Ask Vir Ask Vir

Will Gaushan De Silva get the global recognition that he deserves?

Over the last year, I have been writing about my search for a new generation of South Asian chefs who will follow in the footsteps of the great Gaggan Anand and Manish Mehrotra.

So far, I have identified two: one in Singapore and one in Mumbai. I am pretty sure that there is one more in Dubai. (More on that in a later article.)


And last week, I went back to the Maldives to check on a Sri Lankan chef I have often written about but who still remains largely unknown because of the location of his restaurant.


   Gaushan De Silva is Executive Chef at Velaa Private Island, one of the top three or four resorts in the Maldives. The hotel is small (47 villas) and the guests are mainly well-heeled Eastern Europeans and wealthy Middle Easterners. Most of them are—at any given time—repeat guests. You will rarely find someone there who has not been to Velaa before. There are many reasons they come back—the resort is lovely, it has the best service in the Maldives, the wine list takes your breath away—but the primary reason, I suspect, is the food.


   Because the resort has five F&B outlets and nearly as many chefs as there are villas, Gaushan oversees a variety of cuisines from French to Italian to all kinds of East Asian to Indian (his Executive Sous Chef Girish Sharma, originally from Shimla, takes up some of the load) to authentic Chinese to Middle-Eastern and (of course) to Russian.


   Gaushan does all this with great distinction, overseeing many different kitchens but the resort’s real claim to fame is his own food. It is hard to classify except that while he excels at classic French cuisine, he has used the skills he has picked up at the world’s great restaurants to invent a style of his own, largely international (and French-influenced) in techniques but packed with the flavours of South Asia, chiefly his own Sri Lanka and the Maldives, where he has lived for over a decade.


   For instance, one meal he cooked for me while I was at Velaa took perfect Parmesan Tortellini, but put it on a bed of an Asian-spiced duck ragout topped with a light haldi foam. The local lobster was salt-baked with a masala version of classic Thermidor sauce and served with a Sri Lankan sambal. A sea bass had a crust made from drumstick leaves and was served on coconut polenta (like a light upma). Tuna was paired with tamarind extract. The traditional Sri Lankan Egg Hopper (a cousin of our appam) was shrunk in size, topped with a quail egg and spicy prawns. Even Beluga caviar was placed inside a Jaffna biscuit.


   I am off to Sri Lanka in November so perhaps I will find something like it there but, certainly, very few chefs cooking in India can match up to Gaushan’s standards. And in all these years, I have found no chef in the Maldives who is remotely in the same league.


   Gaushan’s is an interesting story. He grew up in Sri Lanka where his father was a musician with a love for the good life, including alcohol. His parents were busy when he was young and so, from the age of ten, he had to learn how to cook to feed his family. By 16, he had started cooking professionally as a trainee cook at the Swiss Hotel in Kandy. He got a culinary diploma but really learned on the job, moving to Colombo before getting his first break at the Rangali Hilton in the Maldives in 1999. In those days, before the Maldives became a great global destination, the Hilton was a pioneer in fine dining.


"So, will Gaushan get the global recognition that is his due? Or is Velaa too isolated for the world to fully appreciate his special skills?"

   It was while he was at the Maldives that a scout for the Jordanian royal family offered him a job at the palace. Like all palaces, there were two kitchen streams. One cooked for the official banquets and one for the family. Gaushan was chosen to cook for the King and Queen at home, a job that he says he found terrifying because the Queen knew her food and would rate every meal. (It was not unusual for her to rate a meal as ‘disgusting’.)


   After his time with the Jordanian royals, he returned to the Maldives, working at Huvafen Fushi, one of the earliest generation of the upmarket resorts that would transform the Maldives.


   It was there that his life changed.


  The story has now passed into legend in the Maldives and I have heard slightly different versions, but the basic tale never changes.


   A young Czech millionaire called Jiri Smejc arrived at Huvafen Fushi by private plane. He liked it so much that he came back again and again. Finally, he asked the Maldivian staff if he could buy an island in the Maldives.


  His butler led the search for an island. Others like Waheed Ibrahim, who worked in the restaurant, also participated. Within a year, they had shortlisted islands he could lease from the government. The original plan, to just a build a home, changed into a more ambitious dream: he wanted to build a small but top-of-the-line luxury hotel in the Maldives.


  Eight years ago, by which time Jirí Smejc was a billionaire, Velaa opened. Many of the old staff at Huvafen who had helped him find the island, came with him. His butler, Mohammed Mausum, is now the Resort Manager. Waheed has become Director of Food and Beverage, a job he may have been born to do. All the top Maldives resorts have expensive wines but Waheed looks for the rare bottle, for winemakers with tiny productions who make wines that only wine nerds have heard of. (That said, a fair amount of Petrus and DRC also gets consumed.)


   Jirí Smejc recognised Gaushan’s potential. (Unusual in the Maldives, where the default option is to order up white chefs.) But he knew that he needed experience. So, he sent him around the world. Gaushan took a wine class in Australia and then went off to Prague’s Kampa Park, trained at Édouard Loubet’s two-star restaurant in France, at a one-star restaurant in Provence, and then at two different two-star restaurants in Italy. His owner knew the French Chef Adeline Grattard so, Gaushan worked at her restaurant and then at the Alain Ducasse restaurant at Paris’s Plaza Athenee hotel.


   Small wonder then that Gaushan’s European food is excellent. I remember going to Velaa in its early years and being knocked out by the cuisine. I went back in 2019 and was startled again by how terrific Gaushan’s food was.


   But, this time, the cuisine was different: Gaushan had developed a strong and individual voice of his own, cooking food that was distinctively Gaushan De Silva. In fact, the whole team had come of age. There are many great sommeliers in the Maldives but few can match Waheed’s sense of discovery and adventure. Even the resort, now managed by Wayne Milgate, was run like clock-work. There was not one false note throughout my stay.


  So, will Gaushan get the global recognition that is his due? Or is Velaa too isolated for the world to fully appreciate his special skills?


   I don’t know. But I am hoping that he will come to India next year and do a few pop-ups. Then, more of us can enjoy his spectacular cuisine.



Posted On: 30 Oct 2021 12:15 PM
Your email id will not be published.
Security code:
Captcha Enter the code shown above:
Your email id will not be published.
Friend's Name:
Friend's E-mail:
Your email id will not be published.
The Message text:
This email was created by [your name] who thought you would be interested in the following Article:

A Vir Sanghvi Article Information

The Vir Sanghvi also contains hundreds of articles.

Additional Text:
Security code:
Captcha Enter the code shown above:

CommentsOther Articles

See All

Ask VirRead all

Connect with Virtwitter

@virsanghvi on
Vir Sanghvi