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In Conversation with Chef Jenefer Espero from Soneva Fushi's Shades of Green

Updated: Dec 4, 2020

Jenefer Espero is one of the world's finest plant-based chefs. One can independently attest to it after trying the five-course menu at the Shades of Green restaurant in Soneva Fushi, a luxurious private-island resort in the Maldives. She is Head Chef and resident-botanist of Shades of Green.

Jenefer first takes her diners on a green-garden tour, showing various plants and vegetables that she helps to grow next to the Shades of Green restaurant.

She then surprises her guests with the use of various Nordic techniques (grâce à Denmark-based consultant Carsten Kyster) to present a five-course menu featuring interesting colors, green umami, and ingredients prepared in new, innovative ways. This beautiful farm-to-table experience is delivered in the candlelit outdoors.

The dishes are beautifully plated and well-cooked, with diners calling it better than some of the Michelin-starred restaurants that they have visited. Jenefer also often gives a richly informative and intriguing spiel on what went into making each dish that is ultimately served.

Given the amount of attention, time and energy invested in each dish, it is, but natural to want to ask: what makes world-class food so great? And what does it take for a person to undertake world-class cooking?

We decided to ask Chef Jenefer Espero these questions, as well as how her personal and professional experiences prior to working at Soneva Fushi led her to the exciting and esteemed position that she holds today.

Lakshmi Art Press: Could you please tell us about your childhood? What are some of your most defining memories while growing up?

Chef Jenefer Espero: It was very adventurous. It was something that I really, truly enjoyed. I climbed trees. I followed the river to find the guava trees. My parents' farm was by the river, and they often left me alone to my own devices. This often meant foraging for edible fruits and vegetables, fishing, and making one of my favorite dishes, Sinigang. It is actually a very classic dish in the Philippines, where I am from.

Sometimes the other kids and I would go out to the mountains with nothing but rice, soap, paper, matches, a lighter and some basic essentials. We would stick our hands in the holes in the Earth by the corner of the river, looking for crabs! I was often the 'cook' for our circle of friends. Adventurers that we were, we were knowledgeable enough to know what was edible and not, and what was safe to do and not, when outdoors. We definitely did not stick our hands in the Earth where they could have been snakes, instead of crabs!

In 2019, when I last visited home, I climbed a guava tree, and was really proud (and happy!) that I could still do it.

Lakshmi Art Press: When did the idea of being a Chef first come to you?

Chef Jenefer Espero: Well, I started cooking early on when I was about 7 or 8, but the thought of being a professional Chef came much later; perhaps during college. I first became a Chef when I was in Singapore. It was in Singapore where I started to perfect and practice my skills professionally. I began to experiment with new, local ingredients to make sustainable, healthy and flavorful foods using the knowledge and intuition that I had acquired of Southeast Asian edible herbs and plants. I truly learnt a lot.

It was in Singapore that I developed some of my very first plant-based dishes. I made 'Laksa Pesto,' which is my take on a South East-Asian style pesto because it uses local, widely-available, staple-Asian ingredients like peanut oil, shallots and candle nuts in place of olive oil, cheese and pine nuts. I also made 'Palua,' which is a blue drink made from lemon grass, butterfly flower, pandan leaves and calamansi. Then I made a Nutmeg Cola, which is a healthier version of Coca Cola since it does away with all of the harmful ingredients! I also made vegan blue cheese (which uses the extremely beneficial Indian mulberry, and has now been introduced at Soneva Fushi), and Torch Ginger Truffles (which really makes use of the amazing natural color, taste and smell of the local Torch ginger.) All of these dishes received wonderful reception in the press and media in Singapore, and were dishes that I was able to present to several notable diners in exclusive settings, for which I am very grateful.

Besides getting a space to experiment, and to learn by doing, I also had the benefit of having a truly amazing boss and mentor at Mamakan. I am lucky to be able to call her a friend amd guide today. Sometimes I would get told of a new ingredient to make something new out of during the same day! My mentor would say, "Oh, come on, Jenny! You can do it!" Looking back, I am grateful that she pushed me to my limits because those moments gave me strength, confidence, training and experience, all of which help me to handle new situations.

Lakshmi Art Press: How do you know that the food is great? What differentiates great cooking from the good?

Chef Jenefer Espero: You put yourself in it. Your heart must be in it. You need to connect with what you are doing.

Sometimes when I am unwell and ask someone else to cook for me, I can tell after eating if they put their heart into it, or if they just made it for the sake of making it.

Also, being a Chef makes it difficult for us to always exclaim "this food is great!" We usually don't say it easily or often. So, when a fellow colleague says to me that they liked my dish, I take it as a compliment like no other.

We actually had a cook-off with all of the Chefs from Soneva Fushi and Soneva Jani a while ago. My 'Veggie Steak' won, and will be included in the new menu at Shades of Green. (For my recipe of the steak, see here.) The fact that some of the best Chefs competed in this, all of whom I respect for their skills and domain knowledge, and that my food was liked gave me encouragement. It is important to remember that making plant-based food that is healthy, creative, new, interesting and flavorful is not easy. Getting the umami flavor right is also not straightforward. But getting recognition for your work definitely gives you a much-needed boost. It keeps you going on the journey of making (what is hopefully) great food!

Lakshmi Art Press: What is it like being a female, professional Chef? We have heard from a few celebrity chefs, both male and female, about how tough chef culture can be sometimes. What are your thoughts?

Chef Jenefer Espero: I feel that you will really know a person when you see them in the kitchen. It is important, especially for ladies, to be strong. Thankfully, modern culture has made it easier for women to enter a lot of different professions. Chef culture has also become kinder to both men and women than it probably was before. However, I think I can see why celebrity Chefs like Anthony Bourdain may have written the way they did (about Chef culture being tough), and I could agree to some extent. I love being a Chef. I love doing the garden tours at Shades of Green at Soneva Fushi. My work is thankfully very interesting for me. I always want to do more. But it can be a tall order sometimes. Everyone takes this in their stride. Everyone learns from it. The best part is that we love what we do.

Lakshmi Art Press: What advice do you have for people who aspire to be where you are?

Chef Jenefer Espero: I believe that you don't have to keep things to yourself and regret it later. I think it is particularly important to speak up as Chef; to be straightforward when you really don't like the taste, look, or whatever it is. I think that it actually helps everybody in the process; when you are honest and give correct feedback to each other.

Finally, I feel that one must be grateful for one's circumstances, no matter how challenging they may seem. I really believe that even difficult times prepare us for the good things that are yet to happen. So, embrace it.

Talking to Head Chef of Shades of Green Jenefer Espero was an absolute delight. She was warm, friendly, immensely knowledgeable, candid and insightful. She has a beautiful vibe to her that makes her very approachable. She is also a very interesting person to connect with simply because of the rare combination of skills and knowledge that she possesses. She is, after all, a Botanist-Chef.

Chef Jenefer Espero is also an inspiration for the youth, particularly girls, who wish to succeed in the world of world-class culinary work. As is evident from the interview, it is not just technical culinary expertise and niche-domain knowledge that takes you far, but also sheer resilience, love, passion, curiosity, urge to learn, and an ability to hold everything together in dynamic work environments.

Being one of the few female Chefs working at the level that she works on makes her even more extraordinary. Her focus on making beautifully plated, organic foods is also paving way for people all over the world to be inspired to grow and eat foods that are sustainable and healthy for all of us, including our planet. From that perspective, her research on edible plants is totally priceless.

Chef Jenefer's voice radiates gratitude and appreciation when she speaks of her time in Singapore and the Maldives. It is clear that the various people and institutions that she has worked with has helped her to mould her career into what she aspired it to be: one that enables her to be in the driving seat of professional culinary excellence.

But what makes Chef Jenefer Espero the person that she is today? I feel that there is no doubt that her outdoor adventures while growing up in the Philippines were critical in helping her build a very beautiful, strong relationship with the Earth. As a Filipina, she grew up to not only respect nature, but to happily and contentedly co-exist with it; to make her favorite foods using all that she found and discovered; to safely interact with nature without causing harm or being harmed by it; to do it in a manner that aids the locals in every community, and the Earth itself.

There is no doubt that the strength, warmth and earthiness that we see in Chef Jenefer Espero today is, in large part, due to the beauty, character and warmth of the amazing countries where she has lived and worked; from the Philippines to the Maldives.

Hats off to the amazing: Chef Jenefer Espero.


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