Currying and Rissoling one’s way into Australia: Sri Lankan chefs at Charters Towers

Sarah Elks, in The Australian, 10 January 2013, where the title reads “Foreign chefs strike gold in remote pubs” 

CHEFS at Charters towersFOR Sri Lankan chef Don Prasanga, the most difficult part of the move from a seven-star resort restaurant in the Middle East to a north Queensland pub kitchen has been mastering rissoles and onion gravy. Now that he’s perfected the dish, Prasanga’s take on the traditional counter meal has become the talk of Charters Towers, the historic goldmining town 135km west of Townsville. The 40-year-old is one of three Sri Lankan chefs recruited last year to fill long-standing vacancies in the regional centre which, like many small country towns, is in the grip of a skills shortage driven by the mining boom.

Crown Hotel publican Steve Millar said the arrival of Prasanga and fellow Sri Lankan chef Ashan Medis in March last year ended a year-long search. He joked that both accomplished chefs had to adjust to working in “this half-star establishment”, but said locals had embraced the pair and both had grasped the intricacies of country fare.

“Early in the piece, I had to explain rissoles and onion gravy to Don . . . now, every Tuesday when we have an outdoor barbecue, everybody asks for Don’s rissoles,” he said. “(The chefs) bring a little slice of Sri Lanka (locals) never would have tasted in this town.”

Prasanga has been a chef for two decades, working in Sri Lanka, the Middle East and on cruise liners in Miami, Florida. After travelling the world, he says he’s now ready to settle down with his family — his wife, daughter and baby on the way — and wants to live permanently in Australia.

“(Charters Towers) is like a small family — I walk down the street and they know I’m the Crown chef,” he said. He’s taken pleasure in introducing exotic flavours to the town, adding curries to the pub’s specials list, but has also adapted his repertoire to suit the clientele.

Down the road at Henry’s Cafe and Restaurant, Sue Farmer told The Australian she was so desperate to find a chef after two years of searching, she had to “import one” — Sri Lankan Ranil Jayasekara. “Ranil has been used to cooking in Sheratons in Dubai; I always tell him you’ve come from the penthouse to the shithouse, you’d better get used to it,” Ms Farmer said.

All three chefs were recruited by Queensland-based company Australian Recruiting Group under the Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme. Immigration department figures released in May last year show Sri Lanka is among the top seven source countries for skilled migrants to Australia, with 3846 arriving in 2010-11.

Nihal Wickremasinghe, manager of skilled migration at Australian Recruiting Group, said he’d placed 40 Sri Lankans in Australian jobs as chefs, mechanics and diesel fitters last year.

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One response to “Currying and Rissoling one’s way into Australia: Sri Lankan chefs at Charters Towers

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