Lapis Lazuli Chef from Sri Lanka: Hollywood’s serendipitous find | Sunday Observer

Lapis Lazuli Chef from Sri Lanka: Hollywood’s serendipitous find

Subhashan with William Hurt
Subhashan with William Hurt

He can tinker a sleepy water melon into a brilliant bouquet of pink roses, a Beluga whale-like gourd into a graceful swan, or a big chunk of ice into a mermaid. In 2000, participating in an International Ice Carving competition, a mere walking distance to the Arctic Circle where he won the silver medal, he sculpted a fire-spewing dragon out of a car-sized block of ice. The Aurora Borealis flickered its light on the dragon almost fidgeting it into life. St. George wouldn’t dare hurt such an Elysian creature created with the nimble hands of the Sri Lankan chef cum ice carving Triton, Subhashan Krinsley Withanage, now living in Los Angeles, California. This village lad has become one of the preferred chefs in Hollywood’s movie landscape.

When the shooting of the Oscar winning Million Dollar Baby (2004) was concluded, Director Clint Eastwood and actor Morgan Freeman came to congratulate Chef Subhashan for “making their day” by his fantastic culinary service the film crew enjoyed. Off the set of Glass (to be released in Jan. 2019) in Philadelphia, actors Samuel Jackson and Bruce Willis joined to give accolades to this chef for the sumptuous meals he prepared for the crew. In CSI - Crime Scene Investigation (14 seasons running, CBS) in the episode “Last Supper,” the director put up Subhashan’s portrait depicting him in the chef’s regalia on the kitchen wall in the background to honor him. Sigourney Weaver and Bryce Dallas Howard (The Village, 2004) loved the eggplant moju (batumoju).

Subhashan’s spicy Sri Lankan chicken curry was Harrison Ford’s favourite while working on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. He talked of memories of Sri Lankan hot dishes while being located at Pallekale, years ago on the set of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

While legions of production teams bring Hollywood into every living room, it wouldn’t be possible without the deft hands of the men and women who feed them. Subhashan represents Sri Lanka in this singular task with a flare admired by many. He and his crew are one of the great teams of chefs that represent Tony’s Food Service, an industry leader in Hollywood’s culinary circuit.

As much as the directors and producers define the movie art, Subhashan and his crew provide the culinary palette of it in their own matching way: one day he introduces a fusion of South Asian delicacy with a worldly taste; the next day the theme is South American.

Before he embraced the culinary craft, Subhashan’s artistic flare began to take shape while he was still a teenager at Wadduwa. With the blessings of his father Hewawasam Withanage Dayarathna and mother Gnanawathie Edirisinghe, after school, this teenager would watch his art teacher, a well-known sculptor and art restorer I.R. Vipularathna at work on creations in the temple compound, near his home. Vipularathna quickly discovered the youngster’s potential and took him under his wings. This gave Subhashan the push to explore and test his own depth to find creativity that would blossom soon. Later, through the National Apprentice Board of Sri Lanka he got the chance to learn culinary art in the kitchen of Neptune Hotel.

Subhashan’s launching pad for food art began to take shape after he started working in the food-loving Colombo circuit. He became a carver of vegetable, ice, butter, or any synthetic material that could be morphed into a piece of art in a dining environment. Soon, it caught the attention of cookery art circles in the country. In 1980, the Moratuwa Housewives’ Association declared Subhashan as a Professional Artist and a creator of vegetable and butter arts. In April 1991, the National Arts Gallery opened its door to him to stage a vegetable and butter carving exhibition. It must have been a great appetizer for gustatory cravings of the incipient hospitality scene of the time in Colombo.

After migrating to the United States in the early ’90s, Subhashan embarked on, to further his creative work. The Monterey Plaza Hotel in Steinbeck country, California, was the first to recognize his worldly culinary mastery. Thereafter, seeing Subhashan’s work, Boxing great Muhammad Ali one day came down to the kitchen to find out about this man who turns out great culinary expressions. Subhashan also presented one of the earliest solo cookery shows in a local TV station in Torrance, California.

It was not in a glittery kitchen we now see in cooking shows regularly. Nevertheless, with pioneer shows like that, he must have inspired the future producers and entrepreneurs how to take culinary shows to the stock exchange. Soon, it was a matter of time before the Hollywood’s talent agents found Subhashan to feed the movie-making machinery full of hungry actors and others of the production world.

Subhashan’s craft is extraordinary in its labile nature of operation. Hollywood chef maestro’s work is all over the geography. Therefore, every day he and his crew must be ready for the challenges - a whole new menu for the day’s filming, sometimes hundreds of miles somewhere or in a lot adjoining a make-believe set, if not in Hollywood, New York or Atlanta and the like. It is no secret that experiencing a splendid meal, be it the breakfast to break open the day, lunch to remember the Acts and Lines through the afternoon filming session, or dinner to restore energy for a few more hours of movie making, are rewards a film crew gets on a daily basis. The director and producer have the script pre-stenciled by a coterie of writers. But, Subhashan’s script is one that he must create by himself on a daily basis. When he receives tomorrow’s filming schedule, the choice locale for working his cuisine balladry is not the shiny kitchen the traditional chef is entitled to. His workplace - often in a makeshift environment surrounded with equipage in a specialty truck - is not an entitlement, but a test of a chef’s ingrained expertise. He is the chef on location wherever it would be.

With the girth well suited for a culinary professional, spruced up with tailored name-tag on his white jacket, buttoned neck down, and toque blanche shooting upwards atop his head, Subhashan holds court in a dining setting. His is not an 8 to 5 job. He starts at 2 a.m. whether it is on location or in the studio lot. His ‘Duwanagiriya Hotel’ culinary phenomenon is created in a large mobile truck. It is normal for him to drive it 5,000 kilometres, 4-5 days straight, from Hollywood to a location in Boston with tools aptly complementing its stainless-steel tables, gilt-edged china, and shiny cutlery. This ensemble lets the chef produce dishes for the make-believe heroes, heroines, villains, and ruffians of the screen.

This chef knows that despite how embellished an actor or an actress can be, neither can be effective with a hungry stomach. So, he meticulously shapes his menu to fit the location, season, and sometimes even the theme of the movie.

At the end of the filming of each movie, stars customarily give autographed photos to the chef and his crew for the splendid work they did. With a disarming smile, Subhashan told me he has run out of space on the wall to mount them.

Although it is a long way from home for a Sri Lankan culinary ace, next time when you sit and enjoy a hit straight from the La La Land, think of the role of the virtuoso behind each fading scene – the master chef from Serendib who provides the gustatory vitality to bring the magic of Hollywood to delight us all.