|Sri Lankan born chef Keerthi Hapugasdeniya (better known as HappyK)|
Founder and CEO of Hội An Culinary Events, chef Keerthi Hapugasdeniya (better known as HappyK), will organise the second Hội An International Food Festival on March 20-26. The award-winning Sri Lankan-born chef who lives in Australia but visits Việt Nam often and has contributed a lot to promoting Vietnamese cuisine and culture through culinary events. He shares with Vương Bạch Liên the story of his love for Vietnamese cuisine.
Inner Sanctum: Twelve international chefs will come to Hội An and cook with herbs and other ingredients from the city at the upcoming international food festival. What gave you the idea for such an event?
Hội An is such a unique city in Việt Nam. I was in Đà Nẵng for an event. And then, one night, I went to Hội An and had dinner at the Vy’s Market Restaurant where I explored all different kinds of Vietnamese food under one roof.
I was really impressed what this restaurant had come up with and how they were introducing Vietnamese food to their customers. After this, I used this restaurant for several events and I met the owner of this restaurant, Ms Vy, and we thought Hội An has a lot more to offer to the world as a great culinary city. As we talked about her plan to bring Hội An’s food to the world, we thought bringing the world to Hội An would be much easier way to introduce Vietnamese food to the world. So we started planning this Hội An International Food Festival.
Inner Sanctum: Why Hội An and not other cities in Việt Nam?
I have been travelling in Việt Nam over the last 15 years and when I came to Hội An, I realized this town mixed the north and the south cuisine very well to produce great dishes. Local vegetables and spices are very easy to source, and some of the ingredients can come from all over Việt Nam easily, because this city is situated in the middle of the country.
Inner Sanctum: What do you find special about Vietnamese cuisine?
The natural taste of fresh ingredients and how they are used to suit to the palate with best flavours. Most of the ingredients are the same, but how the Vietnamese kitchen mixes and blends them to make it so fresh and tasty is the key.
Inner Sanctum: What is your favourite Vietnamese dish?
Cao lầu noodles is my favourite dish by far, the concept of this dish suits many palates around the world. And apart from the traditional Hội An style cao lầu, if you are a creative chef you can mix and marry many flavours to make it more exciting. There are many other simple dishes I like from the Vietnamese kitchen too.
Inner Sanctum: Is Vietnamese cuisine well known in the countries you’ve been to?
I live in Melbourne and it is the multicultural capital of Australia. People here love to try many different kinds of food. We do have lots of Vietnamese residents and many shops where we can purchase a lot of Vietnamese ingredients. And when I travel around the world for my work, I have found many other major cities have lots of Vietnamese restaurants and they are very popular because of the simplicity of the dishes. Most of the Vietnamese dishes have a story connected with their culture and this makes Vietnamese food closer to the heart when it’s made and eaten.
Inner Sanctum: What do you think Việt Nam can do to promote further its cuisine?
I think Vietnamese food is still a hidden treasure to the culinary world, so we need to bring these culinary delights to the world in as many ways as possible. The Hội An International Food Festival is one of the many activities we are planning. We are also planning an International noodle Carnival in Đà Nẵng and International Cao Lầu Festival in Hội An where international chefs produce their own versions of the dish over a one-week competition.
Inner Sanctum: How did you become a chef, and such a talented one? I know that you’ve represented Australia at the Culinary World Cup and the Culinary Olympics and won prestigious awards including individual gold medals.
It’s always a challenge to become who you are in any industry. It was a very hard road, specially to be someone in the international arena. Cooking is my passion and I trust my gut feelings when I do my work. So I can create interesting and special dishes that customers like. My customers always give me the encouragement to grow and they challenge me to do better always.
Inner Sanctum: What advice would you give to young people who want to become professional chefs?
Cooking is not something you can learn from a book. It needs lots of passion. If you like to be a chef, it is a long road, but you must think about your food from your heart and produce your dishes with lots of feeling and love.
Listen to your elders. How they recognize food and what stories they have to tell you about food and ingredients. These are the memories that you need to know how food becomes a part of your life. Once you know the values of dishes you used to eat, the seasonal ingredients and so on, you will appreciate the dishes you make and consume.
Inner Sanctum: You are also a TV personality with a cooking show in Australia (Culinary Corner – CH31) and conduct many culinary events in the region. What are your most successful dishes?
It is hard to say I like this dish, or this is the best. I have produced lots of dishes and when the customers are happy and enjoy my dish; that becomes my favourite dish of that day. VNS