Ravi our singing chef

Chef Ravi Retnam at Le Grandeur Palm Resort, Johor
My best memories of Johor Baru must be the carefree growing up days at Kampong Wadi Hana.  Located between Jalan Sekolah Arab and Jalan Mohd Taib, my friends and I dubbed our kampong “the Bermuda Triangle” because we knew how to disappear into the network of side roads and back lanes in this area.  I loved its central location, a comfortable walking distance to town, Jalan Tebrau and Jalan Ngee Heng.

Wadi Hana was a multi-racial neighbourhood where boys, many older or younger to me, would play football together in a nearby field. 

Another of our favourite past-times was playing chatek, a toy made with a few chicken feathers stuck on a small rubber disc, and challenging each other to kick and keep it bouncing in the air for the longest time.  My friends and I shared a special bond in a unique friendship because it crossed all cultural and racial barriers. 

I remember wearing my pair of Bata Badminton Master rubber-shoes, whitened by Penguin brand chalk whitener and walking along the railway track and then across to Jalan Ngee Heng to go to St Joseph School.  At that time, I had a pint-size physique and that was why I was always in the front row at assembly and which earned me the endearing nickname, Ravi Tikus, meaning Ravi the rat.  I was so tiny that when one of the louvers was removed, I could easily slip through the window.

Chef Ravi at The Grill at Cocomo,
Le Grandeur Palm Resort
I was exposed to music and dance at an early age because my father used to play the tabla and was a member of the Johor Indian Band with a group of friends.  After joining the first kolattam group in Johor Baru, I used to perform with the group at festivals and special events.  (Kolattam is an Indian folk dance from Tamil Nadu performed with sticks.)  I was introduced to singing with a “live” band when I was just 9 and I will never forget that experience when I went on stage to sing, Dum Maro Dum, a Hindi song from the movie Hare Rama Hare Krishna.

Singing became my hobby and I used to dream about singing with a band.  At 16, I would sneak out from home, using the removal-of-window-louver method, to go to hear “The Revolvers” and “The Explorers” perform at Café De Paris at Komplex Tun Abdul Razak.  Another unforgettable experience was when I was invited to jam with “The Blues Gang” when they were performing at the Crocodile Pub in Taman Sri Tebrau. 

While waiting for my Form 5 results, I joined the Holiday Inn Johor Baru as a Steward and within 4 months, I was transferred to the kitchen as Kitchen Helper to assist Chef Ernest Storkel, an Austrian.  He appreciated that I could communicate effectively in English and taught me a great deal in the kitchen.  Although I did quite well in my SPM, I decided not to further my studies but continued working and in 7 years, with much hard work and a right attitude, I was promoted to Chef De Partie.

Chef Ravi doing what he loves best at The Grill at Cocomo
In 1989 I had ideas to find better job prospects in Kuala Lumpur but for a change, I went to work with my friend Derrick Lazaroo in the kitchen of Le Cocktail Café.  After 2 years, I was ready to return to the hotel industry and joined the Pan Pacific Hotel Johor Baru as Demi Chef before I was promoted to Chef De Partie again. 

After 4 years, I decided to work outside of Johor and I joined The Excelsior in Ipoh but in 4 months, I heard that a former colleague from the Holiday Inn Johor Baru was looking for those he used to work with to join his team at Sofitel Palm Resort in Senai.

So in 1994, I joined Sofitel Palm Resort as Chef De Partie and moved up the ranks to be Junior Sou Chef and then Executive Sou Chef before becoming Senior Executive Chef.  I attribute what I am today to Chef Murray Patterson, an Australian, who told me, “My job here is to make you what I am,” and he taught everything I needed to know in kitchen management and cooking.  Even though the hotel changed names twice over the last 17 years, regulars who enjoy my food just keep coming back for more. 

Chef Ravi putting the finishing touches
to one of his delicious creations
I’m aware that people have a choice as to where or what they want to eat, so I work extra hard to make them prefer what I create.  I remember another mentor, head waiter Anasdas Ariokiasamy or Das in short, who taught me that not only front-liners but all staff should have good relationship and communication with guests.  Many long-stay guests in the hotel may have memorized our menu by now, so it gives me great pleasure to meet their tastes and create new dishes for them, every now and then.

Now it is my privilege to mentor a younger team of associates in the seven kitchens that I manage in the hotel.  I may look serious and am very serious in my work but I like to surprise the youngsters by breaking into a song they recognize during tense moments in the kitchen.  If I sing while I’m cooking, it quickly breaks any tension within the team and keeps everyone working hard together to make any large banquet a roaring success. 

Note:  Ravindren Retnam, better known as Chef Ravi, 46, is the Senior Executive Chef of Le Grandeur Palm Resort Johor

A version of this interview was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 11 August 2011

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