Throughout May, SideDish is highlighting someone in the food industry who is of Asian American and Pacific Islander heritage in honor of AAPI Heritage Month. Our first Q&A featured Vi Henderson, the owner of Mac & Cream, and last week, we featured Dallas food content creator Violet Huynh.
This week’s spotlight is on Nimidu Senaratne, chef at SpicyZest Sri Lankan Fusion. Senaratne moved to the United States from Sri Lanka in 2007 to study hospitality and culinary arts. He opened SpicyZest in Farmers Branch in 2013 with his then-girlfriend and now-wife after he realized there wasn’t good quality Sri Lankan food in North Texas. His restaurant has received numerous accolades, including best suburban restaurant in 2021 by Thrillist, best chef by Dallas Observer, and a 50 Best recognition by D Magazine this year.
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Why was it important for you to have good quality Sri Lankan food in the U.S.?
Because I’m a Sri Lankan! My educational background is not for Sri Lankan cuisine, but I wanted to do something [I] can be proud of and my country can be proud of. It’s really a fine style of cuisine. Unfortunately people don’t know what kind of spices we use. Imagine going to a really nice, French-style restaurant or a good steak place—you’re expecting to spend quite a good bit of money because of the quality, right? Sri Lankan cuisine doesn’t have that market yet. So I thought, if I do it in the right way, people might be very surprised, and they’ll want to try these kinds of stuff.
When I opened up my place, I created my own recipes, but I toned down the chile flavors so that the local people can enjoy [them]. Sri Lankan flavors are amazing. I mean, you cannot compare it with any other cuisine in the world. It’s a very unique taste.
What do people of Sri Lankan heritage tell you about the food at SpicyZest?
I’m so proud to say this: The variety of food we serve throughout the day—nobody else does it. We serve more than 50, 60 different items on the menu. Nobody else does it. If you get a chance to go to a Sri Lankan buffet, they might serve maximum 15 to 20 meals, but at mine, we do lots of stuff. Our kitchen staff on a weekend is humongous. And that’s why people are coming from Houston, Oklahoma, Austin. Whenever we have a long weekend, there are people coming from like five or six hours from Dallas.
If you do it right, it’s so much harder: training people, getting ingredients from Sri Lanka. It’s not like flipping a burger or wrapping a burrito. We need to have lots of skillful people. If I want to hire a chef, I need to hire that person and train [them for] at least six months to be able to get the food to the quality I want. So it’s a long process and I do not have lots of turnovers, fortunately. I have created a nice environment to work [for] my team. They love the work they do, and I love them too.
What is it like to be able to cook Sri Lankan food every day with your team?
I’m so happy. The people who work for us—there are people from Chile, Mexico, India, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Gambia—so many people coming from so many [places]. They are so happy and they are connected. They try our food. They blend into our culture.
We celebrated our New Year in April, so we completely shut down the two locations for two hours. We did all the traditional games and the traditional political protocols, and they were all connected. So it is a beautiful thing. They’re like a family to me. It’s not coworkers anymore.
What’s the best part of what you do?
I make food, and people eat it, and they have a smile, and they leave a five-star review for me! Or they just tell me, “Hey, your food is really good. I’ve been to several places but you know, this is the best food I tried.” That makes me happy.
You make a lot of different menu items. What’s your favorite?
My favorite dish is the rice and curry. I love to eat just plain basmati rice with coconut sambal—we have a southern-style tuna steak fish, it’s a type of southern-style cooking. I love those: the fish curry, coconut sambal, and white rice, and papadam on the side. That’s it.