Beginnings are easy to forget. Individuals who manage to climb to the top rungs of a ladder often forget where they started at and where their life began. Thilak Palihawadane isn’t someone who has forgotten his past. In fact, he described it in such great detail, it sounded almost as if he was describing the present and not what had happened two decades ago.
Thilak Palihawadane is a chef and cookery demonstrator, and he also dabbles in promotions and event catering. However, before being any of this, Palihawadane was a waiter and then a sales promoter at supermarkets. He is from Hakirilla in the Kurunegala District and his closeness to local ingredients began during his childhood. Coming from a large family, Palihawadane has five brothers and two sisters. Having studied at Kurunegala Wevalgama Vidyalaya until Grade Five, Palihawadane changed schools to Ibbawela Central College after the scholarship exam.
As he lived near Dolu Kanda, his childhood was spent in the forest area which he would visit in the evenings to eat fruit. The neighborhood kids would also swim in the streams and Palihawadane was blessed with a carefree childhood. Whether it was gal siyambala, maadang or kirala, Palihawadane enjoyed them all in Dolu Kanda (a hill).
Most of the villagers cultivated land and thus Palihawadane was part of the many traditions and rituals like kiri ithireeme ceremonies and deyiyan wandilla. Some houses still observe these rituals, but many don’t, Palihawadane said.
This way of life continued until Palihawadane was in Grade Five when his life took a turn. During the time he changed schools, his father, PP Siriya, who was a farmer, passed away. This was when hardship struck the family and Palihawadane recalled an incident that occurred when he was joining Ibbagamuwa Central. “Every student had to bring a desk to class when they began at the school. We couldn’t afford to buy one. Thankfully my mother knew a teacher and this teacher bought the desk for me,” he said.
In Grade Nine and Ten, Palihawadane showed interest in sports and took part in athletics, cricket, swimming, volleyball and also participated in cadetting. He also did carpentry during his school years and later started the Samagi Youth Society with the Youth Services Council. Through the Society, Palihawadane took part in sports training in the village.
In 1986, Palihawadane sat for his O/Ls and later studied for his A/Ls. It was during this time that tuition classes first caught on and Palihawadane’s family was not able to afford tuition. Thankfully, there was a tuition master, Abusahi, who offered free tuition for those who couldn’t afford this. So Palihawadane was able to pass his A/Ls with high marks and then went on to help out at the Avanhala Kandyan Dancing Center. He tended to the many odd jobs at the Center and even worked at the ticket counter. He cycled the 23km distance from his home to Avanhala. The experience at the Avanhala gave him the exposure that has resulted in where he is today.
“When we received our payment, even though it was a small amount, we would go to a good hotel in the area for tea. The places always appealed to me,” Palihawadane said, adding that he kept going to the Kurunegala Paramount where a waiter named Edirisinghe was especially nice to him. It was after 1989 when he was called for a job at Paramount and Palihawadane recalls how his first day at work also happened to be the day President Ranasinghe Premadasa was killed.
He worked at Paramount for a year and during this time, Palihawadane got to know the staff well. While his shift was over by five in the evening, he would stay on in the kitchen until 10pm just so he can learn from the chefs about cooking. This was where he first realized his drawing to the field and through a customer he met at Paramount, Palihawadane went on to work with the Sevalanka Foundation in Vavuniya.
“We were at the border itself and were staying in a temple. We had to use a water pump because we couldn’t go to any of the streams. The water was collected in old helmets,” is how Palihawadane recalled the times then in Vavuniya. After a year at Sevalanka Foundation, Palihawadane returned to Kurunegala and started tuition classes. According to him, he didn’t even have money to buy paper to write notes on and his brother and another relative helped him during this time.
One day, when he went to the town to purchase goods, he visited Paramount. His boss asked him to come back to Paramount and worked there for over two years. Later a school friend, Anura Weliwita, told him about a job opportunity in Colombo and he was called for an interview. Thus began Palihawadane’s career at John Keells.
He first started working at a supermarket in Nugegoda and then as a sales promoter travelling to various parts of the country. Five years later, he was familiar with Colombo and when he left his job, Palihawadane had made quite a lot of contacts.
During this time he gave farming a try. His second brother married a resident of Dambulla and for a year, Palihawadane worked there. By this time, he had saved a bit of cash and once he went back to Kurunegala, Palihawadane received a call from Rohan Wijeweera of Elephant House. Wijeweera asked him to work at the Choice Restaurant and Palihawadane, like he did at Paramount, spend the late hours in the kitchen, learning to cook.
Slowly, Palihawadane climbed up the ladder and while he started working as a waiter, he was promoted to be a door-to-door salesman and was later put in charge of four outlets. Palihawadane then joined Norfolk Foods. While working for Norfolk, Palihawadane met Sri Lankan chef Don Sherman, who he later worked with and continues to be friends with.
By this time he was a sales representative and went to various hotels in Dambulla, Sigiriya, Trincomalee and Polonnaruwa. When he told his boss he wanted to learn how to cook, he was send to Kandalama Hotel for training.
Palihawadane then got involved in the catering business. He recalled his first job which revolved around a kid’s birthday party. He also handled stalls at various stores held in the BMICH. While developing the retail market, Palihawadane met Sameera De Silva, who asked him if he would like to be a presenter in a culinary show. In 2011, Palihawadane presented the Dolos Mahe Pahana show, telecast once a week. He was part of a cookery demonstration. He also participated in the Rampe Karapincha program.
Palihawadane recalled how he participated in a mothers’ day program with his mother in 2014. For his birthday in 2014, Palihawadane took part in a bana program on a radio station with his mother. This also happened to be his last birthday with her. That same year, his mother, PP Ukku, passed away.
Currently, Palihawadane presents in the Food Court program which is a weekly TV show. He has also been to Maldives thrice for hotel shows and marketing programs. He is also involved in public relations work.
Palihawadane’s specialty is that he doesn’t just cook, but uses local ingredients in his recipes. He thus hopes to promote local cuisine and local ingredients. For instance, batter fried polos, mango fried rice and white sandal wood and erabadu leaf fried rice are some of Palihawadane’s dishes. “Before trying out a dish, I walk around areas like Mahawa, Galgamuwa, Dambulla, Galewela and Dolu Kanda looking for ingredients,” he said. He also said about a jungle/wild jack mallum that, “as far as I know, I’m the first to use wild jack in a TV program. People eat the seeds but don’t use it in other dishes.”
Having started as a waiter, Palihawadane has not only climbed the ladder, but has also made many connections. He says he knows a lot of chefs. They are all supportive and helpful, he added.
Life has its ups and downs and Palihawadane has had his share of journeys on bumpy roads. However, he hasn’t let the financial situation of his family drag him down and has worked hard to be who he is today. There may be a long way for him to go, especially with increasing the consumption of healthy food and local cuisine in Sri Lanka, but Palihawadane’s journey, so far has also been noteworthy.