The Merrill J. Fernando Foundation empowers young Sri Lankans in the kitchen
Merrill J. Fernando, the founder of Dilmah Tea, has an impressive record of philanthropic activities. The Merrill J. Fernando Charitable Foundation is an organisation that reflects Fernando’s belief in his mother’s teaching that one must care and share. He is quoted as saying of Dilmah, now one of the world’s top 10 international tea brands, “If the community in which we exist doesn’t develop with us, then we become a parasite. And we never want to be in that position.”
Dilmah has transformed the Sri Lankan tea industry from an exploited producer of tea as a mere commodity to one that produces pure Ceylon tea and adds value to local communities. Ethical and sustainable practice is the cornerstone of the Dilmah brand. Fernando’s son Dilhan is now CEO. His unequivocal belief is summed up in Merrill’s reflection that the more he shares, the more he gives and the more he receives.
So apart from producing excellent tea, Dilmah has a long tradition of looking after the medical, educational and social welfare of the workers on their plantations. As well as this, through their charitable foundation, the company works with the wider Sri Lankan community. They set up a small entrepreneur programme after the 2004 tsumami and this remains the core of Dilmah’s charitable work. They believe in second chances so this programme targets people in prison and the many war widows — a result of the 25 years of war in Sri Lanka. The programme also focuses on youth and first-time entrepreneurs and community organisations.
Dilmah has a strong belief in empowering the underprivileged so they can gain sustainable and fulfilling employment to secure dignified lives and avoid the spiral of poverty. The creation of the MJF Centre’s Empower Culinary and Hospitality School is one way they are doing this.
As a chef, this is one I find most interesting. The school is situated in Moratuwa, just south of the capital Colombo. Here, 18-20 underprivileged or war-affected students are enrolled after being assessed on a 10-point criteria checklist, which includes things like their socio-economic status, and with disability taken into account and not a bar to enrolment. The school has state-of-the-art commercial kitchen facilities and students are provided with uniforms, equipment, board and accommodation. Each course, which is taught in English with a pre-approved curriculum and study plan, lasts three months and tries to cover all aspects of the professional chef’s education — right down to small things like punctuality, sometimes held in a different cultural regard than is acceptable in the urgent, busy world of the international professional kitchen.
Students begin their training on the farm run by Dilmah, so they understand where food comes from, and they receive instruction in IT, English and nutrition, along with 45 minutes of physical education every morning.
After the course they are found jobs in Sri Lanka’s hotel groups where they work for three months. The school also receives visits from professional chefs — Kiwi Simon Gault has done a stint there, as has Australian chef Peter Kuruvita. As you can imagine, to be accepted on to one of these courses is life-changing for young Sri Lankans.
There are few organisations that are as comprehensively charitable in the most positive and unpatronising way as Dilmah.
One hears a lot of talk about “giving back” from corporates these days but for me Dilmah would be a shining example of old-fashioned, can-do help to a society still affected not just by colonial exploitation but upheavals in the post colonial age. And they have been quietly doing it for years.
Sri Lankan love cake
Made by former student Dinuri who now works in the Swashakthi Bakery & Tearoom attached to the school, this recipe was taught to the students by chef Peter Kuruvita.
300g semolina, lightly toasted
10 eggs, separated
400g caster sugar
¼ cup grated crystallised pumpkin
185g cashews, crushed
2 Tbsp rosewater
¼ tsp nutmeg
¼ tsp cinnamon
2-3 limes, zested
Icing sugar, to serve
- Heat oven to 200C.
- Place the semolina and butter in a tray. Place in oven until the butter has melted.
- Meanwhile, whisk the egg yolks in a large bowl. Add the sugar and mix until combined. Stir in the crystallised pumpkin. Stir in the honey and cashews. Add the rosewater and stir to combine. Add the nutmeg and cinnamon and stir until the mixture is pale.
- In a clean, dry bowl, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. Fold the egg whites into the cake mixture. Stir in the lime zest.
- Add the semolina-butter mixture to the cake mixture. Pour into a tray lined with baking paper. Bake for 1 hour or until firm to touch. Remove from oven and set aside to cool slightly. Dust with icing sugar and cut into 12-16 slices to serve.
Pantry note: You may find crystallised pumpkin at Sri Lankan grocers or use dried, candied or glaced fruit such as pineapple, mango and orange.