‘Both Sides of the Coin’: The Multifaceted Life and Career of Iyanthi Goonewardena
By Zahara Dawoodbhoy
Everystory Sri Lanka presents the first thirty stories from our ongoing work to create a compendium of Sri Lankan women’s stories — featuring those whose lives, work, and experiences have shaped and are shaped by Sri Lanka’s social, political, and cultural contexts.
From the Stories of Sri Lankan Women Archive — Iyanthi Goonewardena
Illustration by Danushri Welikala- firstname.lastname@example.org
Iyanthi Goonewardena made history when she became the first female executive chef in Sri Lanka. As the youngest child in a family of five, she didn’t grow up doing the typical domestic duties often taught to young women. “I didn’t get involved in much cooking at all,” she said. “I started appreciating [it] only after I became a chef. Until then, food was food.”
Her father worked as a ship chandler and was often away from home while her mother took care of her siblings. While Iyanthi didn’t give it a second thought at the time, she has a newfound appreciation for the rice and curries her mother cooked for her as a child — fondly referring to it as soul food. This influence served her well in her career.
One of her most notable achievements as an executive chef was introducing Sri Lankan food into the Grand Hotel menu, which she meticulously designed and became heavily associated with the hotel. She began her career in the early 1980s when she enrolled at the Ceylon Hotel School straight after her A levels. At the time, she was a young woman with no particular professional aims in life, and her highest priority was to avoid more studying. Despite her indifference about joining hotel school, she soon found her footing in the hospitality industry.
She recalled that female chefs were virtually unheard of during her time in school, and the profession was seen as inappropriate for women to pursue. She, too, didn’t have any plans to be a chef and was more interested in entering housekeeping. Despite pursuing a career that heavily incorporated domestic work like cooking and cleaning, her family did not approve of her chosen path. She stated that there is freedom in working within the hospitality industry, and for this reason, Asian cultures frown upon women who pursue thissous kind of lifestyle. “After getting married, you have limited time. In this field, there is no time that you can come home.”
In 1985, she got married and moved to Australia, where she lived for four years. Here, she saw examples of female chefs and realized the potential in pursuing it as a career. Her decision to enter the field stemmed more from practicality and opportunity than passion, but like most things she followed, she developed a passion for it on the job. Her husband was also an executive chef and had an intimate understanding of the rigorous hours that come with the job, which provided Iyanthi with the support she needed to move forward in her career.
She recalls her time balancing her role as a mother with her 14-hour shifts at the Grand Hotel in Nuwara Eliya, stating that she never had much difficulty dealing with such a grueling schedule. Though she did receive judgment for her decision to be a working mother, she had the support from those closest to her and was able to show her daughter that women do not need to choose between a flourishing career and family. Her daughter is now an engineer.
After a decade working as an Executive Chef, she left the industry to focus on management and teaching and has since founded the Win-Stone School of Culinary Arts, where she serves as managing director. “When I worked as a chef, people would come to me for job interviews, and they would bring certificates from hotel school and all these qualifications, but they didn’t know anything,” she recalled. “I later met someone during a TV interview, who suggested that I start a school because there was a huge demand. I realized it would be the perfect thing for me, so that is how I got the idea to start the school.”
Despite making history during her time as a Chef, it is clear that she views the school as her most significant achievement, a physical representation of her entire journey. As a teacher and administrator, she can guide young people and help them navigate their careers. Despite her intimidating appearance — her close-cropped hair and stark white uniform, paired with her tendency to offer only the slightest of smiles — she carries with her an immense amount of empathy for the struggles her students face, perhaps because she is no stranger to struggle either.
When her father went bankrupt during her childhood, she was forced to give up the comfort she was used to for a starkly more demanding standard of living, and the perspective gained from that experience is something she carries with her today. “I have seen both sides of the coin. In life also, we had a good time and a bad time,” she said. “So when it comes to students, and they come to me and tell me about their problems, I really understand. I try to help in whatever way I can.”
She is not someone who puts a lot of sentimental value in anything, but the school building is an exception. When the school began, they were operating out of a rented building, which the landlord wanted her to return. At the time, she had nowhere to relocate, so she used the land she had bought for her house as the building for her school. Her brother designed the building, which stands at four storeys, each floor representing a different department of the school. She does not dole out smiles too often, but she beams when she talks about the school. “All of this recognition I got was because of the school. Happiness, satisfaction, everything I got from it, and it is what keeps me going,” she says.
(Zahara Dawoodbhoy began her journalism career at roar.lk, and continues to write on a freelance basis. With a degree in liberal arts, she is passionate about the environment, sustainability, and reproductive justice. In her downtime, she enjoys sketching and reading graphic novels.)
Reference Links and Further Reading
Chef Biography: Iyanthi Goonewardene, Prezi, 12th April 2013, https://prezi.com/bxf1sm8eq6ai/chef-biography-iyanthi-goonewardene/
Iyanthi Goonewardene, ETVPowerWomen, 30t March 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vaAB2xVpPNQ
Win-Stone Hotel School offers career pathway in hospitality, Daily News, 25th march 2021, https://www.dailynews.lk/2021/03/25/business/244912/win-stone-hotel-school-offers-career-pathway-hospitality
Iyanthi Goonawardena: First Lady Executive Chef of Sri Lanka, Daily Mirror Life, 14th March 2018, http://www.life.lk/article/interviews/Iyanthi-Goonewardena:-First-Lady-Executive-Chef-of-Sri-Lanka/52/17743
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