Just came off back to back nights in DC doing two Dinner Labs events that served a total of 220 people. Dinner Lab is a company that regularly stages supper clubs across the country, allowing emerging chefs a chance to shine, and this was my first time working with them. After a hectic 2 days of prep in their DC kitchen, in which we just barely got everything done, I was ready to trot out my menu, which featured a traditional Sri Lankan “Rice & Curry” meal that was deconstructed, or broken down into 5 courses, instead of being served all together. The menu included a mackerel cutlet; tomato & cucumber salad; a capsicum pepper stuffed with ground beef, in a coconut milk gravy; spinach & dhal curry with red rice, coconut sambol, and papadum; black pork curry on a coconut roti with tempered leeks and mango chutney; and finally, for dessert, a coconut flan.
The greatest challenge in cooking for so many people is getting the spicing right–especially the heat. Because I love chilies, and use them liberally in my cooking, I have obviously developed a high tolerance for heat, which is not shared by too many people. Since many people are not familiar with Sri Lankan food, which is known to be spicy, the trick is to highlight the flavors without letting the chili overtake everything else. I carefully designed a menu, which would do just that, but as always there were those who thought it was too hot, while others craved more heat. It just goes to show that you can’t please all of the people all of the time.
But walking around the room and getting feedback from the diners proved to be invaluable. I found that most people really appreciated the fact that Sri Lankan food stands on its own as a whole separate entity from Indian food. As one of my goals has always been to put Sri Lankan cuisine on the map, I was very happy that my food clearly illustrated this distinction. There is also nothing better than getting compliments on your cooking, and it meant even more since the DC crowd is serious about their food. I got into many interesting conversations about the ingredients I used as well as about Sri Lanka itself. It’s one of those times when a chef is really an ambassador for his country and his culture, and I was proud to represent a place as wonderful as Sri Lanka.
I should also mention that the locations for both dinners were amazing. The first night was held at the Atlas Theatre on H Street. , and the second at an old renovated church cum artspace called The Blind Whino on M Street–just around the corner, coincidentally, from the Capitol Skyline Hotel, where I worked as Executive Chef. I’ll be doing another Sri Lankan menu for Dinner Lab at an event in Baltimore on December 6th.