The Empower Culinary & Hospitality School, Sri Lanka’s premier culinary and hospitality facility with World Association of Chefs' Societies (WACS) recognition, felicitated its second batch of 15 culinary students at a graduation night held on July 27th at Waters Edge Hotel, Battaramulla. An outcome of the philosophy of MJF Foundation Settlor Merrill J. Fernando that, business is a matter of human service, the Empower Culinary & Hospitality School was established to offer the underprivileged an opportunity to rise above their circumstances. The school uses an intensive training method to provide selected students with comprehensive knowledge and international perspectives on cuisine and hospitality. The five month culinary course offered by the school is equal to the best in the world with visiting international professionals supplementing the Sri Lankan faculty. Culinary empowerment spans the fundamentals of nutrition through personal discipline, English, cooking skills, information technology and menu planning. Students are selected from the applicants based on their enthusiasm for knowledge, their commitment to hard work and their desire to succeed as chefs. 

Elaborating on the initiative, Dilmah Founder Merrill J. Fernando said, “Dilmah Tea is known worldwide for its quality. That’s not my achievement of Ceylon Tea. What is little known is the philosophy that is driving Dilmah Tea. At the MJF Charitable Foundation, we have a variety of activities bringing hope to poor and the underprivileged. The culinary school is another source of providing hope and happiness to the underprivileged. About 90% of the students who passed out came from our estates. Children of tea pickers; they never had a hope of achieving such a position in life.”   

When the school took on board its second batch of young men and women from underprivileged backgrounds; majority being from tea estates and impoverished urban dwellings; they were without any exposure or knowledge in the field of culinary art. The second intake also enrolled four differently-abled children from the MJF Charitable Foundation’s Rainbow Centre Programme and from the MJF Kids Programme.  After many months of hands on training at the Centre’s state of the art training facility, working with leading chefs from across the world, the students graduated with an international perspective on cuisine and hospitality. They will now receive internships within MJF Foundation, Dilmah and from leading hotels, restaurants and other hospitality operators.  Culinary knowledge apart, these students have been given life skills, social skills, English language skills and IT during the course; the latter being two of the predominant challenges faced by the students. 

Among those who attended the graduation ceremony were Black Hat Chef and WACS Reference Judge Bernd Uber, WACS Education Director John Clancy, the General Managers, F&B Managers and chefs from leading hotels and the representatives from the MJF Group. 

The graduating batch also undertook the challenge to prepare the dinner menu for 75 guests attending the graduation night and assisting them in their task was W. Dinesh – the winner of Bocuse d’Or Sri Lankan competition; a product of the first batch of Empower Culinary & Hospitality School. 

Young graduate Asela Madusanka’s thoughts reflect the positive influence the culinary school has on the lives of underprivileged youth. “Until I started this culinary course I did not know that there are so many opportunities in the hospitality industry. Learning to make international cuisine was so much fun. What I want is not just to be a chef but to be someone who could make innovative dishes.” 

Similarly Danesha Madushani sharing her thoughts at the graduation said although she wanted to learn beauty culture after her A/Ls, the exposure she got at the culinary school took her in a different direction. “Everywhere you find salons, but to be called a chef is something more special, I feel,” she opined.  

Witnessing this milestone in their lives were also parents of the young graduates. 

Danesha’s mother Chandrika Priyani said that her daughter has made her proud. 

“I still recall the day she wore the chef jacket for the first time. That was the moment I realised that my daughter has a clear path ahead. Seeing a child graduate is a dream of every parent. Today my husband is also attending this function. Being a part of this special moment in our daughter’s life means so much for us,” Chandrika added. 

Yanali Wickremesinghe, the mother of Hansana Pieris said her daughter only studied up to Grade 9 in school due to her hearing impairment. “Taking up this culinary course helped her in so many ways- she learnt punctuality; she started taking responsibilities. She was able to discover some of her inborn talents which we were unaware of. Once she drew a portrait of a chef who came to lecture her at Empower. Having seen this, the chef suggested that she learns food carving. She did some amazing food art afterwards - a watermelon carving, rosses carved out of tomatoes,” she recalls. 

Empower Culinary and Hospitality School apart, the MJF Charitable Foundation (MJFCF) operates educational and vocational training centres across the country to empower youth from marginalised backgrounds. In June 2017, the Curtiss Centre for Design at the MJF Centre Moratuwa which was set up with support from Dilmah Partner Darron Curtiss of New Zealand to facilitate training in graphic design for youth from marginalised backgrounds awarded certificates to 40 young graduates while another 134 graduated from the Cricket Life programme; a collaboration of MJFCF and Cricket Live Foundation New Zealand  giving  cricket coaching for underprivileged children to enable them progress in life through cricket. 

About Dilmah 
Sri Lankan family tea company Dilmah, founded by Merrill J. Fernando, today the world's most experienced teamaker, has championed quality, authenticity and variety in tea. Dilmah pioneered the concept of Single Origin Tea in 1988 when the family company went against industry trends to declare its commitment to authenticity. Garden fresh, unblended tea is a hallmark of Dilmah and offers a unique taste of unblended Ceylon tea packed at source - where it is grown. 
Dilmah takes the lead in bringing innovation to a global tea category that has suffered decline as a result of commoditisation. Signature events such as the Chefs & the Teamaker and Real High Tea are innovations that seek to educate and inspire hospitality professionals to offer their guests a completely new tea experience. The events foster greater respect for this healthy, natural and versatile beverage. 
The Dilmah School of Tea seeks to inspire passion in tea through knowledge of the artisanal aspects of tea amongst hospitality professionals, tea aficionados and consumers. The emphasis is on the importance of Real Tea and the versatility of this natural herb in Tea Gastronomy, food pairing and Tea Mixology. 
Dilmah is Ethical Tea, in that all packaging profits are retained in Sri Lanka and fund the MJF Charitable Foundation and Dilmah Conservation. We believe that Business is a Matter of Human Service. 
Merrill J. Fernando 
As a very young man, he saw firsthand, how producers and their workers were exploited. He was inspired to believe that, one day he will have his own brand, which would be of finest Single Origin tea, in 100% Pure Ceylon Tea and share his profits with the poor. He laughed at himself of his impossible dream. From then until now, tea has become a cheap commodity, sold by heavily advertised and promoted brand names by trading companies. Consumers have to pay for brand names and not for quality. 
Thirty four years after his impossible dream, he decided to launch his own brand. In his first press interview in Australia prior to the launch, he said, today, tea is a cheap commodity, I will bring integrity back to tea, by naming my brand "DILMAH", after my two children- Dilhan and Malik, in Single Origin tea, as opposed to multi origin commoditized tea; the finest on the market and sharing profits with the poor and the disabled. 
Merrill launched, garden fresh, unblended, Single Origin Pure Ceylon tea, grown and packed at source, fully value added and branded. In doing so, he retained all the profits from branding and marketing, in his country. Until then, tea producers and workers watched in pain and anger, their raw sweat and toil enriching traders in rich nations, while they remained poor. In carrying out the full process of value addition and branding, right where tea is grown, every packet of Dilmah tea became the world's first ethically produced tea and it remains so, even today. 
Dilmah is globally renowned for the finest quality tea and for its philosophy of caring and sharing. The brand was established on Merrill's unique philosophy of making business a matter of human service, a pledge that is fulfilled through MJF Charitable Foundation and Dilmah Conservation. 
MJF Charitable Foundation 
The MJF Charitable Foundation was established by Dilmah Founder Merrill J. Fernando, to fulfill his commitment to make his family business a matter of human service. MJF Charitable Foundation, changes over 10,000 thousand lives each year. All companies in the MJF Group, contribute 10% of their profits before tax, to the Foundation. Merrill does not accept donations and believes charity must be forthcoming strictly, from his personal resources. 
Dilmah Conservation 
Dilmah Conservation promotes sustainable use of the environment as Merrill believes that every individual and business has an obligation to ensure that a sustainable interaction with the environment is maintained at all times. Through Dilmah Conservation, he pioneered a comprehensive commitment to foster respect for the environment and ensure its protection by encouraging a harmonious coexistence of man and nature. Together with its resource partner 
IUCN, the world’s largest global environmental network, Dilmah is promoting biodiversity, species/habitat protection & awareness of sustainability with special focus on protection of the Asian Elephant. 

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