CONFESSIONS OF A GLOBAL GYPSY
By Dr. Chandana (Chandi) Jayawardena DPhil
President – Chandi J. Associates Inc. Consulting, Canada
Founder & Administrator – Global Hospitality Forum
Hanging Out with Amita and Clan
My co-op (internship) arranged by the Ceylon Hotel School (CHS) at Bentota Beach Hotel was very useful in learning and in meeting interesting tourists and locals. Around the New Year’s Eve of 1973, I met a childhood hero of mine at Bentota Beach Hotel – Amita. The whole family of Amita Abayesekera were regular visitors to the Bentota Beach Hotel to meet and hang out with some members of the executive team. One of my childhood hobbies was creating comic books, and I was a fan of Amita’s cartoons which appeared regularly in a national newspaper. He was a teacher at a school in Bentota, and a part-time journalist.
Amita was a very interesting and versatile person. There was never a dull moment in his company. His ability to hold an audience was remarkable. The walls of his house were partly covered with caricatures of his family members. Amita also used to sing very loudly. In later years, one of his sons-in-law – singer Nimal Jayamanna, took lyrics of an old poem Amita used to sing at home, and composed a song. Thirty years after its release, that song – ‘Rampota Thelabuwa Maniketa’ continues to be one of the most popular Sri Lankan party songs.
We liked to hang out with Amitas’ family. This was particularly because of his daughters, who were very attractive teenagers. One of his daughters became my partner for two dances in 1974 (the CHS Graduation Ball and the New Year’s Eve). As Amita was very friendly with a few of the European tourists, our nick name for him was ‘Suddo (white people) – dana’.
In later years I enjoyed reading his newspaper column – ‘This is my Island!’. My favourite was what Amita wrote about his wife, when she passed away. His column subsequently published as a book, inspired me to write ‘Confessions of a Global Gypsy’. Thank you for the inspiration, Amita!
Mischief at the Bar
After spending a month as a waiter in the hotels’ restaurant, I was transferred to the resident bar as a trainee barman. There, I learnt the good, the bad and the ugly. I worked under two senior barmen – one was honest and the other was a clever crook. I liked working with the honest barman who taught me how to make cocktails and balance the bar books. I became an expert of making the hotel’s most popular cocktails, including the house special – ‘Monsoon Killer’.
One day, I was working with the dishonest barman. When I commenced making a ‘Monsoon Killer’, He told me to use only 50 ml of liquor for one cocktail. I showed him the recipe displayed at the back of the bar counter and told him. “Your recipe says 100 ml.” He responded, “Never mind the recipe. Use exactly 50 ml.” I did as I was told. After I made my second order of ‘Monsoon Killer’ with 50 ml, he collected the money from the tourist (who did not ask for a receipt), and dropped the whole amount in his tip box and not the hotel cash box. This went on the whole evening and he made lots of ‘dis-honest’ tips by serving cocktails with half the amount of alcohol! I was shocked and unhappy. He cleverly managed to balance the bar books.
The next day, while I was working with the dishonest barman, he received a nuisance call from another department. I overheard the caller shouting in Sinhala “Ado, Hila Wahalada?” (“is the hole closed?”) He became very angry and shouted at the caller in bad Sinhala words, in front of some tourists who were seated on the bar stools waiting for their drinks. Fortunately, they did not understand the meanings of the word
s uttered loud, but felt the tension. Curious about this episode, I investigated the reason for the call with my friends at the restaurant. I found out that the dishonest barman also had a reputation of being a ‘cad’.
A few months ago, when a female employee used a washroom behind the resident bar, she suspected that someone peeped through the key hole. The next day she had returned with another female emplo yee as a spy. They caught the dishonest barman peeping through the key hole, red handed. After a full inquiry, the hotel manager had issued the barman the final warning and got the maintenance staff to cover the key hole of the washroom.
Soon, I arranged for my CHS colleagues doing their co-ops in other departments, to give a string of “Ado, Hila Wahalada?” nuisance calls to the resident bar every thirty minutes during peak times of the operation. It was hilarious to witness the re-action. He asked me, “who are these bastards calling me every thirty minutes?” I said, “I have no idea who is doing this.” After a month of these frequent nuisance calls, one day he was frustratingly muttering in Sinhala, “I never had these f***ing problems before all these bloody CHS trainees came to our hotel.” I immediately asked my colleagues to stop the nuisance calls.
One evening a nice-looking Swiss tourist in her mid-twenties came to the bar and ordered a drink. She was a long stay guest. Seated at the bar counter in a mini skirt, she was watching me closely. She was impressed with my speed in making cocktails and my newly mastered bar showmanship. She started chatting with me, while I was preparing a ‘Monsoon Killer’. I was shocked when she asked me, “Would you like to have a drink with me?” I immediately said, “No miss, I am a Hotel School trainee and not supposed to drink with guests at the hotel.” She then said, “I will meet you at the public bar at Hotel Serendib after you finish your shift at 10 pm.”
Bentota Beach Hotel Kitchen
I then spent a month in the kitchen which was managed by three CHS graduates four years my senior. Padde Withana was the Executive Chef and his batch mates U.C. Jayasinghe and Vijitha Nugegoda were the Assistant Chefs. They were a good team and played roles ideally suited to their personalities. Padde was the boss who was very creative in cooking and culinary arts. He planned all the menus and wrote the stores requisitions, while ensuring the overall quality of all dishes. U.C. was the disciplinarian, and focused on keeping the food cost below 40%. Nuga was the friendly people-oriented manager, who also managed the kitchen counter issuing dishes to the waiters. I worked with all three and learnt different aspects of kitchen management from each chef.
Padde did long shifts and worked very hard. He was very focused on creating a niche for himself as the best chef in Sri Lanka. I was fortunate to get the opportunity to be trained under Padde. He did not talk much with me, but taught me a lot about butchery work, food marinading, advance preparations, à la carte cooking, food decorations, butter carvings and buffet arrangements. Bulk cooking was something I never experienced at CHS.
I valued the real-life experience I gained at the Bentota Beach Hotel kitchen. That influenced my decision to specialize as a chef after I graduated from CHS. When I worked behind various types of buffet tables, I became very popular, among tourists, particularly young ladies. Everybody seems to like a chef in a uniform, carving a roast or grilling at the barbeque. I enjoyed being in the lime light and that confirmed in my mind, “I must become a Chef.”
A Good Recommendation
I was sad to leave Bentota Beach Hotel when the internship ended. Back at the CHS, I often dreamt of the interesting and useful times I had within the best resort hotel in Sri Lanka. I often spoke about it with my batch mates. For the first time in my two and half years at CHS, I paid attention to become better at kitchen labs (practical). This newly developed interest and passion, surprised CHS Chef Instructors. I gradually became better at cooking all types of dishes.
Mr. Desmond Fernando, one of our Lecturers was very friendly with Bentota Beach Hotel management team. He shared some good news with me, “Chandana, they liked the work you did at the hotel kitchen.” That motivated me to do better. Then he said, “The moment they have a suitable vacancy, they would like to hire you to their kitchen.” This made me very happy. I was finally, well-behaved and focused on graduating from CHS in six months’ time. My aim was to join a good hotel as a chef soon after my graduation from CHS. My last semester at CHS was un-eventful, until I received an interesting part-time management job offer.