In conversation with Lankan Filling Station chef O Tama Carey
O Tama Carey never had any aspirations to be a chef, but an accidental stint in a London restaurant began a journey that would see her work through an impressively diverse roster of kitchens, from French training at Bistro Moncur, to a stint at Japanese restaurant Uchi Lounge, on to Billy Kwong and finally at the helm of Italian restaurant Berta as head chef.
In 2018 she began her first solo venture, opening Lankan Filling Station in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs. An ode to the food of her heritage, the restaurant was born partly from a desire to bring Sri Lankan food into the city’s mainstream, and partly because Carey simply wanted to eat hoppers every day.
Here, EatWell talks to Carey about sustainable eating, balcony gardens and the secret to making the perfect hopper.
O Tama, tell us about your journey into the food world. Where did it begin and how?
My introduction into the food world was a bit of an accident! I was travelling overseas after high school, to Sri Lanka, then London and all over Europe. When I arrived in London I got a job in a kitchen through a friend and I thought it was just for a kitchenhand, but it turned out I was properly in the kitchen, and then I didn’t leave! That was that, pretty much.
There seems to be a growing trend for Sri Lankan food in Australia. What inspired you to open Lankan Filling Station and cook the food of your heritage?
I think it’s really great that there’s suddenly a lot more Sri Lankan food around. I think it’s partly because the war is over in Sri Lanka; for so many years there were travel restrictions and government cautions, but now more people are travelling there. And partly because people have decided Sri Lankan food is cool!
Part of the reason I opened Lankan Filling Station was because I felt Sri Lankan food didn’t have a voice in Sydney. In Australia, Sri Lankan food places are usually in the suburbs, and tend to be smaller, cheaper places, but there weren’t a lot of mainstream Sri Lankan food places around, which is really sad because it’s great food. I also wanted to eat hoppers every day and no one would cook them for me, so I opened my own restaurant!
Before I opened Lankan Filling Station, I had been cooking for a really long time, but I had never cooked Sri Lankan food. I suppose chefs reach a stage where they’ve cooked for other people for a really long time and then you want to open your own place. I had always had the idea of opening a Sri Lankan restaurant in the back of my mind because there wasn’t much of it out there, so in terms of a business idea, it was a good thing to tackle.
Tell us about Lankan Filling Station’s relationship with sustainable eating.
Sustainable eating has been important to me from quite early on in my career. The way we do it at Lankan Filling Station has a lot to do with the produce we source. Ninety-five per cent of the spices we source are organic, and the rice we use is sourced from a charity in Sri Lanka called Rural Returns — they work with small farms growing indigenous rice varietals that are otherwise getting forgotten about.
When you go to Sri Lanka nowadays there’s a lot of basmati rice around, which is Indian, but it’s the red and samba rice varieties that are actually native to Sri Lanka. We import red and samba rice ourselves from Rural Returns, and I think it’s really important to do stuff like that where you can. They’re also really good for you; they’re low-GI and have a lot of aromatic properties. The way that Sri Lankans eat traditionally has a lot to do with health and balance — your day-to-day meals are about healthful properties as well as flavour. It’s very entrenched in the culture.
What is the secret to making the perfect hopper? Can you walk us through the process?
There are so many secrets! Hoppers are fraught with danger. The first time I ate a hopper was during my trip after high school, and I thought they were the best thing I’d ever eaten! Every time I’ve been back to Sri Lanka, I’ve always badgered people for a recipe. I also experimented, unsuccessfully, with my nan. The last time I went back, just before we opened the restaurant, I was really looking at recipes, and I discovered that there are a million different ways and we’ve just got one version, which works for us.
The whole basis of it is this: you make a dough with rice flour, water, a bit of sugar and a bit of salt, and most recipes use yeast, and the dough sits out overnight. The next day you turn it into a batter with coconut milk and you let it ferment a little bit more, and then you cook them!
Our version is a little more complicated — we use three different types of rice flour and we also let it ferment overnight after turning it into a batter, so we do a two-day ferment to give it a bit more sourness. If you mess it up, you’ve got problems because you’re two days behind!
Is there a particular style of food or eating you feel you bring to Sydney, or Australia?
When creating menus, it’s always been really important to me to have a balance of foods on the table. Having something fresh at the end and having all the flavours, so you’re not just having an entire meal made up of rich foods. That idea of being satisfied but not uncomfortably full is something that I’ve really paid attention to, and I think what you can find when you go to a fancy restaurant is sometimes the balance isn’t always there, because it’s about trying to impress with every dish, rather than showing restraint.
What for you makes the perfect dining experience?
So many things! Feeling comfortable, good staff to look after you, good food, obviously. I think people who don’t work in the industry aren’t aware of how many tiny little things go towards making that perfect experience. Even the light and smells, the way you’re sitting and the cutlery you’re holding; it’s not just the food, the drinks and the staff.
What is something that has inspired you lately?
All my kitchen staff are growing edible gardens at the moment; well, we’re all growing balcony gardens. One of my staff brought me a zucchini seedling, and we’re both really excited because we’re just getting our first zucchinis. I bought all my kitchen staff curry leaf trees too. Even if you live in a city, like we do, you can definitely grow your own food, more so than people suspect.
What are you enjoying eating at the moment?
Well, since COVID, we’ve been eating at home a lot and doing a lot of home cooking. One thing I cook a lot at home is many versions of a Greek pie, like a spinach pie, but with whatever greens are available like cavalo nero, kale, fennel and whatever herbs we have, and I do a filo with parmesan and ricotta — that’s a bit of a staple in our household.
Do you think food can play a role in shaping a better future for the world?
Oh god yes. And on so many levels. Even if you just look at the one level of people sitting down to a meal together instead of getting fast food or delivery, I think that impacts communities and impacts social interaction and how people react to the world around them.
Getting food delivered is such a huge thing now and I really noticed it last winter in the restaurant; I was thinking, “Where are all the people?!” Everyone I talked to said winters are really hard now because people don’t leave their homes, they just get delivery. On a social level, that definitely has an effect.
On an environmental level, the way we live and food wastage, our choices have a massive impact. Eating is such a staple to everyone’s day-to-day living, and the way people eat and shop and cook food has changed so dramatically, and it’s really messed up the world.
I’d like to see people be more aware of the cost of food. It’s a big thing in the restaurant world because people say restaurant food is so expensive, but it’s really quite cheap. A lot of chefs and restaurateurs will say you can’t charge what you should be charging for food because people don’t think it’s worth that much, because you can go down to McDonalds and get four hamburgers for $5 or something ridiculous.
I think one of the problems is that organic produce is really expensive, which is hard because it’s only available to certain people in society, as not everyone can afford it. On the flip side, you can grow your own herbs on your balcony, and in terms of meat, if you can cook well, one chicken should last you for four or five meals.