A taste for charity

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Residing in Singapore, 16-year-old Rohan Sureash, who is of Indian origin, is passionate about cooking. From tasting new dishes and recreating them, he now offers his culinary services for a home-based fine dining experience.  NT KURIOCITY interviews the entrepreneur and social activist to find out more

MARIA FERNANDES | NT KURIOCITY

A grade 11 student, Rohan Sureash is in his first year of the IB programme at United World College of South East Asia, Singapore. What makes the teenager different is not just his love for cooking but utilising his cooking skills to make a difference in the lives of the underprivileged.

On January 8, he cooked a vegetarian Chinese lunch for 300-odd children studying at the Siragu Montessori School in Avadi, Chennai. The school has been offering free education to children of brick kiln workers, pavement dwellers and the like since 2003. The children, who are mostly first-generation school-goers, were treated to some mouth-watering noodles, fried rice and cauliflower manchurian by Sureash. 

The teen had earlier cooked a meal for 45 migrant workers in Singapore on November 16. The simple but healthy and nutritious fare featured chicken curry, dal, stir fried potatoes and peas, rice, papad and garlic pickle.

“I enjoy cooking and challenges,” he states and admits that food has been a part of his life from early on. “My dad and I bond over food,” he adds. Sureash who started as a weekend chef at 13, cooking for his parents and occasionally dinner for his friends, says the various cooking programmes he watched influenced his interest. “During my summer breaks, I watched a lot of master chef shows and from there, I would try to recreate the dishes the contestants made, adapting and changing them in my own way. I was also inspired seeing my parents cook on the weekends, especially when my father used to make me some ‘special’ dishes which were not part of any cook book.”

His first attempt at recreating a dish was not very encouraging, but not one to give up easily, he persisted. “I had made soy honey chicken which was overcooked and rather bland. There was rice on the side and really no complexity to the dish,” he admits. Since then his prowess in the field has increased by leaps and bounds and the subjects he opted for in class 9 and 10, such as food science, nutrients and nutrition have helped as well.

In August last year, Sureash decided to take his love for cooking a step further and launched his own website – rohanschefology.com and an Instagram page of the same name offering a home-based fine dining experience. Rohan’s Chefology offers diners three menus of three courses to choose from – Italian, Western and Asian. He charges $50 for two diners, $70 for three, $90 for four and $110 for five. “I decided that part of my earnings would go towards charity and by October when I had earned enough money, I was able to fund one event in Singapore,” he says. 70 per cent of his earnings is donated to a food related charity and he keeps 30 per cent of the service charge for himself. “I think it is important for me to reward myself for my efforts,” he grins.

The reception he has received so far from clients, he says, is good. “It is quite fun because I am able to speak with my clients as I cook. It is also very relaxed as I try to keep myself stress and pressure free. I try to carry my own chef’s kit for plating etcetera, so I do not get overwhelmed in a new kitchen.” Preparation he believes is extremely important and to give his clients a professional experience, he ensures his mise-en-place is up to the mark. “I do most of the heavy prep work at home, and prepare the dishes that take a long time to make. The final cooking, garnishing and plating of the food is done at the customer’s home,” adds the teen chef who is very open to trying all kinds of food and cuisines but admits he enjoys making desserts the most. “I think that deserts are my specialty because it is the area that allows me to be the most creative with the different elements and plating of the dish. Plating in particular is very important to me and I try to make the desert as visually appealing as possible because you eat with your eyes first.”

He gains his inspiration through the creations of his favourite chefs and reviewing the menus of renowned restaurants. “And most importantly by browsing food photography on Instagram,” he says.

As to why he decided to cook for the migrant workers, he explains: “I knew I wanted to give back to the community and this seemed to be the most simple and feasible way of doing it. Also with the construction site so close to home, it was ideal.”

And it was not just his parents who helped him. Shopkeepers from whom he bought his groceries decided to do their bit and gave him a discount. “It was not as hectic as I had imagined it to be. My parents and helper assisted with the cutting of the vegetables. I made the chicken curry in three batches, dal in a whole batch and potatoes and peas in four batches just so the quality of the food won’t be compromised. I also decided to serve the lunch on a banana leaf as most of the workers were from South India, and it was also eco-friendly,” he shares. The worker’s reaction, he says, was very touching as they asked for second helpings and congratulated me afterwards. “They were impressed that I was able to cook at such a young age,” he says. Apart from the help he got from his family, he also roped in some friends from school to help with the food distribution.

For the Siragu Montessori School, Rohan created a donation campaign on Give India and set himself a modest target of about `50,000 for the event. Rotary Club of Madras Downtown was so impressed by the unique idea that they pledged another `50000. He was able to mobilise `1,22,500 in total and after expenses for the lunch he was able to give `100,000 to the school for their development activities.

Asked what important lessons he has learned on his journey, he replies: “Organisational skills are extremely important. One has to be mindful not just about time but also logistics. Also I learned the joy in giving; it is truly rewarding and humbling!”

Rohan hopes to come to Goa on his next trip to India. “I understand that Goa has a very buzzing food scene with dishes like the famous Goan fish curry, and other dishes with Portuguese influence. I would be more than happy to come to Goa during my next school holidays. I could also do a food related event in Goa when I come,” he says.