Without so much as a roof over his head, proper clothing, financial stability or education, Dr. T. Publis Silva managed to become one of Sri Lanka’s most celebrated and loved chefs. Having worked with Mount Lavinia Hotel for 57 years now, he has been conferred with President’s Award and, recently, the Deshabandu Award for distinguished services to the nation, by Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena.
His life maybe all smiles and comfortable now, but it began with unimaginable hardships. “My mother would go to the market and pick up discarded vegetables, wash them and walk back six miles to the area we were staying in to sell it. I would tag along sometimes,” began Chef Silva. His kind eyes and radiant smile didn’t have even a glint of sorrow as he continued, “I have studied only till Class 4 and my first ever job, in Mount Lavinia Hotel, was as a coal carrier — fuel stoves weren’t a thing back then, so I would load the boilers with coal.”
The 83-year-old joked about how five years after joining the hotel, he became a sous chef and 15 years down the line, a chef. “I’ve been in the kitchen for so long that my hotel has become my first home and cooking, my first wife,” he chuckled. At 5.45 every morning he arrives dressed in white to begin prepping for the day, though he only supervises and doesn’t cook now. “I wake up at 2 am, and after saying my prayers, offer fruits, water and tea to my God. Guess who my God is?” he asked us. Noticing we weren’t going to answer soon (so that we didn’t hurt his religious sentiments) he revealed, “My wife!”
In Chennai to host a food festival at ITC Grand Chola titled Kandyan Kings Repast, he brought to diners some of the finest dishes that were once made within the dynasty’s royal kitchens. Crab curry served with appam, stir-fried pork with black pepper, steaming hot chicken curry with ghee rice, an interesting pumpkin in mustard gravy and beans were on display. “Speaking of beans, does the green colour change when you cook at home?” he asked us. We replied in the affirmative and he smiled, “That’s where Indians go wrong in cooking — you overcook or fry vegetables so much that they lose their nutrients. Blanching is actually the best way to cook beans.”
The chef, who has also authored 23 books despite barely any education, said he has a long way to go in his culinary journey before stopping. “Just the way you’re eating my food, I want the whole world to taste Sri Lankan cuisine. My second goal is that even after I die, I want the world to know who Deshabandhu Dr. T. Publis Silva is. So I’m going to work towards it till my very last breath,” he said before retiring for the night. “See, my boss has come to take me to my room,” he pointed to his able sous chef, who appeared at least 40 years younger than him.