FACE 2 FACE With WASANA DASKON IN PARIS |
by Tilak S. Fernando from London
Walking through the streets of Paris, and thinking of having a typical French lunch, I was first struck by a 'Sri Lankan looking' lady standing inside an eatery, which resembled a Japanese restaurant, with its name board too displaying the words, Japonais Sumiyaki. In my endeavour to kill curiosity, later I found her not only to be very much Sri Lankan but the very owner of Japonais Sumiyaki and two more Japanese restaurants in the heart of Paris. In response to her cordial invitation and typical Sri Lankan hospitality I ultimately ended up having lunch with her, at her restaurant, where the menu happened to be completely Japanese with all its varieties including raw fish!
Wasana Daskon is a remarkable woman who has an interesting life's experience to tell. She hails from the lineage of old Sri Lankan Kandyan ancestors, descending from the legendary Daskon character who is said to have been beheaded by the then Kandyan King for having fallen in love with his queen! Quite contrary to her great great ancestors, Wasana Daskon's love life had not been a bed of roses! Faced with an unexpected divorce when in Paris thus becoming marooned in a vast city with two little boys she had to face the music alone and survive. Survive what she did in a remarkable and an admirable manner. Within a very short period of time Wasana not only became a self-made entrepreneur in Paris by venturing into the catering industry, which was an equally difficult challenge in her life with Japanese gastronomy. She created history by being the proud owner of three Japanese food outlets and became the first Sri Lankan entrepreneur to shine in France with Japanese cuisine. While enjoying a Plateau Chirash, which was an assortment of Sushi, Maki etc., I managed to have a Face2Face conversation with her about her life and business in France. Here are excerpts of that interesting interview.
Q. Your family name seems to have a linkage with the old Kandyan Kingdom in Sri Lanka and history reminds me of the legendary Daskon, the amorous minister to the King's Court, who was decapitated after having a love affair with the queen! Do you descent from that ancestry?
A. Yes. My great, great grand parents were linked to the famous Daskon character that you mention. I was born in Kandy. My father, a 'Mohandiram' those days, was a politician and a well-known journalist. Mother was a reputed seamstress cum teacher. I was educated at Umpitiya Berawats College initially and later at St. Scolastica's Girl School in Kandy.
Q. Did you hail from a large family?
A. Yes. 7 altogether - 2 boys and 5 girls. We are all scattered now all over the world - in Sri Lanka, Paris, Italy, and Sweden etc.
Q. You are a Sri Lankan lady running not only one but three Japanese restaurants from the heart of Paris. How did you get involved in the restaurant industry, and particularly in the area of Japanese food?
A. It is an unbelievable story. I encountered some personal family problems in Paris where I ended up in a divorce and got marooned in this vast city with two young children to bring up. I had no choice but to fight for survival in bringing my kids up. Luckily I had a fundamental background knowledge and experience in Japanese Sunu Yaki from Sri Lanka, which was the only thing I knew to survive in a foreign land!
Q. Needless to say it must have been a traumatic experience?
A. I suppose when you are thrown into the deep end in life, you have no choice but to be brave and fight for your survival. That was exactly I did.
Q. When you say you had a basic background in Japanese cuisine in Sri Lanka, how do you mean?
A. After sitting my 'A' Level exam, I followed a training course in Restaurant and Bar Management at Berot's school conducted by the Sri Lanka Hotel School. In fact, I did science for my 'A' levels with the idea of reading medicine in the university.
Q. Why did you abandon studies?
A. During my training catering appealed to me and changed my mind about medicine. Later I found a job in a Japanese Restaurant in Bambalapitiya in 1980, which was the first ever-Japanese restaurant in Sri Lanka at the time. My estranged husband was the Chef there at the time so I had access to the kitchen while working as a steward. This helped me to familiarise myself with the Japanese cuisine and learn more about Japanese in general.
Q. What happened then ?
A. Later I changed my jobs and worked at the 4 star Club Oceanic hotel in Trincomalee. From there I moved to Colombo and worked at the Hotel Oberoi.
Q What made you to come to Paris?
A. When my husband decided to emigrate to France it became an automatic decision for the children and me.
Q. Did you start on a business straightway when you landed in Paris?
A. No. It's a long story. After our marriage came to an unexpected end, the first thing I did was to learn French at Sorborne University. It was a stroke of fortune I believe that I managed to find a job in a Japanese restaurant while learning French. Later I moved from there and worked in two more Japanese restaurants in Paris. This gave me added confidence, experience and the knowledge on Japanese cuisine and of course my knowledge of the French language from Sorborne helped me a lot.
Q, How did you branch out to run your own Japanese Restaurant?
A. At Yama Khi Japanese restaurant I received additional experience in the Management side after working for some years. That gave me the confidence and experience to venture in to the catering business and by that time I had more than 10 years of experience. Luck was still on my side when the proprietor of Yama Khi suddenly decided to throw the towel in and get back to his roots in Japan. He offered me the first refusal to buy the place, if I wanted.
Q. So, the luck was really on your side, no doubt?
A. Yes, in the year 2000, I opened the first Japanese Restaurant in a small scale, under as a joint venture, in Paris 17. It was mainly a Bento Service (a delivery service) with the help of one motorcycle and a single deliveryman. The opening of the business cost us 50,000 French franks at the start. On my part I had to seek a loan from the bank to start the business. The Chef who had worked for many years at Yama Khi and became redundant when the owner decided to quit, he agreed to join with me as a business partner.
Q, What do you specialise in?
A. Yama Khi - 99% on a Bento Service.
Q. What is a Bento Service?
A. It's a home delivery service. Food is prepared onto a plate, as per customers' order, and delivered to their homes. Contents on the plate vary but we offer a full range of Suschi, Sachimi (raw fish), Yaki Tori (grilled meat in pan with Japanese sauce- very popular) Tempura, Teriyaki etc. The drawback in Bento Service was that the food was getting cold during delivery. Unfortunately customers had no choice on that.
Q. You seem to have overcome that problem and expanded the business into three restaurants!
A. I had a brain wave and adopted a system similar to that of Pizza delivery. Instead of the cardboard boxes which Pizza deliveries use, I introduced aluminium boxes to retain heat of the food, which is normally wrapped in foil. The motorcycle was replaced by the car deliveries for some time and later reverted back to motorcycles again for faster deliveries through congested traffic conditions in Paris.
R. So, you have created history by becoming the only Sri Lankan who opened a Japanese Restaurant in Paris?
A. That is correct. In actual fact even up to date there is no other Japanese restaurant run by a Sri Lankan in Paris. From Paris 9 we could not cover a wider area of Paris and to overcome that problem our third restaurant was set up from Paris 15.
Q. How do you manage three restaurants at the same time and have a good control of the business?
A. I have an effective computerised operating system whereby all orders on the phone come to the master computer in this office (HQ.) From here, we delegate orders to the appropriate branch depending on the area nearer to the customer. By this way it is possible to manage and operate with a minimum of unproductive staff. Also I am able, at the end of the day, to see how many orders have gone from all three branches and the total collection quite accurately.
Q. Are your customers mainly Japanese?
A. You will be amazed to hear that, it is not. Actually it's the French who love Japanese food.
Q, Why did you concentrate on French food and not on a Sri Lankan restaurant?
A. You cannot survive in Paris out of a Sri Lankan restaurant because what we can offer to our customers will be limited. The vital factor is that the French do not like spicy food. We found out that from our market research before committing into the business. Also we do not go into typical authentic Japanese taste as such because it does not appeal to the French palette. Again our research revealed that an adopted version with little spices, mayonnaise sauce and sometimes with smoked salmon is what is appealing to most of our customers. By that way they are and so are we!
Q. How about the hygiene factor since you are mainly dealing with fish?
A. You are correct. Because we are dealing with raw fish and one has to be extremely careful we always get our fresh stocks on a daily basis.
Q. How do you develop and expand your business so well now that I can see it runs like clockwork?
A. We advertise mainly on the Internet. In this part of Paris all restaurant owners like Italian, French, Indian, Chinese and other International groups pool together and share two websites - www.aloresto.com and www.canalood.com . Nearly 60% of our orders come through the Internet. We have regular customers who order as well as visit us.
Q. Not only you have a Japanese name as Japonais Sumiyaki for your restaurant but also you seem to have gone completely Japanese with your apron etc., which really projects a typical Japanese atmosphere here. What is the general menu you offer to customers today in a much more expanded version of operation?
A. Our two main restaurants are at 236, Rue de la Croix Nivert, 75015 Paris and 26, Rue Lamartine, 75009 Paris. We offer Suchsi, Maki, Cornet, Sashimi, Chirasih, Yakitori etc., combined into various forms.
Q. What would be the average cost for a couple to eat at your restaurant?
A. We are catering for the middle classes and the lunchtime office crowd. A couple can have a good meal for around 25 Euros.
Q. What is your future plans in the business?
A. Actually I have been exploring the possibility of opening a similar Japanese restaurant in London as well. But my real ambition is to have an International Food Centre, like the ones you find at Criscat and Majestic City shopping centres in Colombo.
Q. You are not only a businesswoman but a writer as well, aren't you?
A. True. My father was a journalist and I suppose I have some of his journalistic genes as well. I used to write from a very young age to children's pages in Sri Lankan newspapers. There was an interval when I had so much on my plate, so to speak, while I was studying and setting up the business and had no time to breathe even. Now that I am more or less settled in my business I have restarted on my writing.
Q. What have you written so far or writing at the moment?
A. I have completed writing three Sinhala novels - Senehasaka Kandulu, Nilambare` Randi Tharu and I have not yet given a title to the third novel although it is complete and ready to go to print. I also have reviewed books and do write Sinhala Kavi (poetry).
Q. Where do you find the time to concentrate on writing with such long hours at the restaurant from morning till night?
A. I live at the outskirts of Paris and I do not want to drive to Paris. Daily I take the surface train. SNCF train journey takes 45 minutes from the local station to my business premises in Paris and that gives me an ample opportunity to think, read and write. Mind you, I do this trip four times a day, as I have to come home as well to attend to my two young boys as well in the meanwhile.
Q. Senehasaka Kandulu, Nilambare` Randi Tharu, from the two titles, it gives me the impression that the story line is based on your personal experiences! Am I correct? Are we going to see your stories in print in the near future?
A. Well, You will have to read the novels and see for yourself. As you being a journalist who writes short stories as well, I don't have to tell you that in every short story or novel there is a certain percentage of truth or personal experience of the writer wrapped up with fiction! Yes, I am sure my stories will appeal to the readers because they are a mixture of real life experiences focussing on the world and the modern day society we live in today, particularly in Sri Lanka. My aim is to make these stories an eye opener for all level-minded readers.