Chef Sony Thomas views cooking as an experience to cherish. A graduate from the Canan School of Catering and Hotel Management, even when working commercially, he wants to serve his guests good food ladled with a heavy dollop of warmth.
As head cook at St. Albert’s Atlantic Kitchen, Thomas innovates by creating hearty dishes without losing their simplicity and fresh flavours. He tackles East Coast-style clam strips and cod tongue with the same zest as the restaurant’s pork chop dinner and steak sandwich.
Growing up in Chennai (formerly Madras), the East Indian chef swore he’d never become a businessman like his father. The patriarch, a middle-class shopkeeper sold provisions, and provided a relatively comfortable life for his family.
But when Thomas was a teenager, his father suffered a stroke leaving him partially paralyzed and unable to speak. Although the family had some savings, their comfortable lifestyle gradually deteriorated year by year.
“There was pressure to help the family,” said Thomas.
A cocky teenager with a greater interest in cars than acquiring an education, his studies suffered. He later had to forgo the predictable medicine or engineering routes the bright sons of middle-class families were expected to follow.
In trying to kill two birds with one stone, help support his family while indulging his dream for travelling abroad, Thomas enrolled in a three-year culinary program.
His chosen field took him to Canan’s hotel management school in Chennai, which in 1997 was booming. At the school he was exposed to every aspect of the industry: food and beverage, cooking, housekeeping and administration. The specialized cuisine styles taught were Indian, Continental, Chinese, and American fast foods and sandwiches.
Although Thomas’ mother had spoiled the family with India’s traditional comfort foods, upon graduation he was proficient at cooking edibles from tandoori chicken tikka and French paté to British chutneys, Italian pasta and American burgers.
Armed with a diploma, his path took him to a flight kitchen preparing continental cuisine for airlines where he gained real-world experience for two years.
“Food safety was very strict. There was even a microbiology department at the flight kitchen. They would come in and do hand swabs anytime they wanted.”
As a young chef with dreams, he discussed work opportunities in foreign countries with friends. At one point, he considered working in Malaysia but squelched the idea after hearing stories of poor working conditions and low pay.
“Some guys went to Malaysia, but they were treated badly and only paid $200,” said the soft-spoken chef.
He then applied to the popular cruise lines.
“I wasn’t hired. They only considered cooks that worked at 5-star hotels.”
Viewing cruise line experience as a way out, Thomas enrolled in the Indus Culinary School, a specialized three-month program that teaches students cruise line menus and reinforces health and safety standards.
“It was a small group. There were 20 people in the program. We would create a culinary portfolio and at the end receive an interview.”
The 23-year-old was promptly hired on an eight-month contract with Carnival followed by a stint with the more luxurious Seven Seas. On his third contract with Royal Caribbean International, Thomas was brought on as a cook. Four and half years later, he left as Chef de Partie.
“I got married and I could not take my wife with me. Once I left the cruise lines, there was an option to live in Canada. It was easier to work here than going back to India. There’s a better quality of life here. It’s a nice country, and to tell the truth, I like people here better. They are softer and nicer.”
That is a generous statement considering upon his arrival in 2010, his first job was as a line cook at a Bonnyville steakhouse. After 15 days work, his employer balked at paying full wages and gave him a $200 cheque.
Thomas quit and with assistance from friends was hired at The Bear’s Den in Fort Saskatchewan as a cook. When the kitchen manager left, Thomas’ formidable experience turned into an asset for the owners and he was promptly promoted.
The father of three young children continues to live in Fort Saskatchewan and commutes daily to St. Albert. He works tirelessly behind the scenes to make the dining experience a sensual pleasure.
Kitchens can become stressful. And if there is blame to apportion at times, then it is natural to share the glory. With 20 years experience to his name, Thomas has come to realize the most important thing is staying calm and that a hassled boss only creates uncertainty for his staff.
“I don’t like to play politics. I don’t just get stressed. It affects my family and the people I work with.”
At some point in the far future, Thomas would like to own an unpretentious fusion restaurant serving steak, pizza, pasta, burgers and a few East Indian dishes. His recipe for a successful eatery?
“A good team. If you have a good team who are knowledgeable and willing to work, they will bring lots of ideas. If the communication is clear, it makes it easier to run a restaurant.”
But restaurant ownership lies in the future. Today the kitchen calls. His parting words are as simple, yet as full-bodied as the cuisine he cooks.
“Canada is the land of opportunity. I love this country and have a lot of respect for people here. If my dream comes true to open a restaurant, it’s because Canada gave me the opportunity.”