From pastry chef to culinary artist
January 30 2016 11:36 PM
CARVING SUCCESS: Pastry Chef Dharshana Saman Kumara is a consistent winner at culinary art competitions.

By Aney Mathew

Sri Lankan expat Dharshana Saman Kumara came to Doha six years ago and has been working in Mercure Grand Hotel, a subsidiary of Accor Group of Hotels. He is a pastry chef and leads a team of five people. “Besides making pastries and petit fours, Kumara also enjoys working on various culinary crafts such as cake decorating, butter carving and bread carving. “We take care of all the pastry requirements of our hotel,” says Kumara. Excerpts:

Saman with rest of the pastry team.

You are an artist with a special flair for culinary crafts. What got you interested?
When I first came to Doha, I wasn’t involved much in crafts. But within a year of my being here, I had the opportunity to see some very attractive pieces of art, carved by my friends in Sri Lanka. They were samples of butter carving and bread carving (commonly referred to as ‘bread show pieces’).  Those figures really caught my fancy, being artistically inclined, I got some basic guidelines from them and started working on ideas. With time, patience and hard work, I’ve been able to create several art pieces myself and today I enjoy creating beautiful display pieces.  
I did receive some training on advanced cake decoration – especially wedding cakes and structured cakes; but as far as butter carving and bread carving are concerned, I am basically self-taught.

Precious moments with his family back in Sri Lanka.

You have won several prizes at major competitions for your work. Tell us about them.
I find participating in competitions an interesting experience as I enjoy the challenge it offers. I love pondering over various ideas and coming up with unique and interesting designs that I can work on as I create my own works of art.
Once I learnt to work with salt dough to make bread show pieces and got a hang of butter carving, I began working on various ideas. These two mediums are often considered important categories in culinary art contests and I soon began participating in competitions. I’ve won prizes consistently at various culinary art competitions held by the Al Diyafa Hotels and the Annual Qafco Flower and Vegetable Show, for the past few years.
Another aspect of the challenge is that since we have our regular work to attend to at the hotel, we need to find and make the time needed to work on the competition pieces.

You do amazing work with salt dough and butter; you’ve also created cakes with very delicate, fine finish. Tell us more about these crafts ...
I always start with a sketch of the figure that I want to carve and mould. Bread carving calls for the use of simple kitchen ingredients which are combined to form a dough — hence the name salt dough carving. This dough is then used to shape and hand-mould figures and images; when working on larger pieces, you will need to use metal wires inside, for support. The piece is then allowed to dry for about three days allowing it to harden. You then work on the minor details and finer aspects of your sculpture to achieve the required look. Coffee decoction is finally used to colour the piece and give it a glaze – the finished piece can look almost like a piece of wood carving. Depending on the size of the figure you are working on, it can take anywhere from five days to a few weeks to finish a display. Once completed, these figures can be used as exhibits for several years; you just need to ensure they are kept dry and away from moisture.
Butter carving — as the name implies, uses butter or mostly margarine; this is applied on a carved base of Styrofoam. The details are then finely worked on by hand or carved out using simple tools like a brush or barbecue stick; the final figure is then hand-polished to give it a sheen. The crafting and carving of butter/margarine displays is done in a cold room to prevent the figure from melting down and losing shape. Display pieces carved from butter keep well for about a couple of years, when kept away from heat and dust.
As for wedding and structured cakes — I enjoy decorating cakes with fondant as it can be moulded into various shapes and it also gives a great finish. However, if you want to achieve a professional look with a fine, lace-like finish, then royal icing is the way to go.  
I enjoy working on all of the above mediums, as these are all very versatile and you can accomplish various shapes and designs, if you are creative. While each of these crafts pose their own challenges they provide very satisfying results.  
What is your word of advice to young people looking for a career as kitchen artists?
Those who are interested in pursuing a future in culinary crafts should be willing to put in time and effort to develop themselves; it’s equally important to love what they are doing and to have a passion for these crafts.
Share with us your most memorable experience so far ...
That would be the awards ceremony of the Qafco Flowers and Vegetable show conducted in 2015. I had participated in both — the salt dough and butter carving contests and was naturally very happy when I won the gold medal in both these categories. But when I was awarded the ‘Queen of the Show’ – reserved for the person with the best carving skills, I was really elated. I had managed to bring my hotel to the first position in the ‘hotels’ category. In addition, other colleagues of mine whom I had guided as they prepared their own displays for the competition, also won in different categories. It was a very satisfying moment. The recognition made me feel all my hard work over the last few years paid off. This has been my greatest achievement so far.

What is your dream?
I desire to become one of the most successful Pastry Chefs in the region and to become a culinary artist with the best carving skills in Qatar. I would also like to have my own business in Sri Lanka — owning my own pastry shop.

What is your dream destination?
That would certainly be France – the capital of pastries, petit fours and fine dining. It would be great to travel to Paris and watch top chefs in action.

What challenges you?
I wouldn’t say there is anything about my job that causes me much anxiety; when challenges arise, I face it by putting in more hours to ensure the needful is done. I don’t like to see a job left badly done or half done, so I see that it is complete before I leave work.

What scares you?
Every time the awards are being announced at the end of a competition — it is a tense moment for me.
What cuisine do you enjoy the most?  
Sri Lankan food is certainly my favourite.

What is your favourite pastime?
I enjoy listening to music, especially Sri Lankan music.

What would you do if you won a million dollars?
Besides setting up my own business selling cakes and pastries in Sri Lanka, I would start a school where I can teach the next generation the skills I know and the crafts I enjoy.
How would you describe your life right now?
I have always worked hard and that attitude has helped me come up and achieve the position that I hold today. I look towards being more creative and coming up with more unique ideas as I express myself through craft.

What is your philosophy in life?
I believe there is nothing impossible if you are willing to work towards it. I also believe it is vital to be optimistic about life; it is always important to be positive if you want to achieve results.

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