You’ve probably never heard of Merrill Joseph Fernando but chances are you or someone you know, consumes his produce daily. The former Ceylon Tea taster is the founder of the Dilmah Tea company in Sri Lanka. Named after his two sons Dilhan and Mailik, the company was established in 1988. A business based on the philosophy of ethical trading, workers are treated fairly with a percentage of the profits used to fund the Merrill Joseph Fernando Charitable Foundation.
Thanks to Volker Marecek, Executive Chef at The Langham, Auckland now there’s a Kiwi connection too.
Each year Dilmah holds a High Tea Challenge to promote the importance of the beverage in gastronomy, encouraging top intentional chefs to showcase their creativity. In 2014, Marecek and his colleague Benjamin McManus took home the gold medal. Following the victory, Volker was invited to Sri Lanka to visit Dilmah’s tea plantations and learn more of the work of the MJF Foundation and the Ethical Tea Society.
He also spent time with disadvantaged and disabled youths, which he says totally altered his outlook on life.
“I just love the country,” says the chef. “The people are incredible.”
And the food?
“I’ve eaten a lot of local dishes in Sri Lanka and I’m a big fan of the cuisine.”
Last month Volker visited the country again, this time to teach young Sri Lankans how to cook European specialities such as pasta. “I have travelled around the world and experienced many things,” he says, “but the chance to teach the kids is just outstanding.”
Being a chef in Sri Lanka is a highly respected yet competitive profession, so MJF Culinary Centre on the outskirts of Colombo, will inevitably give the students an advantage.
“The students were very, very keen,” says Volker. “Sometimes there was a language barrier, but the most challenging part of the experience was the kitchen temperature which was 40-45 degrees. We had to air condition the pastry!”
The course concluded by preparing high tea for 400 children.
Volker says he has been profoundly changed by the experience.
“You can’t help but be affected by poverty. I want to continue to do more projects like this, whether abroad or here in New Zealand. There are underprivileged children everywhere and foundations like this can do so much to help them.”
Volker’s cooking career began in 1985 at the age of 16, back in his homeland of Germany. His talents have been sought internationally, including a stint at the Savoy in London. When I asked if any teacher stood out as having a major influence on him, he praised Anton Edelmann. In 2007, Volker settled in New Zealand, his skills soon secured by The Langham, Auckland. The hotel, he adds, has been extremely supportive of his Sri Lankan endeavour.
“It would be great if we could do something with the students at The Langham, Auckland” he says. “I would love to have the kids come to New Zealand for a couple of weeks to experience cooking in our hotel kitchen.”