Last week saw BMICH taken by storm as thousands of chefs put their most creative food on display at the Culinary Art Food Expo 2023. The halls were taken over by inventive displays of the most intricate cakes, canapés, and multi-course meals while chefs from all around Sri Lanka and the world took in the staggering workmanship and craftsmanship of Sri Lanka’s best and brightest chefs, both young and old.

Amidst this backdrop of culinary art, Dilmah Tea launched ‘RESPECT: Inspired by Tea,’ a push to bring real tea back into the concept of high tea. In recent years, focus has shifted more and more away from the tea beverage itself in the context of high tea to focus on food offerings and pairings with other beverages and this has led to the power of tea as a beverage sometimes being overlooked, particularly in the context of high tea.

To refocus the powerful role of tea in high tea, Dilmah once again hosted its Dilmah Real High Tea Challenge, inviting 16 hotels to participate in combining the awesome powers of different kinds of Sri Lankan teas with inventive food pairings to create a truly Sri Lankan high tea experience. The winner of this year’s Dilmah Real High Tea Challenge was the Haputale tea plantation bungalow-turned-hotel Thotalagala.

Speaking to The Sunday Morning Brunch, Dilmah Tea CEO Dilhan Fernando explained: “The Dilmah Real High Tea Challenge is designed to put the tea back in high tea. When you consider the relationship of tea in dignifying food – balancing sugars, the functional aspect of it, as well as the sensory aspect like the taste, flavours, textures, and aromas – there is a tremendous opportunity to look afresh at tea.”

Fernando highlighted that the Dilmah Real High Tea Challenge also encouraged young Sri Lankan chefs and culinary teams to look afresh at how to incorporate tea into the Sri Lankan high tea experience and to understand the relationships between tea and the different food elements of high tea like desserts, savouries, and pastries as well as how tea could enhance the experience for guests in certain peculiar ways, such as not leaving them too full afterwards, emulsifying fats, hydrating and cleansing, and also enhancing the flavours of the different food elements of the high tea offering.

“The Dilmah Real High Tea Challenge is also about a truly Sri Lankan high tea. It’s not about copying tradition from England or another country, but about building a genuinely Sri Lankan high tea experience built around genuine high-quality Ceylon Tea,” Fernando said.

With over 16 hotels competing in this iteration of the Dilmah Real High Tea Challenge, Brunch also spoke to the judges of the competition.

Chef Bernd Uber, a veteran Australian chef with over 50 years of experience who has visited the Culinary Art Food Expo since its inception in Sri Lanka, said: “I am astounded by the number of people showing [at the Expo] and by their work. Some of the petit fours and pastillage work are incredible. The craftsmanship really reflects Sri Lankan culture; I could never have the patience nor do I have the skill to do carvings and certain things I see here. The work here can match anything you see in Dubai or Singapore.”

Chef Uber also commended the quality of Sri Lankan talent in general, noting that in markets like Dubai and Australia there was a high demand for Sri Lankan chefs because of the quality of their work and their willingness to learn and work hard – something Chef Uber noted many native Australian chefs did not possess. The potential of Sri Lankan talent to learn from chefs abroad also gives them the chance to contribute their knowledge back to Sri Lanka when they are properly skilled.

“When talking to young chefs, I always tell them to go overseas and expand their knowledge and then come back and enrich their mother country with what they’ve learned,” he said.

World Association of Chefs’ Societies President Chef Thomas Gugler was a judge at the Dilmah Real High Tea Challenge 2023 and spoke of the challenge and the thought process it provoked.

“It’s fantastic because it’s modern, innovative, and creative. There are great pairings to have here for different types of food, combining every flavour from sweet to sour to spicy to warm and cold food. It was a great combination put forward this year with different tea cocktails, tea mocktails, and hot and cold brews being used. It’s good for people to understand that tea is a celebration, a culture.”


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