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First female executive chef: Iyanthi Gunewardene

by LAKMAL WELABADA - Sunday Observer July 27 2003

Women have worked as chefs down the ages, but only in their homes where they have never been paid for their labour.

Iyanthi Gunewardene

The professional work of chefs, for which they are paid, recognised and publicly acclaimed, has long been dominated by men.

Iyanthi Gunewardene, Executive Chef of the Grand Oriental Hotel, Colombo has managed to breakthrough the barriers of custom and tradition and deviated from the usual professions women are engaged in having successfully completed a course at the Ceylon Hotel School.

"Whatever the job, it is a challenge if one wants to excel in it. Being a chef is no exception," said Iyanthi who pursues her profession with much enthusiasm. "I chose this profession accidentally," she said.

"I was a 18-year-old student studying in the Advanced Level class at Visaka Vidyalaya, Bandarawela when I started following the hotel school course".

"I had my first hotel industrial training at the front office at the Hotel Neptune for six months where I met my husband Gemunu Gunewardene who was the Executive Chef of the same hotel".

"With the blessings of my family, I married Gemunu in 1985, after a break of a few years (during which I tried to switch to a career in computer)". "After getting married we went to Australia for four years. Today, Gemunu is the Food and Beverages director at the Aitken Spence hotels chain. With his backing I completed the four basics of the hotel field".

"I was destined to be a hotelier. After doing the theory parts in the hotel school in Sri Lanka I got the best training in all four basics in Australia".

"I joined the Grand Oriental Hotel (GOH) in 1998 as a Sous chef, and was in-charge of the place playing the role of the executive chef as well. After six months, making history in the hotel industry, I got the official appointment as the Executive Chef of the GOH".

"Though it is not common in our country, female Executive Chefs are common in Europe. I had worked with them. So I did not feel uneasy in accepting the job," she said. "Lot of women do not take up a hoteliering career due to lack of understanding. If you know your 'recipes' well, the next thing is to maintain discipline in the kitchen. And I'm very strict with it since almost everybody working with me are males".

"I supervise 45 male cooks. Whether a problem arises from a labourer or a sous chef or a cook, I know how to handle it. So far I have received immense support from everybody in the hotel. And it helps me to carry out my duty without any problem".

"I sometimes work till late in the night. Since both my husband and I are in the same field, we have a good understanding. I get a tremendous support from him. And I appreciate my 11-year-old daughter for tolerating her mother's long absences without grumbling," said Iyanthi with a smile.