A CHEF IS BORN… KANTHI THAMMA'S EARLY DAYS
In the 15 years that I’ve been cooking professionally I’ve worked in many different countries, different kitchens, and with many different chefs. It is my time with Chef Celina Tio at Disney in Florida that really helped shape and inspire me to open my own restaurant, however. Even today, when I have crisis in the kitchen, I ask myself what Chef Celina would do.
In the year 2000, when I’d just finished catering college in Switzerland and was working at a small ski resort café in Gstaad, my ex-tutor contacted me saying that Walt Disney World was coming to the campus to interview prospective employees. A few weeks later, I learned that I had been selected to be part of its International Culinary Programme. That’s all I knew – we weren’t told where we would be working, whether it would be flipping burgers in a fast food joint or scrubbing vegetables in a fine dining restaurant.
Nevertheless, I packed my bags and left the snow-covered Alps of Switzerland for sunny Florida filled with hope. When I arrived, I discovered that I would be working in a hotel. Not just any hotel, but the most luxurious and expensive one in the Disney portfolio: the ‘The Grand Floridian’. Best of all, it wouldn’t be rich socialites that I’d be cooking for, but families in a restaurant called Narcoossee’s.
I remember my first day very well. The Head Chef, Celina Tio, wasn’t there when I arrived. So the task of showing me around fell to her staff. They introduced me to my new home, the starters/desserts section, and gave me the job of cutting the sourdough bread and scooping the butter.
A while later, I heard a voice call my name and I turned to see a woman in her late 20s standing behind me with her hand outstretched. “Hello,” she said warmly. “I’m the chef. You can call me Celina.” Am I allowed to address my head chef by her first name, I remember thinking? That was a criminal offence where I came from. Try as I might, I couldn’t bring myself to call her anything but ‘chef’ – initially out of fear, but soon out of respect. I still do to this day.
She had her own unique approach to team building – one that I now use at my own cafe. Standard Disney protocol would be for the cooks to have their lunch and dinner in the canteen. But Chef Celina got special dispensation for her staff to cook and eat their meals together in the restaurant. Each day, a different cook would make dinner and she’d sit down to eat with us. She’d always take her turn, even when she was knee-deep in paperwork. Sometimes she would organise team outings to places like ‘Bahama Breeze’ – I was so naïve back then that I thought we were actually going to Bermuda and returning for work the following morning – or arrange a luxury yacht for us to picnic on.
Sherry, Mike, Becky, Jimmy, Pete, Buddy, Kristin, Quentin, Lacie, Brent, Dalia… I’m still good friends with all people I worked with back then. We were young and raring to go and, with Chef Celina mentoring us, helped establish Narcoossee as Disney’s most profitable restaurant.
Another unusual thing that Chef Celina did was continually move us around. You wouldn’t know what station you were working on until you got to work and looked at the duty roster. That way we gained experience in every single section – including managing the pass, a job usually reserved for the head chef. Again, this cross-training technique is one that I now use on my own team at Curry Leaf Cafe, which includes Italian, Polish, Czech, Spanish, Slovakian (and of course Indian) chefs. They do a great job of cooking my authentic Indian dishes, and cross-training plays a big part in that.
There is one section that I actively avoided: the grill. I was scared of it, and Chef Celina could tell. On Christmas day – with the restaurant packed and most of the dishes coming from the grill – she decided it was time for me to face my fear. I told her straight out that it was a bad idea, that I would mess it up. “I know you can do it,” she replied.
Sure enough, I messed it up. I made mistake after mistake, but she refused to move me from the grill. When things got really bad, she took over and told me to take a ten-minute break. I didn’t want to return. But when I did, things started to go okay. As the mistakes stopped, my confidence grew – as did my respect for Chef Celina, which was already sky high.
Later, she left Disney to take over the prestigious ‘The American’ restaurant in Kansas City. We all missed her terribly. At one point she tried to bring me to Kansas City to work with her, but it didn’t work out. Now she’s the chef-owner of Julian, The Belfry and Collection in Kansas City, and has numerous awards and TV shows under her belt.
She remains my mentor and a constant source of inspiration. I hope to get the chance to cook alongside her in one of her restaurants someday. In the meantime, I’d like to say ‘Chef Celina, thank you for what you are and who you helped me to become’.
Kanthi Kiran Thamma, chef & co-owner – Curry Leaf Cafe
Chef Celina Tio talks about her time mentoring Kanthi…
"I’d been Head Chef of Narcoossee's for six months when Kanthi came to work for me as part of the International Culinary Programme. He was very quiet. I have to admit I was concerned at first. In a kitchen you have to be loud – you must be heard. It can be dangerous if you don't. Orders need to be called back or a guest could suffer. Being the social butterfly that he was, however, it took no time for Kanthi to fit in with the rest of the team. And when he was told to speak up, he would.
By the time Christmas came around, the students were trained on every station. Narcoossee's was a place that you were working at max capacity at 585 covers but were twiddling your thumbs at 475. The team was coming in for a busy night and the line-up was posted. Kanthi was on Grill. It was arguably the hardest station. We would typically sell about 100 filets, 60 lamb, 80 grouper and then some. In one sitting.
He was not sure he could do it. I knew he could. One of the most important things I try to teach people about learning the line is that you are only strong if you know when to ask for help. He did. I knew he didn't have an ego to keep him from asking. That's why he was successful that night, many other nights on the line and obviously now as the owner of his own restaurant.
I am so proud to see where my team has ended up. Many have been all over – L2O in Chicago, The French Laundry, Noma, Per Se, The Fat Duck. They’re all great restaurants, but it takes confidence, passion and humility to make a go of it for yourself. When you work at places like that, you have everything at your fingertips. But it takes someone special to create greatness from something small. The thing is, it comes from the heart; and that's what the guests feel and taste – not just the food."
Celina Tio, Chef Owner – Julian, The Belfry & Collection