Operator profile - Café: Up for the Challenge!

Operator profile - Café: Up for the Challenge!

Prasanna Abeyrathna, a double winner at our recent StrEAT Food Challenge and the owner of Crumpets in west London, tells us how his success grew from a love of Sri Lankan food…

“I didn’t expect to win at all!” laughs Prasanna Abeyrathna. “I was just there for the experience, so winning was a complete surprise and the icing on the cake for me. When my name was called out a second time, I was completely humbled.”

Prasanna is chatting to me about his success earlier this year at our inaugural StrEAT Food Challenge. But before we get to this impressive (double) achievement, or how he came to be running the establishment we are standing in – Crumpets in west London – his remarkably varied career in catering began over 5,000 miles away.

Prasanna studied at the Ceylon Hotel School of Management in Sri Lanka, with his course covering all aspects of hotel work, including cooking, restaurant management, reception and finance. On graduating in 1997, he chose to specialise as a food and beverage manager, working in the restaurants of a number of prestigious hotels in the major city of Kandy.

After relocating to the UK in 2006, via Spain and Switzerland, Prasanna moved into catering. “My first job was as an F&B manager in IKEA, running the main restaurant and other food outlets in the store,” he says. “From there I joined a large contract catering company as a manager and worked my way up, overseeing the catering facilities for a number of commercial and local government clients. But I’d always dreamt of having my own place and eventually an opportunity arose to buy the café where I now work, Crumpets.”

Despite the ultra-English name, the business had been owned for many years by an Italian family. The parents, however, were looking to retire and, as their children weren’t interested in taking it on, Prasanna saw his chance and bought Crumpets as a going concern. “There was quite a bit of scope to update the premises, refresh the decor and revamp the menu,” he recalls, “but I didn’t change anything immediately. I waited until I had a feel for the customer base and understood what was and wasn’t working.”

It turned out that the clientele had three distinct parts: staff from the local offices, military personnel from the nearby barracks, and tourists staying in the local hotels and visiting sites around Victoria and St James’s Park. “It varies a little between weekdays and weekends, and between summer and winter, but overall the business is stable,” says Prasanna.

So, now he has had a chance to put his stamp on the business, what is its USP? “Firstly, it is in a great location. There have been quite a few famous faces passing through the door over the years – actors, MPs and sports personalities. There is also a loyal following of locals who come just for the street food – a different hot dish everyday, including Sri Lankan street food, of course.”

More on this later, but first Crumpets prides itself on its coffee. After organising a tasting session for the regulars, Prasanna decided to stick with the Italian supplier that the previous owners had used, Segafredo, though he upgraded to a better quality coffee bean and he has recently introduced an organic version too. “And I shouldn’t forget to mention our crumpets,” he says. “These are, of course, very popular, whether with simple sweet toppings, like chocolate and banana or jam, or savoury ones, like scrambled eggs and smoked salmon or eggs benedict. They sell very extremely well, as do our paninis.”

At the StrEAT Food Challenge, though, Prasanna entered with a signature dish that was a little more authentic and adventurous. “I cooked kotu roti, which is a mix of roti bread and vegetables that are all finely chopped and cooked together on a griddle. When you walk along the streets in Sri Lanka, all you can hear is the clattering of the chefs chopping away on the metal griddle. However, I didn’t win that section.”
Indeed, the two (out of four) cook-offs that Prasanna prevailed in were Major’s ‘It’s A Wrap’ Round and Frank’s Red Hot ‘Chicken Wing’ Round, with both creations now being on the Crumpets menu. “I marinated the chicken wings in sauces and spices provided by the sponsors to make a sweet and spicy devilled chicken sauce – a very common seasoning in Sri Lanka,” he explains. “For my wrap dish, I took a classic Mexican burrito but filled it with a slow-cooked shredded Sri Lankan chicken curry, and it seemed to work very well.”

This is something of an understatement from the modest Prasanna, who says he had already enjoyed the event enough, without the added excitement of taking home two trophies. “I had had a great day with the other contestants before I even won, so I would absolutely recommend other people enter. The organisation was fantastic, the atmosphere was fun and not at all intimidating, and I met some great people.”

As it transpires, Prasanna had only entered in the first place to research a few ideas for an exciting new project he is undertaking at Crumpets. “I was interested in seeing how the judges would react to the Sri Lankan street food,” he says. “It’s not so well known in the UK but I believe there is a market for it and wanted to test this out.”

This is something that Prasanna is actively exploring, as he reveals when I ask him about his plans for the future. “I am currently in discussion with my landlord about expanding the size of the café,” he says. “If that happens, I am hoping to open in the evenings as a Sri Lankan street food restaurant.”

All being well, this exciting expansion will begin operating in the new year. We can’t wait to try Prasanna’s signature kotu roti again, so keep your eyes on our Street food focus pages in 2020 to see how his admirable efforts to bring Sri Lankan food to a wider audience evolve.