Inaka Weerasinghe, the head chef of The Royal Yacht hotel, is passionate about the flavour and freshness of Jersey’s seafood and, as he tells Emily Moore, the timing of Taste Jersey gives diners the perfect opportunity to enjoy it
GIVEN the proximity of his kitchen to the pier, it is perhaps unsurprising that there is a strong seafood element to Inaka Weerasinghe’s menus.
Indeed, for the head chef of The Royal Yacht hotel, produce such as oysters, scallops, crab and lobster – often served in dishes which feature either Mediterranean or Asian influences – are a mainstay of Zephyr’s offer throughout the year.
‘In many ways, we don’t have a choice because our guests have their favourite dishes, which they want to be able to order whenever they come in,’ he smiled. ‘That’s partly why the Zephyr menu is so big. We’re not allowed to take dishes off but we keep adding new ideas.’
And, as Inaka admits, it is not only the diners who have a particularly soft spot for many of the seafood dishes.
‘The crabs, oysters and scallops are so fresh, they are incredible,’ he said. ‘When I was working in Dubai, we used to serve Jersey oysters but they had travelled thousands of miles to reach us. It was a similar story in London, where you might be lucky enough to get some fish on the day it was caught but you would often have to wait until the next day. Here, though, the produce only travels a couple of miles. The trawlers dock at Victoria Pier and, even if you walked to the hotel from the boat, it would only take ten minutes to get the fish into the kitchen.’
Working with locally caught oysters is a particular joy for Inaka, who says that the Island’s tremendous tides play their part in producing a ‘world-renowned’ mollusc.
‘It is not unusual for people to travel to Jersey specifically to try the seafood,’ he said. ‘The Island has the third-largest tidal range in the world, which means that the oysters are out of the water for up to 12 hours per day, which strengthens them. When you combine that with the clear waters, warm temperatures and sunshine, you get a wonderful firm fish. Scallops benefit in a similar way and, while we may not have the biggest versions in the world, they are definitely among the sweetest that you will find.’
Because of this, the Zephyr Taste Jersey menu will feature oysters served in a number of ways, including the ever-popular Rockefeller, which features spinach, lemon and cheese.
‘This year, we are also going to add Rockefeller scallops, as this dish, traditionally associated with oysters, also works beautifully with the sweet scallops,’ he added.
And, with April traditionally heralding the return of line-caught local seabass, Inaka is very much hoping to be able to add this fish to the menu.
‘The timing of Taste Jersey is perfect, as not only do we have all this beautiful seafood to enjoy but we should also have the first Jersey Royals coming into play, so we will be showing those off in our menus,’ said Inaka. ‘And, of course, it wouldn’t be Zephyr if you didn’t have that bit of Asian influence in our offerings.’
Having been born in Sri Lanka, Inaka says that he was ‘blessed’ to have been brought up in a culture which revolves around spice cookery.
‘Ginger, garlic and chili are the holy grail of Asian cooking,’ he said. ‘Once you have that base, you then start combining your spices and aromats and, once you have the right balance, your taste buds are fulfilled.’
And this, he says, means that Asian cuisine lends itself particularly well to vegetarian and vegan dishes, something for which he says demand is continuing to grow.
‘I think one of the big trends for this year will be “real” vegan food,’ he said. ‘For a long time, people have been producing soy versions of so many proteins and they lost sight of true seasonal ingredients such as carrots, aubergines and other vegetables.
‘I think this year will see a move away from processed vegan items and a return to real food. As an example of this, we have a beautiful vegan-friendly Sri Lankan curry on the menu, which is already proving very popular.’
Joining Inaka in The Royal Yacht kitchens is a team of chefs from around the world, all of whom bring something different to the offer.
‘We have a senior team which has been with the hotel for more than ten years, and chefs from countries including the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Nepal. They bring their own spices and take on Asian ingredients, which is great for us because they are always introducing fresh ideas, which diners want to try,’ he said. ‘People are very adventurous when it comes to food, largely, I think, because they have travelled to so many countries and discovered so many flavours. When they come back, they still want to find those flavours.’
While diners with a taste for adventure will find plenty to satisfy their palates in Zephyr, those who prefer a more traditional offer are catered for in The Grill, which has recently been extended to include a lounge and bar area.
‘This is a really exciting development for the hotel and one which we have wanted to do for a long time,’ explained Inaka. ‘In fact, the work was originally planned to take place in 2020 but the pandemic forced us to put everything on hold.’
Last year, that long-cherished vision came to life, with a refurbishment project which doubled the size of the kitchen and formed the new Grill Lounge and Bar.
‘While the original Grill remains open for a walk-ins only, we can now take bookings and cater for large groups in the lounge area,’ said Inaka.
And, while steak continues to form a significant part of The Grill offer, the menu also features signature dishes such as Thai oysters, lobster thermidor and Wagyu burgers.
‘We are also offering a range of lunchtime specials in The Grill, which is great not just for enabling customers to try something new but which also allows the chefs to try out some new ideas,’ said Inaka. ‘It’s been a really exciting challenge for the team to put their heads together and come up with some fresh dishes to really round out the menu.’
As well as offering new dishes, the recently launched space builds on a concept which is well established in Zephyr.
‘The Grill Lounge and Bar not only has room for families and friends to gather but has a range of sharing dishes,’ Inaka added. ‘This sharing concept has proved very popular in Zephyr, where the menu supports that social style of dining, and we are looking forward to evolving this further over the summer.’