For Chef Sinju Varghese, the newest executive chef to join the ranks at Al Raha Beach Hotel, some of his earliest food memories map the compass points of India.
“I’m from Kerala, but I didn’t live there long,” he tells me. “My father was a military man, so east, west, north and south, we travelled around India throughout my childhood.”
Home eventually became the northeastern tip of India, a tangle of eight states sitting right on the border with China, a place that felt far-flung from Sinju’s culinary roots.
“When you travel from state to state in India, the people, the food, the culture – it all changes,” he muses. “If you go to lunch in Kerala, you’ll get rice and curries, but if you go to lunch in the north and ask for rice, they look at you like you’re a stranger.
“The ingredients were totally different in the northeast; my mother couldn’t get hold of the ones we needed so she had to cook different dishes. One of my earliest memories when we lived in Nagaland – because it was much colder there – was eating stews.”
Sinju first ventured into the kitchen by way of necessity; both of his parents worked, and with siblings to feed, he took on the role of family chef.
“If you were hungry, you had to cook for yourself,” he chuckles. “But it was never a burden. I was always passionate about food.”
But if these formative experiences cemented the young Sinju’s relationship with food, they were not ultimately the thing that brought him into the kitchen. Failing to make the grade as an engineer or doctor in India’s rigorous education system, Sinju was faced with finding a job – and fast.
“I wasn’t good for anything else,” he smiles. “I went back to the resort village I was from in Kerala thinking I could get a job in a hotel. I found work as a pot wash guy – I’m still thankful to them, it was the building block for me.”
There, in the hotel, Sinju at last found an environment that suited him – and within six months he had garnered the attention of a chef, who began teaching him the tricks of the trade. After attending culinary school and diligently putting in the hours, he began to earn his stripes and eventually came over to the UAE to begin a new step in his culinary career.
Since that day 12 years ago, Sinju has notched up an impressive CV. With postings at the Westin Abu Dhabi, Fairmont and Emirates Palace, and awards and accolades in scores, he has now taken up residence to head up the culinary team at Al Raha Beach Hotel.
But if the stints have changed over the years, the philosophy Sinju brings to each one hasn’t: “Food is a basic necessity of people. I want my staff to be relaxed, to taste the food, for their hearts to be in it. When you come to work, make something and put it on a plate; it should be about giving your best. You should be cooking as if you’re going to give it to your mother.”
It’s precisely this approach that Sinju brings to Al Raha Beach Hotel. With a firm belief in simplicity and innovation, Sinju wants to bring extraordinary flavour to ordinary ingredients and create fine dining food without the intimidation factor.
“I’m not a fan of fancy service or the white gloves,” he notes. “I believe in creating the best food with the best ingredients served in a relaxed atmosphere. Food should be enjoyable, it should be about simplicity.”
With concepts in the works across the board, Sinju is excited about creating a new gastronomic future for Al Raha Beach Hotel – but he knows exactly what he wants.
“More visibility, good flavours, interesting things, value for money,” he trails off.
“I think we’re on the right track.”
WORDS Camille Hogg