy for my clients. Also, Sri Lankan guests are adventurous. They like to explore cuisines from various parts of the world. So I try to incorporate flavours from around the world in my dishes. Cookery is an art. I try to play around with different flavours from various cuisines and combine them to get the best flavour.

The Prawn Benny

Q | In your opinion, how does culinary art enhance one’s state of mind?

A | In short, food pleases all your senses. It pleases the eye through sight. It pleases the nose through smell. It pleases the ear from its sizzling sounds. It then pleases the mouth through taste and flavours. As especially as Sri Lankans, we eat with our hands so we feel the different textures of food. All this pleases our mind – all of our senses are stimulated, which thus brings us joy when we eat something. Moreover, making food is a medium of meditation because you must be aware. You must be aware of the ingredients you put, of how you make them, so on and so forth. Ultimately, it requires concentration. You might’ve come across people who make food when they’re stressed or unhappy. So making food relieves such stress and brings a calm state of mind – it brings joy. Food is also something that brings people together; people often keep Sundays as a day to try new food, stimulating a new sense of thrill. And when people eat, they are brought together at the dinner table. See, the power of food, it’s not just something you put into your mouth and gobble. It has a powerful impact on our lives which is why I strongly believe we must be grateful for it.

Q | ISSO’s specialty is prawns. Can you talk about the cultural significance of this notion and how your culinary artistry brings out this perspective?

A | Sri Lanka is an island. Therefore, seafood and fishery plays a major role to us Sri Lankan. Out of which prawns play a huge role in the variety of seafood. As an experienced chef, I have tasted seafood from different parts of the world and nothing can be compared to Sri Lanka seafood especially from the Indian Ocean. It provides us with the best quality seafood. Furthermore, it easier to cook prawns. It is less time-consuming, it is convenient to bring a variety of flavours through prawns. With my experience working under many talented chefs, I have gained a thrill and serving food differently. I would like to present my style of cooking through the dishes we serve at Isso. We are representing our food, our flavours, our culture to create a Sri Lankan brand that will be a strong contender in the global playing field.

Launched in 2016 by CEO and Co-founder Apinash Sivagumaaran, ISSO has since expanded into the Maldives. ISSO’s Brunner Menu is composed by Director Culinary Chef Indrajith. The chef has a vast field of experience from working in the culinary industry around the world and has won a collection of ten gold medals and five silver medals throughout his career in the Middle East. He is also an experienced Sous Chef from a Michelin Star Restaurant. The menu was curated to adapt to the Sri Lankan palette, from the traditions of the eastern province to the contemporary twists of the western province while catering to an audience and appetite of the diverse and the varied.  

Tropical Pavlova

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16th September, 2021 Culinary Art