When Chef Unnikrishna Pandaeth left India, his only ambition was to support his impoverished family. He was prepared to take risks and work hard.
Pandaeth never imagined that in the odyssey, he would open a dream restaurant in the United States, leave it and end up as one St. Albert’s most respected chefs.
For the past four years, Pandaeth has served as head chef at Sorrentino’s Restaurant managing a kitchen staffed with eight employees who prepare an Italian-based, fine-dining menu.
Although Pandaeth is in the thick of Sorrentino’s 23rd annual Mushroom Harvest Festival, he spent some time reflecting on a journey that took him from India to Carnival Cruise Lines to New York and finally St. Albert.
The certified chef was born and raised in Kerala, a coastal area in the South Indian continent that cultivates coconut, tea and coffee along with rubber, cashews and an extensive array of spices.
A major exporter of coconut, (kera means coconut) the port city’s cooks have integrated its fruit, oil and milk into many dishes making the area’s cuisine distinctive in nature.
In this agrarian region, unemployment has traditionally been high.
“My father was a painter but he did not make enough money to survive,” said Pandaeth, the youngest of three children.
While some of his peers may have fantasized about playing championship soccer or starring in Kollywood films (a colloquial term that blends Kodambakkam and Hollywood), Pandaeth had no such dreams.
“We were not a rich family. My background is that I cannot have dreams. I wanted to help my family make money and there is no easy way to make money.”
Although his family was poor, Pandaeth earned good grades in school. An uncle in a well-placed engineering position offered to pay the young man’s way in a post-secondary math and science program.
Unfortunately after two years, the earnest student failed to meet the required grades.
“Perhaps if I had taken economics or history, I might have a nice government job. But my uncle wanted me to take math and science.”
Still aiming to support his family, the Malayalam-speaking young man enrolled in a government sponsored welding program that used commendatory school marks as a criteria for eligibility.
Although Pandaeth received his welding certification, he opted not pursue it as a career.
“It was very hard and I had pain in my eyes and back.”
Switching to the Kerala’s Food Craft Institute, he once again spent another 18 months in school before working as a cook three years at India’s South Park Hotels.
“At the institute you just learn the basics. I had to prove myself and I worked hard.”
The year was 1995 and he earned $50 per month at South Park, just enough to survive, but too little to build a future, let alone support a family.
Risking his future, Pandaeth hopped on a two-day train ride to Mumbai searching for better pickings.
With a population of 20 million, Mumbai’s competition in the field of cookery was stiff. However, he received word that Carnival Cruise Lines was hiring and submitted an application.
Within two weeks he was hired to work on Carnival Destiny, a ship that carries 3,500 passengers and 1,500 crew members.
Eager to work, the young adventurer was offered an eight-month contract cruising the Caribbean at a salary of US$600 each month.
Borrowing money to fly to Miami, the young go-getter was soon working two back-to-back shifts in the galley seven days a week.
Sharing stations with 300 cooks, he prepared meals for the ship’s various dining options including the main dining room, various specialty restaurants, the buffet lines and all night room service.
“It was a hell of a job in the hotel industry. Imagine working 14, 15, 16 hours every day with different menus,” said Pandaeth.
The work was initially difficult in part because of the treatment from superiors.
“You cannot imagine how hard it is. They have no respect. They push and push and push. In the galley there are many people from my country and the Philippines.”
But Pandaeth survived the punishing rigours of galley life for five years before docking at New York with several friends.
“When you work on a ship, it’s about quantity. You have to work hard and fast. When you work on ship for a few years, you can survive anything.”
Once on American soil, Pandaeth quickly found employment as an assistant cook at an East Indian restaurant. On the side he formed a partnership with friends and opened an East Indian restaurant serving authentic southern cuisine.
Just as the partnership was building, Pandaeth was informed his paperwork was not accepted and he had to leave the United States. Through friends and contacts, he moved to Edmonton and was quickly immersed in Sorrentino’s Restaurant Group.
The region’s cold weather came as a shock, however cooking Italian cuisine was easy.
Displaying the confidence of a veteran professional chef he states, “I knew the basics, and if you know how to cook, it’s easy to learn any kind.”
Pandaeth has come a long way. By chancing his future, working hard and saving frugally, he now owns two houses in India, one where his parents live.
“Once you are in the business, you come to love it. I just want to increase my food standing.”
At some point in the far future, he plans to open up a restaurant with his favourite recipes from Kerala. At the moment he can dish out the exotic cuisine, but ultimately he knows that honest, simple food always wins the heart.
“When I make food and you say it is great, I am so proud. That makes me happy.”
To any aspiring chefs, he adds, “Work hard. Be passionate. Every day you can learn something new.”
Sorrentino’s Harvest Mushroom Festival runs until Saturday, Sept. 30. In addition, Sorrentino’s St. Albert hosts an evening dubbed Mushrooms and Giusti Wines on Sunday, Sept. 24.
Special guests are Sorrentino’s executive chef Sonny Sung and David Walker of Giusti Wines. Cost is $95 per person. Call to reserve at 780-459-1411.