The elegantly dressed woman in a brown and green Indian saree worn with a blouse of a contrasting colour and matching necklace in front of me is none other than Udumbara Jayasiri. For Udumbara, finding time for cocktails and gossip would be a rare departure indeed in a career which required constant supervision for many catering orders she carries out daily.
While her life revolves around the huge kitchen she launched three decades ago, she does admit that being well dressed is part of the ‘perfect image’ she wants for a business which allows no room for flaws. “I have always striven for perfection in whatever I do,” she says.
After greeting cameraman Halwela and me at the entrance to the catering service at Batagolla, Yakkala, she points to the different units she designed using nothing more than a sheet of A 4 paper and a measuring tape, and tells us, “ It all began inside a little hut at the side of our main house where I lived in 1974.”
Transforming the home where she and her family had lived surrounded by lush vegetation and flowering trees she had personally planted to a commercial complex was however, the last thing she had in mind, she admits. If not for an unexpected request she received in 1974, it might have remained just another typical Walawwe home, like the few neighbouring houses down the lane in her village at Yakkala.
“What brought me into this business was a rule that no hotel could serve food and drinks to guests over 150 in number during that time. Licensed caterers who violated this rule whether it was a wedding, engagement or some other function could have had his license cancelled. A close family member wanted to invite two hundred guests for his homecoming. Since none of the licensed caterers were willing to do so, he asked me if I could help. Since as a pupil of the Claremont Finishing School in Kotahena I was already somewhat familiar with the catering business even though I had only taught cookery to students, I decided to take up this challenge. I possessed no license. So I had nothing to lose,” she reflects with a laugh.
Before she accepted the offer however, Udumbara laid down one condition. “I said I would agree if Elias Perera who organised the meal for my own homecoming consented to help me, although he was a sick man at the time, and he agreed. We then planned the menu.”
It was only after she had made that momentuous decision, that it suddenly occurred to her that her kitchen was not equipped for undertaking such a big order. “I needed to buy a stock of cutlery and other items for this task.”
Waking up early on the day of the homecoming Udumbara went in search of fresh ingredients making a beeline for St John’s market to purchase fresh, the Manning Market for fresh vegetables and fruits and the Butcher’s for her meats. She returned satisfied she was able to purchase all these items without falling into debt using only the limited Rs 2,000 she had received as an advance.” I even had some money to spare”, she recalls.
However, on that particular day, Elias did not turn up as he was not feeling well. “I was sad that I could not get him for my first job. So I told my staff we had to somehow carry out the task entrusted to us. But we were severely understaffed. .Praying for a solution the answer I recalled a piece of advice given to me by Elias. Elias who did the catering for my own homecoming where we had invited over 200 guests, had told me that we could find cooks outside some of the hotels in Colombo during that time. They are all cooks whose services were discontinued after the new 150 guests only law came into force. They came there daily hoping someone would hire them and sometimes they would strike luck. It was a message sent from heaven. I rushed out and immediately hired some cooks who have been with me since then. They turned out to be very efficient and are my most loyal co workers,” says Udumbara.
Working fast, the new team cleaned, washed, cut and cooked the planned meal ahead of the deadline. “By the time the guests arrived, the table was laid and decorated with bowls of freshly plucked flowers and vegetable carvings.
The banquet was an outstanding success. But to this day, if anyone asks me what I cooked, I can only say, “It was a combination of Western and Eastern food; and most of the Western dishes were made by myself.”
A no- nonsense woman even as a young girl, Udumbara who was blessed with an uncanny foresight and vision beyond her years, soon rose to be a leader in her chosen field. Outspoken and unafraid to speak out her mind against injustice, she soon earned the respect of many segments of society.”
Her star studded clients, who ranged from kings and queens to presidents, prime ministers and visiting dignitaries, gave her an insight into the private homes and official residencies of these distinguished clients. Those visits also left behind some treasured souvenirs; among many souvenirs is a photo of the Japanese Royal Family presented to her by the Royal Family themselves.”
Perhaps one of the most endearing qualities in her character is her sincere affection for the staff with whom she made that journey to the top. “ As she says, “ Recognizing the immeasurable value of people who work for you and appreciating them is more important to me than acquiring things.” She leads us to some of the workers who have been with her for a long time.
Saman 68, joined her household as a youngster and watched it grow from a pigmy to a giant in the past thirty years. He spoke for the rest of the staff when he told us “If it was not for Loku Nona who taught me everything about catering, I might have been a casual labourer like my father with no ambition outside that chosen career”. Today, the smartly dressed senior Dispatch Officer oversees all orders accepted by the Company and ensures they are carried out in time.
A tomboy even in her teens, ( I grew up on trees’ she says with an impish smile,) Udumbara admits the one thing she hated were the unfair stereotyped roles which confined women to hearth and home in the mid 19th century.
So how did she end up in a male dominated business like catering? I asked.
Udumbara who studied at Visakha Vidyalaya, Colombo, wanted to become a lawyer. “But my conservative father refused to give his consent. At that time girls were not encouraged to study, The stereotype role for most girls after leaving school was to be a good home maker. But I wanted to study. Bored with staying at home I joined Chandra Dissanayake’s Home Economics School. When Chandra went abroad I joined Claremont Technical Institute, which taught girls everything they needed to learn at that time to fit their expected roles: social graces, industrial and basic dressmaking , cake making and floral décor. Joining that finishing school was the turning point in my life”.
She enrolled in all the classes and finished the course in one year. Noticing her natural talent Mrs Casperz then asked her to help conduct classes in the school. Later, she invited her star pupil to join her staff.
Mrs Casperz then left for the UK to study Catering which was very popular in the west. When she returned, Udumbara became her first catering student. The training proved to be a useful foundation when she launched her own business in 1974, as one of the youngest and perhaps the only female caterer in the island at the time.
Weddings of yesteryear
Recalling weddings of the past, a memory which remains etched forever is the coupon system that entitled a bride to buy imported fabric for the bridal retinue.
Of her homecoming in 1973, she says, “I had brought down my entire trousseau from abroad where I was living for a year. But I forgot to buy satin material. I had to obtain a coupon to purchase two and a half meters of imported cream satin. I also recall bringing down several kilos of sugar to sweeten tea. Only jaggery was available then.”
Although her son Gayan who has inherited her love for cookery , has taken over the reins from his septeguenarian mother, Udumbara , now in her mid seventies, insists she’s not ready to down her cooking gloves, and is still fit to continue working, even as a nominal head. “My staff and I will continue to use our skills and position to put a human face on catering services in this country, while serving as cultural ambassadors promoting indigenous products, décor and the natural wealth of our paradise island,” she says.