This week, the World Association of Chefs Societies hosts its global competition in Stavanger, Norway. Held every two years, the contest brings together seven finalists – one from each region in the world – to compete in three categories: Global Chef, Junior Chef and Global Pastry Chef. The finalists had to win several preliminary rounds in their cities, countries and regions during the previous two years. This year, two of the finalists representing the Middle East/Africa region are from Dubai.Achala Weerasinghe, the Sri Lankan resort pastry chef at Madinat Jumeirah, will compete in the Global Pastry Chef category on Friday, and Rahil Rathod, a young Indian chef from the Radisson Blu Hotel, Dubai Deira Creek, will compete in the Junior Chef category on Saturday.
Rahil Rathod wasn’t born with a love of cooking. He grew up in Gujarat, India, in a family that sticks to tradition: his mother and aunts did the cooking while the men went to work. His father wanted him to join the family business or go to school to earn a degree, but Rathod admits he didn’t want to work hard. Friends convinced him if he studied hospitality, he wouldn’t have to.
“I thought, I won’t have to study. I’ll get a degree and that’s it. My dad will be happy,” says Rathod. But within two years, his love of food and cooking had grown into a passion he wanted to pursue. At the age of 21, he left India behind and made his way to Dubai to start his culinary career. Within six months of arriving, he was working as a chef at Radisson Blu Hotel, Dubai Deira Creek.
Now nearly 24, Rathod has worked in most of the restaurants at the hotel. His hours are long and the work is hard – not the easy life he thought he would have.
“It is very busy. It is a lot of work. But it will take something to get something. I’ll not get anything without hard work.”
After work, he spends a few hours every night at home reading, watching and learning more about food. His speciality is North Indian cuisine, but he says there is a lot of European influence in his cooking.
Rathod has set his goals high: “People say I’m living in a fantasy world, but I want to be the youngest Indian Michelin star chef in the world. That’s my goal.”
It doesn’t seem so far-fetched when you look at what he’s accomplished. He’s already graced the cover of the respected chef’s magazine Gulf Gourmet and he’s won several cookery competitions throughout the region. He knows that winning Global Junior Chef in Norway would be a huge stepping stone.
“It’s a world stage. There’s nothing bigger than that. If I screw it up …” He pauses and lets out a nervous laugh. “It doesn’t come every time on your doorstep and say, ‘Rahil, come on, I’m waiting for you.’ It’s a lifetime opportunity I cannot play around with.”
Achala Weerasinghe has been honing his skills as a pastry chef for 14 years. He grew up in Badulla, Sri Lanka and wanted a career that would bring respect and prestige. He loved the idea of being a chef, but when he came to Dubai in 2004, he didn’t tell anyone about his goal of becoming a pastry chef.
“I thought, other people can do it, why can’t I? I have a brain. I have hands,” he says. “I learned. I worked hard. If you do that, you can do anything.” For the past decade, Weerasinghe has worked his way around prestigious hotels in the city. His latest position, which he landed just one month ago, is the resort pastry chef at Madinat Jumeirah in Dubai. He oversees the pastries in 14 restaurants across three hotels.
“I like working with chocolate and sugar. I do a lot of stuff by hand,” he says. And that’s what helps set him apart. Where others use moulds when making chocolate desserts, Weerasinghe handcrafts his creations.
Now 36, he has already won many regional competitions and medals, including Salon Culinaire’s Pastry Chef of the Year four years in a row. His goals for the future involve sharing his passion for pastries with others. Alhough he’s excited about his new role of resort pastry chef at Madinat Jumeirah, he says he eventually wants to teach young students just starting out in the culinary world.
For now, he’s focused on Norway and hopes to learn some new ideas from the six chefs he’s competing with, but he also intends to win.
“This is a big accomplishment. There were 140 countries. Now there are only seven people going to the final. There’s a lot of talent. But no problem, I will face the challenge.”