If cooking was a game of chess, then chef Suresh Pillai is the grandmaster of the 64 squares. This is the story of a small-time cook who chased his dreams and made the right moves to stamp his authority on the culinary world. The life journey of Suresh Pillai, who has studied only up to class X, is an inspiration to all to face challenges head on with grit and determination. From being a hotel waiter, Suresh Pillai climbed the gastronomical ladder with élan and his ingenuity took him to the popular MasterChef cookery show of BBC and to the University of the Bahamas to give an insight into the cuisines of Kerala.
The celebrity chef, who got stuck for six months in London following the COVID-19-triggered travel restrictions, took the social media by storm after he dished out many cookery guides on various platforms. His short video on how to prepare crispy quail (kada) fry, delectable jackfruit (chakka) curry and the traditional ‘pulissery’ has garnered a whopping 1.5 crore hits on Facebook. The cordon bleu chef, who has taken a break from his job as culinary director of the Raviz Group of hotels, is presently busy making the culinary delights of Kerala popular across the globe though internet.
Suresh Pillai was born in Chavara Thekkumbhagom, a nondescript island surrounded by Ashtamudi Lake in Kollam district in Kerala. He had to shelve his plans to study at SN College after matriculation as he failed to make the cut. Though Suresh Pillai got admission to a ‘parallel college’, he had to discontinue studies after a while following financial distress in his family. Suresh Pillai became a security guard at the age of 17 for a salary of Rs 500 but later quit the job as he was afraid of working alone at night. That’s when chess caught his imagination and he aspired to be an acclaimed chess player.
The decisive first move
After quitting his job as a security guard, Suresh Pillai joined a hotel in Kollam as a waiter with a monthly salary of Rs 450 in 1993. During free time, he played chess with fervour and participated in various competitions across the state. When Suresh Pillai didn’t have money to compete in a tournament, his mother, who was a coir labourer, pledged ear rings and gave her son Rs 300. His hard work paid dividends as he was crowned the state chess champion, and also competed in the under-18 national championships. It is noteworthy that Suresh Pillai touched new heights on the chequered board after slogging it out for 90 hours in a week at the hotel. Though he aspired to be a professional player, he couldn’t get structured training in chess.
His first trip outside his home district of Kollam was to Kozhikode to lock horns in the state championship. The future master chef stayed at the Malabar Palace hotel for five days and the taste of toothsome biriyani, spicy fish curry and soft ‘porotta’ lingered in his mouth for a long time to come.
Slowly but steadily the hotel waiter started to churn out some yummy dishes, and later went to Kozhikode, which was then the capital of chess in Kerala. While working in Casino Hotel for three years, Suresh Pillai was particular to get trained in chess too. But finally he realized that he had to choose between cooking and playing chess and opted for a career in culinary, and that move changed the course of Suresh Pillai’s life forever. Chess’ loss was a gain for Kerala cuisine and the story of how Suresh Pillai became a global ambassador for the state’s lip-smacking recipes begins here.
Rich vein of talent
To excel as chef one not only needs an innate flair to cook but also a degree in hotel management besides knowledge in English. But Suresh Pillai’s situation was such that he couldn’t afford to quit the job and go for studies. He didn’t squirm in the hour of need but mastered not only the nuances of Kerala cuisines but also that of the cooking styles originating from south India such as Coorg, Chettinad, Malabar, Hyderabad and Konkan. Even then, he was dreaming big as he dreamt of working in five-star hotels and staying in western countries.
He read extensively the articles written by world-renowned chefs in a bid to take a leaf or two out of their books. Suresh Pillai made it a point to associate with cooks of local toddy shops, and chefs who had mastered the technique of churning out multi-course traditional ‘sadyas’ for marriages. He made up for his deficiencies in academia with hands-on experience in kitchens, and thus began the transition from a small-time cook to a big shot chef.
First time in a metropolis
The second phase of Suresh Pillai’s career began in the metropolitan city of Bengaluru. He landed a job at the Coconut Groove Hotel in 1998 and was promoted as the head chef in six years’ time. Many a time, Suresh Pillai, who always sports a smile, had pocketed the best employee awards.
“The job provided a perfect comfort zone. Besides a salary of Rs 15,000, I also earned tips to the tune of Rs 8,000 every month. And that was big money for a bachelor like me. But I always dreamt of working for a five-star hotel,” he notes.
Trials and tribulations
Lack of adequate educational qualification was a stumbling block for Suresh Pillai to get a job in five-star hotels. Though he cleared the initial cooking tests, his applications were repeatedly rejected by the HR departments concerned on the grounds that he doesn’t hold a hotel management certificate. And finally he got the letter of appointment from the Leela Palace hotel group after following it up with the HR department for six months but had to join as a fresher. Suresh Pillai had to forgo 12 years of work experience and his seniority as he didn’t have the requisite educational qualification. He was positioned as ‘commi 2’ just above management trainee with a salary of Rs 5,000, which was much lesser than what he drew earlier. Though Suresh Pillai’s colleagues and well-wishers discouraged him from joining Leela Palace, Suresh Pillai took a bold decision to realize his dream of working with a five-star hotel group.
The Leela Palace hotel was modelled after the Mysore Palace and Suresh Pillai was drafted into the mess that had close to 700 employees, and in two years he became an inevitable part of all kitchens in the hotel. Suresh Pillai’s confidence was sky high as he got the job he aspired for.
Return to Kerala
Suresh Pillai returned to Kerala to get married and join Kumarakom Lake Resort as chief chef. That period turned out to be momentous in the life of the star chef as he got a call from London asking him to reach Mumbai in two days. He was also asked to carry batter to prepare ‘appam’ (a type of pancake), raw mangoes and Malabar tamarind (kudampulli). The next day Suresh Pillai, who had never travelled by air, got an air ticket to Mumbai. “I made variety of dishes as per their directions. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were prepared according to different styles of cooking. But they didn’t respond even four days after the tests and I was on tenterhooks, to say the least,” remembers Suresh Pillai.
But on the fifth day he got the appointment letter from the esteemed Veeraswamy Restaurant, which was founded in 1927, located at Piccadilly Circus in London. The restaurant footed his travel bills and even provided sweaters and the like to beat London’s bitter February winter.
Though the restaurant has an Indian name, the eatery was founded by a British who married an Indian lady, and it is the first Indian eating outlet on foreign soil. Close to 100 north Indian chefs are working in eight restaurants run by the group and only the Piccadilly outlet serves Kerala food. The restaurant is considered to be a hallowed place to have food as Mahatma Gandhi, Charlie Chaplin and Winston Churchill had dined at this joint. “It was a great privilege to get an opportunity to work at Veeraswamy restaurant,” notes Suresh Pillai.
Suresh Pillai’s family followed him to London and everyone became British citizens. While in London, the master chef used to share mouth-watering recipes on Orkut, which is probably the first-ever social networking platform.
Mackerel curry and BBC
Forty-eight talented chefs out of 1,200 who applied to be part of the show were selected for the iconic BBC MasterChef programme. Indian chefs rarely get an opportunity to flaunt their skills in this international cookery show that features the best in the culinary world. The participants, who have to undergo a strict background check, have to attend interviews and prepare a menu based on three themes – local, seasonal and healthy. The world was in awe of Suresh Pillai as he dished out the palatable mackerel (ayala) curry cooked in thick coconut milk.
But Suresh Pillai rates the opportunity he got to deliver lectures on Kerala cuisines to hotel management students of the University of the Bahamas in West Indies higher than being part of the MasterChef show. He also cherishes the chance to spread out a multi-cuisine charity dinner as part of fund-raising efforts for research activities in the university. That was a special moment for someone who had to discontinue studies after class X.
Back home in 2018
Better prospects took Suresh Pillai to another prominent eating joint, the Hooper’s restaurant in London. At the age of 39, Suresh Pillai had everything in life – a hefty salary of Rs 5 lakh per month, a house in London, a job for wife and quality education for children. At that period, he had an insatiable desire to become the ambassador for the unique Kerala cuisines and that forced him to leave the luxury life of London and return to Kerala. Another golden opportunity was waiting for him in Kollam as he became part of the Raviz Group as its corporate chef. Suresh Pillai joined the group after he got a special invitation from Ravi Pillai, the chairman of RP Group.
#Cook for Kerala
Help was pouring from all parts of the world to provide succour to those affected by the massive floods of 2018 that wreaked havoc across Kerala. At this hour of great distress, Suresh Pillai made a fervent request to the public on social media through #Cook for Kerala to sell their favourite home-cooked food items and transfer the profit earned to the Chief Minister’s relief fund. Relied started pouring in from Gulf nations, the UK, Canada, Australia, the US, Morocco and Bahamas, among others. West Indies prime minister also pitched in with his cooking skills to help the cause. A restaurant in London contributed one day’s earnings and an Australian chef forwarded one day’s turnover, which was close to Rs 7.5 lakh, to the relief fund. Suresh says that nearly Rs 30 lakh was raised through #Cook for Kerala to help the victims of the deluge.
This initiative was on the lines of one started earlier in Europe to give a helping to hundreds of tormented and malnourished children in war-torn Syria.
The work at Raviz was hectic as he had to travel to four hotels under the group. Before the spread of coronavirus last year, the celebrity chef had only 70,000 followers on Instagram and nearly 10,000 fans on Facebook and these numbers were bound to increase.
COVID-19 and airport closure
Suresh Pillai went for a 10-day trip to London to be part of the ‘Supper Club Dinner’ organized by the restaurant where he worked earlier, and was planning to return to Kerala on March 17, 2020. But after checking in at the airport on March 17, he was informed that the Indian airports were closed in the wake of lockdown which was put in place to curb the spread of the contagious coronavirus.
Suresh Pillai was forced to stay back in London and was cooped up at a friend’s, who is also a chef, house. A short video of making a piping hot tea posted on Instagram and Facebook garnered lot of views than expected. A clip on ‘idli and dosa’, which used to get only 10,000 hits, was viewed by nearly 30,000 people to the surprise of the decorated chef. Moreover, as many as 50,000 people were hooked to his video on preparing a full-course meal for lunch. In the first 10 days of lockdown, around one lakh people got a feel of the culinary skills of Suresh Pillai on social media.
He learnt to edit and give technical perfection to the videos on the cell phone itself. The short clips were made interesting and entertaining with a collage of narration and old songs. When the quality became top-notch, more people got glued to the videos and viewership increased manifold. His unique style of starting the show with a warm ‘namaskar’ and the stand out way in which he signs off with a message to spread love, went down well with the netizens. And all the cookery videos posted by Suresh became a craze on social media and he became a star chef with a difference.
Chilli chicken is a hit
Chilli chicken is an appetizing dish that is served in almost all restaurants. When Suresh Pillai uploaded a one-minute video featuring a simple chilli chicken recipe it got an overwhelming response as 8 lakh people on Instagram and another 5 lakh on Facebook saw the clip in no time. Suresh Pillai’s fan following on social media increased phenomenally after the first lockdown was announced in March 2020 and swelled to 12.5 lakh by May 1, 2021. He gets 600 to 700 dollars per video and pocketed 1,400 dollars for the cookery clip on the scrummy ‘Mathi’ (sardine) curry.
After the trajectory in COVID-19 cases plateaued, Suresh Pillai returned home after staying six months in London. During his quarantine that lasted for one month, he posted the video on the combo – quail fry, jackfruit curry and ‘pulissery’ – which was well-received on Facebook with close to 1.5 crore views.
Brevity all the way
Like all the special recipes of Suresh Pillai, his online videos too stand out. They don’t beat around the bush and give a crisp, short and clear message. A Facebook team gave requisite training to him on how to present and package the videos in a simple way.
Though most of the celebrated chefs have thousands of followers, they won’t share the secret behind their signature dishes. But Suresh Pillai had no qualms while disclosing the magic behind his trump dish, ‘Fish nirvana’, and many, including non-Keralites, have successfully prepared the rich dish. When all were confined to their homes, chef Suresh Pillai and his preparations have, to borrow a term from filmdom, become blockbuster hits, that too hands down.
Suresh Pillai’s secret to success is undoubtedly hard work and the resolve to chase dreams, and he had doing this for the past 24 years, day in, day out. “If you want to know the success story of a person, just find out what that individual was 10 years ago,” he notes.
The celebrity chef is an inspiration in these trying times as he showed how to create opportunities out of crises. Lakhs of people are falling for the flavoursome ‘fish nirvana’ including many celebrities such as Team Indian captain Virat Kohli and West Indies player Chris Gayle, and the stars of Bollywood.
The root of this finger-licking dish can be traced to the homes of Portuguese-Syrian Catholics but Suresh Pillai localized the dish by giving a novel touch.
Seer/king fish (neymeen) nirvana
Fish – 200gm
Chilli powder – 10gm
Turmeric powder – 5gm
Pepper powder – 5gm
Salt and lemon juice (one tea spoon)
Marinate the fish with the paste made of ingredients mentioned above for 10 minutes
Coconut milk – 100ml
Sliced ginger – 20gm
Split green chilli – 2
Curry leaves – a small bunch
Pepper powder – 5gm
Coconut oil – 50ml
Shallow fry fish on both sides. Pour some oil in a clay pot and place a piece of banana leaf, which has been made soft with moderate heating over flame, in it. Pour oil on the banana leaf and add few curry leaves and place the fried fish on top. Now pour coconut milk on the sides and add salt, pepper powder, ginger, green chilli and curry leaves. When the coconut milk becomes buttery.