Interview with Chef Harinath Govindaraj of Gili Lankanfushi
Nestled between the northern and eastern hemispheres with around 200 inhabited islands, the Maldives is home to hundreds of luxury resorts. Gili Lankanfushi, located on a private island in the North Malé Atoll, remains a firm favorite for the discerning gourmet traveler, thanks to the executive chef and his innovative approach to cooking.
Having been at the resort for over 10 years, Chef Hari walks us through the intricate details of keeping the guests happy around the clock.
The Maldives has a very distinct culture, a mixture of Indian, African, and Creole. How does that translate into curating the menus?
This distinct culture presents an opportunity to create unique dishes. We often look to fusion cuisine, where European dishes are prepared with a Maldivian twist. Take the Seafood Risotto, with the Maldivian Katta Sambal, it’s giving it a local flavor to the classic risotto dish. The Maldivian cuisine, though limited in its use of ingredients still has its unique flavors. This allows us to Gili-fy the local cuisine into our own style, making the dish one-of-a-kind. One example is Mashuni, a traditional Maldivian dish where we create different variations of it.
I understand you grow a significant number of herbs and produce at the Gili Garden. How do you use them in the menu?
Gili Garden produce plays a major role in my menu creation, as the garden is my inspiration. The availability of our island produce determines the type of dishes offered on our theme nights, garden salad on our a la carte menu, as well as at the salad bar during lunchtime. Our garden greens are also a huge inspiration for the creation of the new vegan menu, with my main philosophy on vegan dishes being “From Plants to Plate”.
The Gili Garden is also a huge contribution to the bartenders for cocktail creation and special blend teas. In other areas, the Gili Garden serves as a producer of colorful flowers for bed decoration and flower baths, which further enhances the guests’ experience. On the sustainability front, the Gili Garden allows our food waste to be converted into compost, and be used as fertilizers for the garden to grow more produce.
Your interest in Vegan cuisine must be a real draw for health-conscious gourmet guests. How did you get into it?
I’d say there are two main influences. Firstly, there is a health-conscious aspect, an inspiration from my grandma as she often made home remedies from natural plant-based ingredients, which we’ve seen can improve overall health within the family. The second would be feedback from our guests. Vegan or not, I often would hear an increasing demand for good quality vegan options in our restaurants. I’m glad to say that we even have guests who convert to a more plant-based diet due to our dishes.
What are some of your culinary inspirations?
The organic garden and spices we have at the resort are my biggest inspiration as the plants and different ingredients talk to me when creating new dishes. My cooking philosophy is simple: be creative and embrace flavors and textures. I really enjoy the process of discovering the ingredients and their flavors. Do not be afraid to experiment and combine different flavors, until you find the one that works.
At Gili Lankanfushi your guests come from all around the world. What’s the secret to making each and everyone happy?
The secret is to stay true to your style of cooking. In this case, the Gili Style of food keeps it classy, simple, and flavorful. We also look to customize our food according to the profile of guests we have. One example would be our well-loved Asian Street Market, I would say that Asian food is not prepared in the traditional way, as in doing so, flavors might be overpowering to some guests from the Western part of the world. The key is to have balance and prepare it with Gili Flare.
What are some memorable lessons and memories from working over 10 years at Gili Lankanfushi?
It’s the opportunity to work with European Executive Chefs alongside a multinational culinary team for the first time. It has been an interesting climb up the kitchen brigade as I am trained in different positions within the team and learning from fellow chefs of different backgrounds, cultures, influences, and culinary experiences.
It’s also about working alongside many top visiting chefs from around the world. In addition, I participate in numerous training opportunities abroad such as at Four Seasons Hotel Singapore, and with Michelin Star Restaurants in the United Kingdom.
What are some of your favorite dishes at Gili Lankanfushi?
This is a tough choice as many dishes are created in collaboration between chefs over the years. The dishes that are close to my heart are Eggplant Steak as this was my first creation, Aloe Vera Ceviche, and Carrot & Citrus Soup. Also, the Aloe Vera Coconut Ceviche is one of my favorites as it is my original creation using ingredients available locally and from the garden. As for the story of Carrot and Citrus Soup, it takes me back to the beginning when I presented this dish during an interview for my second job in Bangalore, leaving a very fond memory of this dish.
What are your go-to dishes at home?
I would say my go-to dishes would be any homecooked food such as curd rice. This is because working with multiple ingredients and flavors during the day on the job, I crave something simple that makes me feel at home.