Priya Cooks her Way to the Top

February 29, 2020

Priya Darshani, Executive Chef, Outrigger Resort Fiji 

Priya Darshani is a wife, mother, daughter in law and is also Fiji’s first female executive chef of a five-star property.  Growing up in Sigatoka,  Priya’s passion for cuisine was fueled by fresh foods and vegetables that were  widely available and grown in her backyard. This is her story.

No other family member had ever been in this profession. Growing up, I had a passion for cooking, and I could cook all day. But it was not easy getting my parents to agree to let me pursue this career. At that time, this was a male dominated profession and being an Indian woman, it was hard for them to accept my decision. Eventually they agreed.

What was the journey like – from those early days to be the big boss?

I joined Outrigger Resort as a trainee in 2003. It was like a baptism of fire. I had no previous experience and it was a tough journey. I learnt new things every day, being short and in the kitchen,  you literally have to climb heights in the kitchen to get things. There were lots of funny experiences. I learnt a lot - to understand the ingredients and at that time I didn’t even know some of the ingredients we were using. There were some seafoods that I didn’t even know the names or how to pronounce.  What kept me going was the new things I learnt every day and watching the senior chefs create and whip up dishes. It  fueled my interest and passion for cooking even more.

In 2004, I was hired as a cook for the hotel and in 2005 I was promoted to be a demi chef. It was the same time the Sofitel Resort was opening, so I decided to get some experience in starting up a kitchen, so I moved there. I also got married. In 2006, Outrigger offered the position of chef de partie of Ivi Fine Dine and I took it as it was closer to my home and my in laws as well. The following year, the restaurant was awarded the restaurant of the year at the Fiji Tourism Awards and that sort of recognized my capabilities. In 2012, I was Fiji’s chef of the year and I competed at the international global chefs semi finals and came home with a bronze medal in 2014. That same year I was promoted to sous chef and in 2016 I was promoted to executive sous chef. Last year, the executive chef of this resort was posted to Thailand and I was offered his position.

Who have been your greatest supporters?

My husband and family. My husband had urged me to take on positions and supports me whenever I want to throw in the towel. I work long hours at times so it is my husband and my mother in law who make sure that everything at home is going smoothly. I don’t cook at home - my husband and my mum in law do. My husband looks forward to when I critique his cooking. He will literally jump for joy if I give him a 4/10.

What would be your personal advice to women aspiring to take up this career?

Hard work, dedication and passion for food can take one a long away. Always remember to treat people like the way you want to be treated. Women are not weak. We have equal enthusiasm, passion and strength to be leaders. We just need do it from the heart.

How have you inspired other women who may wish to pursue the same profession?

I have a lot of Instagram followers who are ladies. I have counselled many women during chef competitions. They  send their dishes from other resorts to see if I could contribute something  and help them a lot. Most of the dishes would come with good acknowledgments. It’s humbling to hear someone say that Chef Priya was her mentor.

So, what are you like when you are leading the team in the kitchen? Do you have moments like Gordon Ramsay in the Master Chef TV series?

I am not like Gordon Ramsay. But there are times when you do become like Gordon Ramsay. It’s when you see that dishes you have created from the heart are not being delivered the way you want them  to be by someone. When you create dishes, you want the taste, flavors and presentation to be of a certain standard and it hurts to see someone dropping the standard.

But I am not an executive chef who stays behind the scenes. I like to work with the team and be there where there is pressure, and to encourage them…they can look up to see the executive chef making poached eggs or cooking in line. That’s the greatest encouragement I can give my staff- working with them.

What are some of the challenges you face?

The greatest challenge I face is losing staff to more lucrative offers. Sometimes, we spend all the years training someone and just when they are ready, they are recruited by another organization for a higher pay. But I am proud to say that 98 per cent of our chefs are “homegrown”. We started a program where we hired trainees from school and gave them training and opportunities.

Hotels in Fiji do import a lot of food for their guests. How important is having local ingredients in your dishes for you?

It’s very important to me.  I think we are at 60 per cent local ingredients. You can dine in our signature restaurant, Ivi indulging in gourmet meals which use local ingredients. We are always proud to showcase our dishes made of locally grown food.

What’s the best part of this job?

Food is a token of friendship - when we have guests over in our homes or anywhere, food is involved. I like to change the mindsets of guests through food. I once had an experience with a guest who was vegan and was disappointed that we could not offer her enough variety.  I didn’t know and only found out when I was walking through the restaurant talking to guests. I heard her story and prepared a vegan meal for her using local substitutes as in Fiji we really do not have vegan ingredients widely available. She was impressed saying we had just offered the world in a platter to her. She has been coming every year since to Outrigger.