Yes, Chef! Gisela Alesbrook, Head Chef of Sri Lankan Spot, Hotal Colombo
June 28, 2023
Asia is one food-crazy continent! We take great care to pick restaurants based on culinary vibes, rankings in international gourmand guides, mentions in magazines, Instagramability, and added allure. Yes, Chef! features the region’s chefs' stories of love and labour in kitchens, which has made some of our restaurants the next big thing in Asia.
Gisela “Gizzy” Alesbrook manages culinary operations at one of Hong Kong's few Sri Lankan restaurants, Hotal Colombo, located in buzzing SoHo, neighbouring other Black Sheep Restaurants locations.
Navigate Open Rice, Hong Kong’s leading online guide for restaurants, and you’ll find three Sri Lankan restaurants out of thousands of eateries in Hong Kong, paling in comparison to other cuisines.
Formerly based in China, operating factories in the garment industry, working in a kitchen was a career never considered prior. However, when the Colombo-native joined Black Sheep in 2012 as the group’s second ever hire, founder Syed Asim Hussain was determined to expose diners in the city to the slept-on cuisine.
Chef Gizzy shares her journey to opening Hotal Colombo, now in its fifth year of operation, and the significance of Sri Lankan food in Hong Kong.
Thanks for coming to our studio, Chef. You began your professional career in many professions and, formerly, worked in the garment industry in China and Hong Kong. What spurred you to enter the kitchen to cook for a living?
I lived in China for five years, working as a lingerie designer, creating bras at a factory in Sri Lanka, and later [in] China. Like every Asian family, my parents wanted me to be a doctor, engineer, or accountant. I tried banking, and I hated it.
Cooking was always a fun thing to do, but it was never something to earn something out of [in Sri Lanka]. When I moved to Hong Kong from China, the focus was on buying instead of production [when working in lingerie products]. I had to think of something else to do. I applied for a trial job in the papers and got a job as a kitchen hand, almost 11 years ago.
I began working at Chom Chom for eight months, initially independent of Black Sheep with Chef Peter Franklin, and then joined founders Chris Mark and Asim at the former-Boqueria in Lan Kwai Fong.
Joining the Black Sheep family with Chris, Asim, and company, how did the opening of Hotal Colombo with Black Sheep transpire?
Boqueria shut down in 2016 after three years. I worked with Chef James to open Maison Libanaise for three more years. The group is diverse, and we have a lot of flexibility to work on different cuisines and in different locations.
In any restaurant, you can cook your teammates a staff meal. Asim once sat in on a staff meal at Maison Libanaise, where I cooked Sri Lankan food. We did not open a Sri Lankan restaurant because Asim and Chris wanted diversity, they came back many times to sample the food. They became absorbed in my story and the food.
It took six years to open Hotal Colombo, waiting for the right location. We are a cute, tiny restaurant. We will never be a fine dining restaurant. This is food that reminds you of your grandmother’s cooking, but nobody knows what Sri Lankan cuisine is.
If you could explain to us and the laymen, what is Sri Lankan cuisine, Chef?
We are an island and Buddhist country, so we have many seafood dishes, but not beef. We eat a lot of pork and favour lighter dishes, but very fragrant. As soon as you enter our restaurant, you'll be hit by all those spicy smells.
We eat a lot of rice – for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You’ll typically find a rice dish, a pickle or chutney to get your appetite going, something crunchy like a papadum, and many curries.
We don't cook things for hours. There's nothing that gets cooked for hours. Everything is so quick. If you go to anybody's house and they're making a meal, you can get a decent Sri Lankan meal kicked out in about an hour.
Did you feel Hong Kong would be blind or not receptive to a new Sri Lankan restaurant, in a market saturated with Indian restaurants, closely resembling the cuisine?
When I joined Chris and Mark to open Hotal Colombo, it was a calculated risk. We’ve never opened a Sri Lankan restaurant. I’ve never had professional training, never attended culinary school. I don’t have a degree. I’ve been training on the job. I am still learning.
Asim has a soft spot for Sri Lanka. He spent his younger years on travels to the island, loves cricket, and understands the cuisine.
In a city with very few challengers, as compared to Hong Kong’s embrace with Italian, Chinese, French, and Japanese restaurants, how can you innovate and stay competitive?
I constantly adapt and change our menu to reflect seasonal flavours and ingredients to keep things fresh. We have changed our menu four times over the past four years but kept dishes that I would be killed [for] if I removed [laughs], dishes that keep bringing people back.
I want more people in Hong Kong to know about Sri Lankan food. Just having one restaurant poses a challenge to keep people wanting to try the cuisine now.
What keeps you inspired to continue your journey at Hotal Colombo?
I genuinely love cooking. I’m in my forties, and I realised if it’s possible, pick a career that you love doing. I love feeding people, and it’s my thing. Every time you come to my restaurant, you are going to get stuffed. Sixty percent of my guests are regulars, they know me by name, I’ve created a family.
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