By Jekhan Aruliah
I first met Sinnaththurai Jeyakumar in 2020 at a particularly good dinner in Jetwing Jaffna’s elegant restaurant. We had eaten well, enjoyed a bottle of wine, and were feeling good. As we thanked our waiter, he asked if we would like to meet the chef.
A moment later there he was. Smart, enthusiastic, with a bright engaging smile topped off by a chef's hat, Sinnaththurai Jeyakumar came out from the kitchen to meet us. Jeyakumar was the chef responsible for cooking and plating our dinners. Strictly speaking Jeyakumar was the Second Commis Chef who under normal circumstances would be guided by the First Commis Chef instructed by the Chef de Partie reporting to the Sous Chef under the direction of The Chef in Jaffna following the culinary strategies of the Executive Chef in Colombo. But in 2020, after two hard knocks to the tourism industry with the 2019 Easter Bombing and the 2020 COVID-19 crisis, these chains of command had some missing links as the cash strapped industry struggled to maintain staffing levels.
So here stood a charismatic young man speaking English confidently answering our questions: where are you from; how did you learn to cook so excellently; how old are you; stuff like that. I later spoke with my friend Chris Ponnadurai, at the time the Jetwing Jaffna General Manager, asking for the chance to interview Jeyakumar. I wanted to write about this fine example of Jaffna youth entering a tough profession, unfashionable among Jaffna’s ammas and aunties, clearly revelling in the challenges and the opportunities that came with it. It was only some weeks later when I interviewed him that I discovered the humble background this accomplished young man came from.
Jeyakumar was born in 1994 in Urelu, a small village near Chunnakam a small town in the Jaffna Peninsula. His father had a bicycle repair shop, and was also a watchman at the local church. His mother brought up the family, in which he is the youngest of four brothers and a sister. His early schooling was during the Sri Lankan Civil War. So Jeyakumar like many other children stayed in the school hostel to avoid the hazards of travelling daily between home and school. Once the war finished in 2009, Jeyakumar was able to complete his schooldays living at home studying at Skandavarodaya College, where he achieved a very creditable B and two Cs at A’Level. Jeyakumar wanted to be a teacher. But in the years immediately after the war there was a long and wide queue of people from the Northern Province waiting to enter that profession, so the opportunity never came to him.
In 2014 Jeyakumar got a job as a steward at one of Jaffna’s mid level hotels which for this article I will call “EL Hotel”. He took the job because his family needed the income and there were no other better opportunities for him. Here he spent a year and a half cleaning the rooms and kitchens. After some time he was tasked to make pizza and fried rice when he wasn’t on cleaning duties. One day Jeyakumar saw an advertisement in the newspaper telling of interviews in Jaffna’s Veerasingham Hall for a Hospitality Management Course. As he was on duty that day, Jeyakumar was unable to attend the interviews. Later, when he had some free time, he went direct to the training centre at the Karainagar branch of the Vocational Training Agency (VTA). This was an initiative involving the German government’s GiZ, the VTA, and the Jetwing hotel group. Here he met Chris Ponnadurai, Jetwing Jaffna’s first General Manager, who retired in January 2021. Jeyakumar was told that the programme was for unemployed youth, so because he already had a job he wasn’t eligible.
EL Hotel also had an outlet at the Cargills Mall Food Court. Jeyakumar was put in charge of the outlet. This meant an early shift in the hotel cleaning rooms and helping with the guest breakfasts, followed by a 10 minute motorcycle ride to Cargills Mall where he did everything from cleaning, cooking and cashiering through two shifts in charge of two girls in the morning shift and two boys in the evening shift.
While working at the 2nd Floor food court at Cargills Mall, through the washroom window Jeyakumar could see a building being put up next door. He spoke to the security guards asking what the building was for. They said it was to be a fancy new hotel. Jeyakumar realized that the training centre in Karainagar was for this hotel. So he decided to speak with Chris Ponnadurai again. Jeyakumar’s persistence paid off. For his good fortune a vacancy had been created in the training course due to one of the students dropping out. Chris, recognizing there was something special in this sparky young man, gave him a place.
For the next 6 months Jeyakumar combined his job at EL Hotel, who agreed to give him the time off with a paycut, with the training course. Starting early in the morning he prepared breakfast for the guests, then rode his motorbike to Veerasingham Hall where a bus left at 8am sharp to take students 18km to the Vocational Training Authority’s Karainagar centre. After training, he got back at 4.30pm to do a shift at the Cargills Mall food court, at 10pm returned to EL for the night cleaning shift, and then slept.
The training at the VTA had a strong English language focus. Every day there would be English classes. Most of the students on the course spoke only Tamil. The fact that I, who speak only English, was having a conversation with Jeyakumar illustrates the effectiveness of these classes. After 6 months, the Jetwing Group’s strategy was to send the trainees to work at other Jetwing hotels. So Jeyakumar spent 5 months at Jetwing Yala, a luxury hotel on Sri Lanka’s southern coast serving well heeled visitors to the famous Yala National Park.
At Jetwing Yala Jeyakumar learned to cut meat and fish, chop vegetables, grate coconuts, clean potatoes. He learned to use the different types of pans, he did basic cooking making omelets and cooking naan in a blisteringly hot tandoor. Very importantly he learned the expectations of the management, the colleagues, and the guests at a high class hotel. And he learned to speak Sinhala from his coworkers. During break times they would go to the beach to play volleyball and swim. They all built good relations and even now, several years later, they keep in touch over Facebook. Jeyakumar’s final day at Jetwing Yala was working on the Christmas Buffet on 25th December 2015. On 26th December, he and the other trainees returned to Jetwing Jaffna to work under Chris Ponnadurai.
Over the next three years Jeyakumar was gradually promoted from Kitchen Assistant (keeping floor, tables, pots and pans clean and polished) up to 2nd Commis Chef responsible for cooking food for the guests. After the 2019 Easter Bombing, and the collapse in the tourist industry, all promotions were suspended. But he got the chance to spend a month working at the Jetwing Vil Uyana, one of Jetwing’s premier properties near Sigiriya.
Here Jeyakumar learned western style cooking, working under the Executive Chef Mahesh Wanniarachchi who he describes as a brilliant chef and teacher. Jeyakumar has worked under some great chefs in his short career so far, but he gives Chris Ponnadurai, who himself had once been a chef, greatest credit for “teaching me how to cook”.
In January 2021 Jeyakumar decided to move on, and left Jetwing. After more than 5 years at Jetwing, and with the hotel still very quiet due to the COVID-19 travel restrictions, he felt he wasn’t learning new things. As an ambitious young man he wanted to widen and deepen his experience, perhaps going overseas for awhile.
In the longer term Jeyakumar plans to come back to Jaffna. He intends to setup a restaurant which he will own and be the chef. The restaurant would be upmarket, offering a high standard of Jaffna food and Jaffna culture.
Jeyakumar is a great example of what underprivileged youth can achieve when opportunity, aptitude, and attitude can be brought together. Not only in the Northern Province, but across Sri Lanka. From humble beginnings can come great things.
Jeyakumar can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
( — The writer Jekhan Aruliah was born in Sri Lanka and moved with his family to the UK when he was two years of age. Brought up in London, he graduated from Cambridge University in 1986 with a degree in Natural Sciences. Jekhan then spent over two decades in the IT industry, for half of which he was managing offshore software development for British companies in Colombo and in Gurgaon (India). In 2015 Jekhan decided to move to Jaffna where he is now involved in social and economic projects. He can be contacted at email@example.com — )