By Paulina Ignacak
A graduate of the School of Hotel Management and Culinary Arts in India, Divakar Raju began his career at the Taj Group of Hotels as a chef. In the time since, he has worked around the world and is a certified food professional. In 1998, Raju moved to Toronto, where his career progressed from positions in the Canadian hotel services toward food services in the retirement industry. He joined Delmanor in 2011, where he is now the corporate manager of culinary services.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CRFN: Can you walk us through why you initially became involved in the culinary industry?
Food and eating was a very integral part of our family. My mom was a housewife and my dad was working supporting five kids, so we had humble beginnings. The two things my parents gave us was good food, and a good education. Everyone relished food at home. We sat down for dinners and whatever was put out there, fish or meat, we ate it, we relished it, and we talked about it. Whenever my mom would cook, I would be in the kitchen, looking at what she’s cooking, seeing her work with her senses and instincts. She would allow me to taste the food and I would give my opinion. I grew up appreciating good food.
So I thought, “Oh! This would be a good profession” at that time. People did not appreciate that profession so much in those years. I’m talking about 1983-86. That’s when I went to culinary school. I also did a hotel management course. Meanwhile, all my friends became engineers and doctors. Food is a conversational piece. How much can you discuss with an engineer about nuts and bolts?
You recently made the list of finalists in the RBC’s Top 25 Immigrants of 2020. What initially brought you to Canada?
I was working in Dubai. My wife was also out there working, and we were looking to start a family. Dubai does not offer a long-term kind of life. You can never become a citizen out there, and we didn’t want to go back to India. Then, we saw that in Canada, life was good, so we chose Canada. Within six or seven months, our papers got processed, and we were given entry as permanent residents into the country.
What in your opinion, makes the Canadian culinary scene unique?
It is so nice to be a chef in this country. You have people from every country, and these people have brought their cuisines out here. These people have brought their ingredients out here. If you want to cook some Ethiopian food, or eat some Ethiopian food, you can get that. You want to eat some Pakistani food? You want some African food, or Middle Eastern cuisine, or Jewish cuisine? Whatever you want, you can get it. You can go into any food store to get ingredients to cook with to make a dish. What more do you want as a chef?
What was the reason that you pivoted to foodservice in a retirement living community? Was this happenstance or was it a planned move?
After probably, oh, 10 years in hotels and restaurants, I went into the retirement industry. We had two kids and the kids were growing, and my wife was working almost like a single parent. The work/life balance was not there for me. I was working long hours. And so, by chance, I just applied. I saw something about the retirement industry, and they were looking for a chef. They called me for an interview, I went out there, I had no clue what was what. I joined the company, and then I realized that it is a mirror image of a hotel. It’s not like you open a box and throw some stuff on a plate. People are paying a lot of money living in these communities, so we are able to produce good food. Plus, you are able to go home at a decent hour, and still have dinner with your family because by 7 or 8 p.m., things are over. That work/life balance was good, money was not so bad, and I was still able to show my capabilities and skill set, and I did some good cooking.
That’s what I learned after actually joining the retirement industry. Gone are the myths about how food served in a retirement community tastes like. That has all changed drastically. I think Delmanor has set huge standards in the industry in terms of working with local produce and local farmers, as well as hosting events and different festivals.
As a Chef, do you find yourself cooking a lot at home or do you tend to leave that up to other members of the family?
It`s an interesting question because everyone in the world asks me this when they meet me. My standard answer, which is now well-rehearsed, is that, “It only makes sense that I cook because I am the expert at cooking.” Having said that, my wife is an amazing cook, and for the longest time in my life, when I was working at hotels, I never had time to cook at home, and I would come and eat home-cooked food by my wife. And today, because I have time, we cook together.
Are there any specific cooking styles or types of cuisine that you gravitate toward when cooking for your family members or for pleasure?
You know what? I come from India, and I’ve tasted all kinds of Indian cuisines. India is a melting pot of great food and history, geography and culture. If you go to the south of India, it’s the peninsula and the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean is there. There’s an abundance of seafood and fish. As you go up north towards the mountains, food is rich with cream and butter and things like that. Being a colony of the French, the British, the Dutch, the Danish, the Portuguese, all these cultures influenced Indian cuisine. I grew up with that food. So, I like Indian food a lot. Having said that, and being a chef, I enjoy tasting and cooking French and Italian and Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines, too. I love all food, but if you ask me, “What’s your favourite food?” I would say Indian food. It has a million flavours. The same rice which is cooked in one part of the province will be cooked in a different way and a different style 100 kms away.
What about when you are eating out – do you have a favourite restaurant or style of cuisine that you favour most?
Not necessarily. We visit a variety of restaurants: Chinese, Mexican, Indian, Middle Eastern, French, Fusion, German. Sushi’s the big thing these days. But, my favourite cuisine I would say is Indian cuisine.
I am a big stickler for quality food, and that’s my wife’s biggest complaint. Because of that, we can’t just go anywhere to eat. When we get bad food, I get mad. Things have to be well-made. It’s not about the price, it’s about the quality. The food should be good.