19 July 2023

Five minutes with Jiju Rajappen, The George Bar and Grill

| James Day
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A range of dishes on a table.

Chilli, fish and fresh fruits are some of the staple ingredients in Jiju’s birthplace of Kerala. Photo: Ben Calvert Photography.

Who are you?

My name is Jiju Rajappen, executive (head) chef at The George Bar and Grill at Rydges Hotel.

I was born in the southern Indian state of Kerala, which is almost like Queensland in terms of its ingredients. We have lots of fresh fruits, especially coconut, which is used as a base in most of our food. There’s also a lot of chillis, and fish, which we catch from the freshwater lakes all around the state.

My career of over 30 years in hospitality began at home, but after a few years moving around India with the Oberoi Group I moved to London and travelled twice around the world working on the Queen Elizabeth II ocean liner.

I have worked in Mexico and Samoa, which have also inspired my culinary skills and choices. However, one of the most influential experiences I’ve had is learning proper Italian cuisine from my Milanese wife’s grandmother. She had me picking from her fresh food garden, and on the sidelines of the kitchen to make sure I could bring a sense of home to the woman I love.

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What is The George Bar & Grill?

It’s a truly local dining experience with an open-plan dining room serving food fresh from the grill.

The new menus I created and just launched across the bar and grill have been doing very well. I really wanted to bring all the combinations of influences I could to the table, and in doing so I’ve been able to give our guests a truly unique flavour experience.

For example, when I visited Argentina and saw the way they grill meat over an open fire there, I saw an opportunity. We now cook an Australian prime steak in the same way, and mix it with cumin, Korean chilli, olive oil, lemon juice and chimichurri sauce, which gives it that unique South American flavour.

Another meal we make from my home is grilled fish with spices commonly used in South India and a curry mash. It blends the eastern and western cuisines together onto a plate right for all pallets.

Jiju outside, facing the raw lamb chop in his hand.

Jiju has worked in over 36 countries around the world. Photo: Jiju Rajappen.

What is an ingredient you can’t live without?

Very simple, salt. Without it, you cannot taste the food.

Who is your biggest culinary influence?

My mother. She worked in the public service and used to get up very early every day to cook the whole family’s food.

I learnt all my basic cooking skills in helping her do so, like grinding coconut for its milk, cooking the rice, or just chopping onions.

Our family was able to run because of her work. She also influenced my brother, who is a chef too.

Dish on a table with cutlery on either side, and a wine glass and bowl.

Salmon gravlax with apple gel, horseradish, caviar and herbs is one of the signature dishes on the winter menu. Photo: Ben Calvert Photography.

What do you wish people understood about your job?

Chefs used to be in the kitchen all the time, focusing only on that environment and getting the best out of it.

Now we are a lot more outspoken and engage with the guests in the dining area. We take on their suggestions, and get to know them and what they like so we can tweak or twist any of the elements in our dishes to suit their taste.

It’s a much more grounded way to work in this business, and motivates you even more to provide food that’s going to satisfy.

Who do you admire in the Canberra scene?

I think Pilot restaurant in Ainslie is one of the best I’ve been to in Canberra. However, Woden Dumpling House has been my favourite place to eat over all these years it’s been open.

Multiple dishes on a table with a full wine glass in the centre.

Jiju wanted to bring as many influences as he could to his menu, giving guests a truly unique experience. Photo: Ben Calvert Photography.

What are your top three recipe tips?

I learnt these tips in Samoa, as it was too expensive to get imported food. So we depended on the local people to use all the ingredients grown on the island and catch fish in the surrounding waters.

Don’t make it complicated, and always use local and fresh ingredients.

The George Bar and Grill is located within the Rydges Hotel, which is at 17 Canberra Avenue, Forrest. It is open seven days a week for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

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