Hungry? Let sculpting whet your appetite
Tucked away within the sprawling streets of Cardiff’s urban jungle is a secret oasis of artistic inspiration. The construction zone, which at present constitutes the city centre, is holding its cards very close to its excavated chest for, nestled between two buildings – scaffolding creeping across their walls like evergreen ivy – looms the Park Inn Hotel, the unlikely home of a creative genius.
For it is within these unassuming walls that Thangiaraj Maheswaran Jayabalasubramanian (something of a mouthful – “everyone calls me Mahesh”), works and plays. Wildly ambitious, fiercely driven, yet exuding an aura of composure and tranquillity, chef Mahesh has, in a six month reign as king of the Park Inn kitchen, transformed the restaurant into something remarkable, unparalleled by any other of its kind in the Welsh capital.
Dinner, but not as you know it
One thing you don’t expect to be confronted by when ambling down from your hotel room for some supper is a giant Disney Pluto, carved out of 40 kilos of butter but that’s what’s been on the menu in the past. As have intricately chiselled watermelon flowers – “they take 20 minutes”, elegant swan ice sculptures – “two hours, but you can’t prolong the time”, art deco cold meat designs – “I got a merit certificate”…you name it, it’s found its way into the dining room.
And all this from a man who professes sculpting to be his hobby. It’s rare to find someone so refreshingly self-effacing while providing continual evidence of their incredible talent and yet Mahesh mentions award after award almost in passing. The gold medal certificate he was presented with at 2008’s Salon Culinaire – one of the most prestigious cheffing competitions around – is hung, mounted in a very ordinary wooden frame on the wall of the world’s tiniest office, almost obliterated from view by recipes, notes for colleagues, family photographs and ridiculously hectic timetables.
The pride he feels for having achieved this medal is understated, yes, but still very apparent. Upon our meeting, I was whisked straight through his enormous kitchen – a shining, spotless steel giant twinkling gleefully at me as we went – to where his finest work thus far is kept, in pride of place in the hotel manager’s office. A glorious effigy of the natural world greeted me and left no doubt as to why the judges deemed it deserving of the gold. Cast out of salt, flour and gelatine and elaborately painted in coffee, the sculpture of the mother duck, cat and tiny bird is a breathtaking testament to Mahesh’s extraordinary ability.
A wife less ordinary
Behind every great man there is, naturally, an even greater woman and Mahesh’s wife is no exception to the rule. An enchanting peacefulness steals across his face as he mentions her and it is to her he gives the credit for this stunning work of art. “I speak everything to my wife and she gives me a better idea about it,” he explains.
“We were walking through the city centre, past the Past Times shop and I saw the mother duck and wondered how it would look in salt dough. From there I picked up the idea and my wife said it was going to be a fantastic thing. When you go to international competitions, you need to have a theme, you need to get that expression out of everything. My wife, she told me some ideas and I was doing this for about two months, for an hour or two a day.”
Although it is impossible not to notice the delight Mahesh takes in this so-called hobby, or the satisfaction he gets from creating something both beautiful and award-winning, what he finds most rewarding is the life he leads with his family.
Born and bred in India, the Jayabalasubramanian marriage was an arranged one and arranged to perfection it would seem, given the adoration and admiration Mahesh clearly feels for his wife. “She’s always my better part,” he tells me earnestly, handing me the picture of her he keeps on his desk, almost daring me not to fall in love with her immediately as well.
And here again, Mahesh’s artistic wherewithal has stood him in some stead. Arranged marriages, while generally successful, have the potential to be fraught with difficulties from the outset. Mahesh, however, carved a victory for himself and his wife with his sculpting tools and artist’s eye. “My work was one of the major things to show my wife,” he admits, with a mischievous smile. “When I met her first and she saw all of my photographs, she was quite impressed.”
His ploy, however devious, was a major triumph, and the woman was won – so much so that he even managed to convince her to hop continents for him. The couple emigrated from India in 2004 – as Mahesh says, “I wanted some European experiences” – and, although they have settled into Cardiff life well, (their son was born there in 2006), family ties remain as strong as ever.
Mahesh declined the opportunity to enter this year’s Salon Culinaire, returning instead to his home country for a month-long sojourn, to witness his brother’s wedding. He’s just this week returned home from another month away, although judging from the way he’s wheeled the Park Inn’s fortunes round, it’s clear it’s a rest well earned.
Sculpting a career
While Mahesh seems content to be cooking up a storm in the Park Inn kitchen, what he really yearns for is the chance to teach his craft. He rightly sees himself as something of a novelty in the sculpting department and is impatient to impart his self-taught techniques to others. “People here do make bread sculptures but they don’t do what I do at the moment,” he professes. “They make the sculpture and then bake it. You get cracks on it and it looks more like bread so you don’t get the proper finish. I don’t bake my sculptures, they just dry at room temperature and are then painted with coffee to give the baked effect.”
All that’s holding him back from his teaching ambition right now is a Permanent Residency visa, which he intends to apply for next month. “I’m about to complete my five years here on a Work permit,” he tells me cheerfully. “It’s illegal for me to work at the Park Inn and somewhere else. When I get my Permanent Residency sorted, then I’m definitely going to approach colleges and universities about teaching.”
There is little doubt that he will be a success as a teacher. His Park Inn colleagues confess that he has taught them many sculpting lessons already and that, unlike other fiery chef counterparts on the UK cooking circuit, he conducts himself at all times like a gentleman. Cool, calm, collected is the name of Mahesh’s game – his commis chef even gave him the accolade of the “calmest person I’ve ever seen” – and his associates all rush to propound the image of the perfect head chef.
And so it would seem that Mahesh, the food sculpting chef’s, 2009 cookie has little choice but to crumble in his favour. Catch him at a university near you soon.