Executive Chef Heshan Peiris of Banyan Tree's Laguna Lăng Cô, Central Vietnam. Image by Diana DeLucia.
GK: Tell me about your life before Laguna Lăng Cô.
I went to high school at St. Bernard’s College in Essendon, Melbourne which is a very sports-oriented high school. I always had an interest in technology, but there wasn’t an emphasis there on information technology, so I began studying IT after high school. However, the earliest stage of my interest in being a chef was probably in high school. In Australian high schools, you have work experience in year ten, and I went to the Victorian Art Center to do a two-week stint with my mom in the kitchen, and I enjoyed it.
After I had finished high school, I attended RMIT (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology) and studied Information Systems. As it turns out, I didn’t find it to be very interesting and I thought, “No, this is not for me.”
I begged my parents for help. At the time, my father was the Executive Chef of Ansett Airlines, and my Mom was, you could say, the Head Chef of the Victorian Art Center, so I grew up surrounded by the food industry. My grandma ran a huge catering company in Sri Lanka as well. I remember one day just sitting there at the counter having a chat with my mom, and she said, “Listen, if you’re not interested in IT, you probably shouldn’t follow that as a career.” Then she added, “Is there something else you want to do?” I said, “Well, I wouldn’t mind being a chef.” So Mom responded, “If that’s what you want to do and you’re serious about it, I’ll make some phone calls.” She called up a couple of chefs that she knew, and I got a position at the Melbourne Racing Club as an apprentice around 1998. The club was part of a major complex, and I remember being in a tiny kitchen making sandwiches, steak, and chips - that kind of thing - and I enjoyed it.
At the same time, I was studying the culinary arts at William Angliss Institute, and that’s where I really got interested in cooking as I met other apprentices who were working in hotels, restaurants, and resorts all over the country. I probably was the only catering chef.
I remember that, when we would prepared our own dishes, our plated dishes showed our culinary background. The restaurant guys would do elaborate plate-ups while the guys from cafes would make these big plates with sauce everywhere in typical café style. That ability to show creativity was why I got into the trade.
After two years at Melbourne Racing Club, I knew I had to get out. My father often said, “Listen, you should look at getting into a hotel.” I feel like I always liked the managing side of everything, so I joined Hilton. I started at the Airport Hilton at the Melbourne Airport as a second-year apprentice, and that’s where I got to see the preparation of restaurant-quality food. We had excellent servers, customers coming at all hours, menus changing all the time, and I made some great friends with whom I’m close to this day.
When I finished my apprenticeship, there was an opportunity to assist with opening the new Sydney Hilton in 2005, and I jumped on that. It was my first time leaving home and going to another city to which I had never been. I went with another chef from Melbourne with whom I had worked. I had never seen anything like the opening of the Sydney Hilton.
A unique aspect was that chefs at the hotel came from everywhere including Turkey, Greece, and Korea. The other Hiltons in Australia also sent teams to assist in the opening because it was a flagship hotel for Hilton at the time. I enjoyed working with a lot of different people, learned a lot of different techniques, and experimented with many new dishes. The chefs saw that we knew what we were doing, so we had a bit more responsibility as commis chefs. We got promoted pretty quickly to demi chefs, and I got the opportunity to run the room service kitchen. I then became the Chef-de-Partie, and my career started to develop. My friend and roommate Josh was working at the breakfast kitchen, and we were just working nonstop. My career grew and grew.
After three years in Sydney, I was getting a bit tired and wanted to come back home to Melbourne. I had an opportunity to work at the Windsor Hotel, and I joined that team as a junior Sous Chef. There I had free reign of the morning operation and was part of the team that enhanced the Windsor afternoon tea. We needed to revamp the afternoon tea experience, and it became our signature creation and became a huge success.
I’ve never seen a hotel just run purely from afternoon tea sales, but I remember the General Manager saying, “It’s just flour and water.” So yeah, we were doing big numbers there. Eight months into that, I had another phone call from the Hilton Melbourne team from the big hotel across the road from the MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground), and they said, “Listen, we’re looking for a chef, a Sous Chef. Do you want to join the team?”
I always liked the fact that, in a hotel group like Hilton, you have a lot of standards. There were always manuals and guidelines to follow. The Windsor didn’t have that, and there were a lot of things decided ad hoc without procedures. I went back to Hilton in 2008, and again it was an entirely different animal. I went from afternoon tea to a single, stand-alone restaurant catering for 800 people! And within a year, they gave me the opportunity to become the Executive Chef, which was something I’d always wanted. I was 28, and I was excited about it.
GK: How did that change your life since you were so young?
Having the complete responsibility for the kitchen was entirely different because I had to be the decision maker. Your name is on every plate that goes out. It was very hard in the Melbourne environment to come up with something new, especially in a hotel, but I wanted to become someone who stood out.
My team was excellent at developing and handling events. As crazy as it sounds, we were the only hotel that was doing proper postings for breakfast because they wanted pre-steamed events, and we got a bit of a name for it. We weren’t doing complicated food, but we were creating dishes that people wanted to eat. It was simple stuff, but it tasted superb. We weren’t reinventing the wheel, but yeah, we were doing some great business. I was there for two years, and then I got another phone call suggesting I leave the country and move to Seychelles. At the time, I didn’t even know where Seychelles was, so I was frantically looking it up. Also, I had to find out what kind of cuisine was there, and it turned out to be Creole, and all I could imagine is American Creole. When I arrived, I realized it was nothing like that. It wasn’t gumbos and crawfish, but it’s all curries.
We were on Silhouette Island in Seychelles about forty-five minutes from the main island on a boat. It’s a national parish site, so we were the only resort there. There were no other shops, restaurants, or cafes. We were just a hotel on an island about three kilometers in diameter, with a giant rock in the middle, so you couldn’t just wander around.
We had this fabulous beachfront coastline, so it’s very hard to have a bad day there. On one side, you’re looking at a forest, and on the other side, you’re looking at this crystal blue water. In Seychelles, I learned the importance of quality and international expectations. This was the first time I had cooked for international clientele. When you’re in Melbourne, you’re cooking for Melbournians and Australians.
In Seychelles, you’re preparing food for Germans, French, English, and a lot of Chinese. I was constantly in pursuit of trying to be different than the hotels on the mainland where everyone was doing the same thing, cooking traditional Creole food. It was not easy to maintain stock of products and ingredients because everything had to come in by boat once a week or flown in from Dubai. A tomato that travels from Australia through Dubai, and then to Seychelles, doesn’t have a long shelf life. Trying to get the best out of those aspects was a major challenge, but I had a hard-working team who made incredibly tasty food. The difference between chefs in Australia and chefs in Seychelles was in the presentation versus the preparation. Australian chefs could present food well, where the guys in Seychelles were more experienced in cooking, so their presentation wasn’t as abstract. Ultimately, our cuisine merged with Creole food so I could explore that cooking.
While I was there, we developed Allah Kitchen, a web TV show to showcase modern Creole food, and it took off successfully. Ministers of Tourism came to the island to see what we were doing. We even got a mention in Parliament, where they said, “They’re doing something there that no one else is doing, and if you taste it, it is real Creole food.” So it worked well for us. Creole food is very fresh with lots of colors. While that was taking off, a new opportunity to come to Vietnam arose.
My wife, at the time my fiancé, was getting a bit tired of Seychelles, so we had to make a decision that was best for both of us. In 2015, we came to Laguna Lang Co. at Banyan Tree, and I have been here for a year now.
Again I am learning an entirely different cuisine which is now one of my favorites. If I had to say, my top three favorite cuisines would be Thai, Vietnamese and French. It was a bit of a shock to the system because the Vietnamese food here is very different than at home in Melbourne. It is a lot cleaner and fresher, and I think we complicate it back home in Melbourne.
GK: What is your focus with the cuisine here?
My focus is to try and create a second dimension showcasing Vietnamese food - not just traditional but finding a modern way to present it while keeping it true to what it is. Some people modernize it by adding ingredients that aren’t related, which changes the cooking methods. Seeing a lot of different cooking styles is a luxury of traveling around the world. Changing the cooking style simply means we’re just changing the way we cook with the same ingredients. You’re not going to introduce different ingredients into a traditional dish.