An instrumental member of the five-star Gili Lankanfushi Maldives culinary team for over 10 years, Chef Hari Govindaraj of Gili Lankanfushi Maldives now leads a skilful band of chefs that have recently launched an entirely vegan menu for hungry travellers to devour.
The Wordrobe caught up with him to talk favourite local ingredients, the rise of plant-based trends and what it’s like to cook in paradise…
What inspired you to become a chef?
It’s interesting because when it was never a choice. I started at the age of 16 and I went to hotel school back in 2000. I knew nothing about chef life or the hospitality industry. At that time, it was just a job. My family needed me to earn money, so that’s how I ‘chose’ this role. I was the first person in my family to become an actual chef and I went from there.
Where did you train? Tell us more about your culinary background…
After my initial time at ‘hotel school’, after that I started to get more training working in different properties. I started to feel like I’d found a place for myself. I had a mentor that showed me so much, helped my confidence and it made me what I am. Now, it’s not just an interest – it’s a passion.
I worked for seven years at different high end properties around India, Taj, Hilton etc. After that I moved to Gili – and now I have 22 years of experience in total. I’ve worked with every type of chef – Italian, French, German, Spanish and Sous to Michelin – I’ve been able to meet many different types of people and gain experience. But it’s not under whom you’re working but who – you can really learn from anyone. Executive chef to Sous chef – everyone has something you can learn from.
What’s your favourite dish from the new plant-based menu?
My favourite has to be the eggplant steak. I love egg plant! A lot of guests initially think they won’t like it, but I tell them to try. I cook it for them and it completely changes their minds. It’s been a huge success. As a chef, I can’t be vegan (I have to taste everything!) but on my days off I like to eat vegetarian myself.
I launched the menu because I’m always trying to recreate the classics for guests but in a vegan way – like scallops, for example or homemade parmesan cheese. This way of eating is much healthier and lets me be creative too. Nothing processed, nothing arriving in a vacuum – just natural, good-for-you food! Plants to the plate – that’s my motto.
More people than ever want to visit Gili and enjoy a full wellness experience – we have as many vegan guests these days as we do non-vegan. And even those who are not plant-based want to try it when they’re on holiday.
Describe your cooking style in three words.
Natural, fresh, local.
Do you have a favourite Maldivian ingredient?
Smoked tuna – it has a natural smokey flavour and is amazing. We use it in the risotto at Gili Lankanfushi for one of our signature dishes, with a little bit of chilli. I just have to think about this ingredient and I can almost taste it in my palate – there’s where the magic begins!
What advice would you offer to aspiring chefs?
If I can cook, anyone can cook. If I can do, anyone can do. My advice is – believe in yourself and speak to the ingredients. Not literally, of course – understand them in order to make the dishes better. Learn as much as you can.
What do you think is 2022’s biggest food trend?
In the last two years, I’ve seen a lot of diets – especially keto. But the plant-forward movement has been the most popular… for everyone, because it makes veganism flexile. It’s not saying you have to be fully vegan, but it’s allowing everyone to sample this lifestyle and see it as less than a strict diet. There is always some new diet that I learn about from the guests – but I actually enjoy this way of cooking.
With so many diets around, you must have had a lot of strange requests over the years.
Never ‘strange’ – always a ‘challenge!’ I always view these requests as an opportunity to learn something. We had a guest visit Gili for just one day, as he was traveling from another resort. They gave me three lists of ingredients – red, yellow and green – with 16 ingredients on each list. Red – absolutely not. Yellow – not too much. Green – go for it.
So this made it a lot more interesting for me – teaching and pushing me to do something different! If you are not challenged, then you’re always cooking the same thing. When I saw the list, my first thought was ‘really?‘. But after two minutes I began to think of the things we could do. It’s always about having a positive attitude.