The pandemic lockdown got people working from home. Working from home meant cooking at home. And cooking at home meant "doing a Suresh Pillai" in one's kitchen. So then, who is Suresh Pillai? He is one of the most sought-after celebrity chefs from whose magic fingers the most mundane of foodstuff turn into delectable, yummilicious dishes.
The lockdown saw folks following the chef's recipes with Suresh Pillai becoming the most Googled star chef. His short videos marked by his breezy style of narration, genuine warmth, and passion for culinary art made them some of the most watchable cookery guides on YouTube. What's more, his signature style of cooking had its addictive effect on folks who got hooked to his videos. His rule book is simple…make the best out of what you have at home or what can be accessed from around. His demos, simple, yet precise, are visual treats that fill tummies and fulfill cravings.
It was a pleasure to watch him brewing a cup of tea. It had the Suresh Pillai stamp on it, one that got people glued to the visuals for their mesmerizing effect.
His presentation leaves people wondering how the super chef could be so affable and simple.
If the man who lived by the Ashtamudi lake and loved the whiff of its waters and the aroma of the land, was pre-destined to become a cook, he certainly became one, but the path to his stardom as a celebrity chef was one fraught with struggle, perseverance and hard work.
To be a part of BBC's Masterchef, the much-celebrated cookery show is no mean achievement and Kerala's Suresh Pillai not only made it to the celebrity list but also won applause for his homeland style fish curry! And this feat was not mastered from any fancy college or institution that turns out chefs. The colour, aroma, and taste came straight from his heart.
The journey from being a waiter in a nondescript restaurant in Kollam to a world-renowned celebrity chef was no cakewalk. Suresh Pillai was at his chirpy best as he unfolded the story of his long haul to fame to Manorama Online.
He began as a waiter
Suresh Pillai was born and raised in the village of Thekkumbhagom near the Ashtamudi lake in Kollam. After class ten, he failed to gain admission to the pre-degree course in a college of repute, a fact which made him a lot sad. So it was a private study for Pillai. At about the same time, he found himself working part-time in a restaurant. "My first salary was Rs 450. But in those days to be found working in a restaurant was deeply infra dig," recalls Suresh Pillai. He started off as a waiter. As time went by, he realized he had a yen for cooking. Whenever free, he would go to the kitchen and watch the chefs there in action and even helped then chop onions. That was perhaps his first act in mastering culinary arts. Soon enough, Suresh Pillai found himself turning an inevitable part of the kitchen.
"Never did I go to a hotel management institute. I was with the restaurant for three years and learned all that I wanted to," says Pillai. He mastered all the basics.
'A guest faculty'
Fascinated by the aroma of Malabar, Pillai decided to master the secrets of Malabari cuisine. So to Kozhikode, he went in 1995. From there, it was a small leap to a restaurant in Bengaluru. Despite his innate skills, the lack of formal education in culinary sciences was a painful truth that slowly dawned on him. The only way to overcome this flaw was to execute his craft to perfection and to this end he turned his attention.
The internet had just arrived and the web gave him a chance to read and research what he wanted. This worked to his advantage and soon enough Suresh Pillai got a good opening in Kumarakom. From Kumarakom came the long haul to London where he worked in several restaurants and subsequently earned British citizenship. The next jump was the chance to take part in the BBC's Masterchef.
However, the ultimate victory was a guest lectureship he was offered by the Bahamas University. "For a person who never cleared his pre-degree, this was a great honor indeed," beams Pillai. He tutored over 200 students which he deems a great honor. Looking back, such wonderful events have made his life fulfilling.
Love for his homeland
Despite his British citizenship, the call of his native Kerala was so strong which is why he came rushing back when he got an offer from home. So back came Pillai, a decision he has least regretted. Today, more than 5 lakh people follow him on Instagram and Facebook. Before the COVID, the fan following stood at a modest 70,000. It was the simple recipes he shared during the COVID days that catapulted him to Superchefdom on social media.
"Through these recipes, I could connect not only with Malayalis the world over but also with people from different nationalities. I have a personal rapport with all of them," says Pillai.
'Shower your love all around'
Before bidding 'bye' at the end of his videos, Pillai has affixed his signature style at the end of each tutorial…"Sneham vaari vitharu," which translates to "shower your love all around."
What could well be called a tagline, the punch dialogue came out quite by accident one day just after he’d completed a dish. Never did he dream it would garner such love. Today, every video ends with the punchline sneham vaari vitharu. Cook a dish with love and serve it with greater love.
"Sometimes in life, it’s those small unexpected turnouts that make all the difference. They are never planned, but come out spontaneously," says Pillai. What buoys him up is the fact that folks love his videos, his cooking, and his recipes.
Just as he does his own dishes, he edits his videos as well. That too is an art and Pillai is happy that he learned how to do it.
Make the right moves like in chess
Suresh Pillai loves chess. "Chess has played a big role in my life," he adds. He was once Kollam district's Under 18 chess champ and represented Kerala at the nationals.
Chess has had a defining influence on his life. Chess teaches one how to plan and make one's moves cleverly, says Pillai.
He recalls how he said no to the many chances that lay open in the Gulf when he headed for Kozhikode. But it was Europe that had always been on his mind. Though the Gulf call was enticing, he had no hesitation in refusing extremely lucrative offers as the European dream was so overpowering.
"Had I accepted the Gulf offers, I would never have been the Suresh Pillai of today. I worked hard, persevered, honed my skills, and perfected them all for that European dream. To all those who call me for career guidance tips, I have this to say: Have a short-term and a long-term plan. One must be aware of one's strengths as well as weaknesses. Build on your strengths and you will win," says Suresh Pillai, Kerala's own Masterchef.