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In Conversation with Chef Hari • Executive Chef at Gili Lankanfushi Resort Maldives

Chef Harinath Govindaraj known as Chef Hari was born in Southern India in 1984. He grew up in the state of Tamilnadu with his parents and younger brother; his father a milkman and street cook and his mother helped with the business. Fast forward a few decades and Chef Hari is the Executive Chef at Gili Lankanfushi Resort and the place he has been working for 15 years. He became Executive Chef in 2019 as the resort was being rebuilt following a fire. He was instrumental in the redevelopment build and was given the chance to create the chef kitchen of his dreams. What comes through clearly from Hari is how grateful he is for the life he has built and for the luck he has to do what he loves everyday. To cook for his guests and his team at the Gili Lankanfushi resort.

Chef Hari’s relationship with food started at the age of 8. His father was a milkman and Hari would join him in the early morning delivering milk to the neighbourhood before rushing to school to study. Later in the day, after school was over, his father moved on the evening shift as a street vendor selling (pakoras & samosas). Hari simply loved to spend time with his father so to show his love and gratitude for how hard he worked, Hari would prepare a meal which they would eat together. His speciality was Dosas and whilst his dad would eat anything Hari put in front of him, he never seemed to reach his mother’s high standards, she always refused his dishes! Hari remembers this fondly and always saw it as an incentive to become more accomplished as a chef. Still, Hari and his father were as thick as thieves and the time they spent together brought them ever closer.

A milkman doing the rounds in India

The way chef came into the culinary world was totally by chance or one might call it fate. Whilst his parents had in mind that he would train as an electrician after he left school, a great friend of his father’s insisted that he become a cook because it would lead to a well paid job, enough to contribute to his family’s earnings and make a difference to their standard of living. This was Hari’s main priority from a young age - to work hard so that he could repay his parents for all the work and support they had given him growing up. Although his mother tried to arrange for Hari to marry, prospective families would reject him as a suitor due to his occupation. Working as a cook was regarded as being a low ranking job, they pictured him working in a market preparing food for the busy lunch crowds.

So in 2000, he started at culinary school, which cost his parents 30 dollars a month. This was quite the investment for his family and Hari could feel the pressure. He didn’t enjoy it at first and would cry thinking that they had made a mistake. He wasn’t going to amount to anything if he pursued this career. His mother saw how unhappy he was and said, we are spending this money, we don’t want you to pursue this career you don’t enjoy, we should save the money or you must choose something else. What would you like to do instead? With this ultimatum Hari totally changed his mind, mostly because he never gives up but also because he wanted to prove to his parents he could do it. This gave him the push he needed to change his attitude and his approach to his training and so he started to see the value in what he was learning. This was the true start of his career.

Watch In Conversation with Chef Hari

Chef Hari in the Gili Garden picking herbs for his dishes

His first job was in Bangalore. This was such an exciting time for him, to be hired as a working man. He left his family to move to the city and earned $35 a month in a hotel. Hari thought that the menu at the hotel was a representation of the food all across the world. His young mind believed the four soups on the menu were on all the other hotels menus - he had learnt how to cook all the dishes he would ever need to cook in hotel kitchens worldwide. Long hours would be followed by nights of broken sleep as he laid his head in the banquet halls to avoid the costs of a room. He lived and breathed the hotel life. He always kept in his mind that he was doing this to pay off his parents loans so that one day he could build them a house. As he began to progress and move on to his next job, he quickly realised menu were more extensive and variable, there were other dishes out there after all and their recipes were a mystery. So he started from scratch again and put all his efforts into building his skills and experience. Hari stayed rooted in Bangalore in search of new opportunities. He got into the Taj hotel in Bangalore, one of the most prestigious hotel groups in India as well as the Oberoi.

Beautiful dishes on Chef Hari's menu for guests can enjoy

Here, he really started to hone his skills. He was learning his craft and he fell for hospitality in luxury hotels. In 2006, he was contacted by Arum, sous chef of the Gili Lankanfushi Resort. It was about a job and Arum made him an offer. Hari panicked and thought he couldn’t possibly leave India and move abroad, away from his family both from home and at work. He wasn’t ready to take the leap and go it alone so he turned down the offer. The following year, the call came again and this time, he knew he couldn’t turn it down. He packed his suitcase, said goodbye to his family and the hotel life that he knew and just as he left his mother warned him ‘ you must know the Maldives is a dangerous place; you could be hit or kicked, I am telling you you must be careful, son. But this didn’t deter Hari, he knew that this opportunity was going to lead to bigger and better things and open him up to the international culinary world. And it did, 15 years on, Hari is the Executive Chef at Gili and he’s never looked back.

Chef Raymond Blanc

Although Hari says that the only negative of living and working abroad is that he doesn’t see his family as much as he would like, there are so many positives, all earned from taking a leap of faith all those years ago. The island has now become his home, and the staff his family. He has had the chance to work with many Michelin star chefs at the resort, who visit regularly and spoil the guests with their world class cuisine. And Hari took every opportunity he could to learn from the best and gained rich, inside knowledge from the best chefs in the world from Indian chef Atul Kochhar and Japanese chef Toshiro Konishi to renowned European chefs as well. He tells a story of his experience brushing aprons with Raymond Blanc. Naively, Hari didn’t know who he was at the time and during service, as Raymond was preparing to send out a dish, Hari refused to let it leave the kitchen, the sauce wasn’t right.

The breakfast spread at Gili Lankanfushi

Luckily for Hari, Chef Raymond laughed it off and gave Hari the opportunity to explain himself. They connected over the conversation that followed while Hari took the opportunity to bravely address the elephant in the room - the sauce. In exchange for the bold correction Raymond summoned him with an offer. He would show him how to make his red wine sauce and not just any red wine sauce as you can imagine! Raymond’s 'visite éclair' was over and several weeks later, Hari received a signed copy of his book with his name on it.

Chef Hari can now say with confidence that he sees himself as being part of the world chef community, creating his own menus using his wealth of experience, the skills he inherited from the chefs that would fly to the island. There is no question the dishes in Hari’s repertoire are uniquely his and he does it with flair. Cooking using herbs from the kitchen garden, local produce while he prepares dishes requested by his guests is what he loves to do. So he has his father’s great friend and Arum the sous chef at Gili Lankanfushi to thank for that; those decisions made his career and changed the path of his life forever.

Mr & Ms Fridays at the guests' service

Hari had dreams and the goals that drove him to achieve the high level of success have come true. He’s paid off his parents loan and 5 years ago, he built his parents house. He still feels emotional about the fact that he was able to give back to his parents and fulfil the promise he had made to himself as a young man.

The Gili Residence - one of the suites at the resort

Today, Chef Hari leads a team of 52 staff in the kitchen and cooks for 120 guests on a daily basis, not forgetting the hungry crew of 250 hotel staff he and his team have to feed. And that’s three times a day. Suddenly, 52 doesn’t seem like such a big number! Hari absolutely loves what he does and believes it's the camaraderie, his passion and commitment and the exceptional opportunities that were offered to him that has made him the man and the chef he has become. At just 38, there is still so much he can achieve and his future in the culinary world is bright.

It was such a pleasure to sit down with Chef Hari, virtually and I really hope to meet him in person one day and hear more of his life stories. He has so much to share and his dynamic and engaging personality is everything you would expect and more from a world class chef.

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