In his first full magazine interview since becoming Executive Chef at The Dorchester, we spent time with the humble, kind and driven Mario Perera to talk about his exciting Sri Lankan residency at The Dorchester Rooftop, his journey at The Dorchester and what the future holds.
For just 3 weeks, Sri Lankan born Mario Perera combines his decades of experience at The Dorchester with this exciting Sri Lankan dining concept that’s very close to his heart at The Dorchester Rooftop.
Tell us all about your 3 week Sri Lankan pop up at The Dorchester Rooftop
I am so excited. Sri Lankan cuisine is my mother cuisine so it is a unique and proud moment for me to cook what my family have taught me. I will be creating those generational family recipes but with that unique Dorchester touch to them, using amazing ingredients and cooking styles that will really make this menu memorable.
On the drinks side, our brilliant bar team have also created a Sri Lankan cocktail list full of originals like a Colombo Sour with Colombo gin, peach liqueur, kümmel, lemon and Angostura orange bitters. My father is my hero and his favourite drink was arrack so we created the Thathi to remember him with Ceylon Arrack, orange Curaçao, pineapple juice, orgeat syrup and lime.
Tell us about some of the highlights from your Sri Lankan menu at The Dorchester Rooftop?
Sri Lankan cuisine is colourful, vibrant and delicately spiced, celebrating the abundance of coconut, heirloom rice varieties, pandan leaf, lemongrass, raw and roasted fresh curry powder. All the dishes are designed to share and it is a family style of eating so please come with an appetite!
The Blue Lobster Kottu will take one of the national dishes of Sri Lanka and instead of meat, I will use a lovely piece of Scottish locally sourced lobster. There is also a côte de boeuf with my mum’s jaggery curry sauce, a roasted curry powder based sauce with a hint of sweetness and a lot of flavour.
On the sweeter side, when the nights are fresh, I may also even be serving my grandmother’s milk wine – a mix of warming curdled milk, Sri Lankan arrack and spices. This is such a traditional Sri Lankan staple especially when you visit someone’s home.
Watalappan is a traditional coconut custard pudding in Sri Lanka so I gave it that Dorchester touch and turned it into a brûlée. There are so many highlights on the menu!
What is your favourite Sri Lankan dish you like to make at home?
I love hoppers but it has to be mother’s chicken curry – this is also on the menu. It is an old time favourite recreating the flavour that my mum made for me that I also make for my little ones. We give it that Dorchester touch with some Norfolk chicken to give that depth of flavour. The chicken is Josper grilled and we prepare the curry with all the chicken including the bones to really maximise the full flavour of the chicken.
Where did it all start?
I wanted to be a Chef since the age of 9. I come from a family of four boys and instead of toys, I always used to buy cooking ingredients with my pocket money. One day mum was a little poorly and lunch had to be made so I hopped on a step ladder and made lunch for my family. Mum asked me who cooked it and she couldn’t believe it was me. I knew what I wanted to be from a very young age.
Tell us about your journey to becoming Executive Chef at The Dorchester
I managed to win an apprenticeship at The Taj Group in Sri Lanka when I was 16. When I was on a short trip to London, I saw an advert in The Caterer for jobs at The Dorchester and said to my mum, this is where I want to work. In 1996, I was introduced to the Executive Chef at the time (Willi Elsener) and we had a chat. He offered me a job and I started at 8am the next morning as third commis chef.
On 14 July 2020, the moment I will never forget happened. I had a phone call and was asked to become Executive Chef, overseeing six kitchens and 100 chefs. I have the greatest team and the best kitchens in London, so I am living the dream.
Tell us about the work that you do with young people to promote hospitality?
With the Chefs’ Forum, we work with a number of schools to help inspire the next generation of chefs. At The Dorchester, we work closely with Manorfield Primary School in London with live cooking classes for the kids, growing a vegetable patch at the school and more. Last year, I was auctioned off in a raffle for £2000 to cook for 6 people! In the kitchen at The Dorchester, it is also my responsibility to ensure my team are ready for their next move. I want to develop them and always play to their strengths.
What is the next big culinary thing to happen at The Dorchester?
The Dorchester is an amazing institution that has been around for 90 years and somewhere that keeps evolving. Plans are under wraps for now, but expect some really exciting culinary developments over the next year or so. We will continue to work really closely with the finest local suppliers, who assist us in demonstrating our commitment to amazing quality, seasonality and sustainability.
What is your proudest moment at The Dorchester?
Cooking is the happiest thing I can ever do. Preparing food for people is one of the most precious things you can do. As well as cooking for HM The Queen, the day I became Executive Chef at The Dorchester is a moment I had worked towards for 40 years. It was my childhood dream and a very proud moment.
Mario Perera’s Sri Lankan pop up at The Dorchester Rooftop is from 10-30 May 2021.
To book, visit: dorchestercollection.com
All imagery courtesy of The Dorchester/Mario Perera.
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