Sheril J.S. is 40 years old and one of the most fun cooks I know. He was born in a place simply referred to as “six mile” in the Periyar District of Kerala. He learned to cook from his mother and grandmother and he’s still cooking with his mother at his business, the Thekkady Barbeque Cooking School. In fact, Sheril and his wife, son and daughter share their home (attached to the cooking school) with his parents.
When I first visited in 2012, Sheril’s sister Sherry also lived and worked with him and his mother. Sherry is married now and living with her husband’s family. We were lucky that our visit for Faces, Places and Plates fell on Kerala’s Onum harvest celebration because this is a time for Keralan families to gather and that meant Sherry was home for a visit.
Sherry seems happy with her new life but I’m sure Sheril and his mother miss her terribly as they are busier than ever. They look a bit tired on this occasion and there’s good reason why.
Each time I visit they’ve improved the cooking school. The first time there, in late 2012, it was just a few tables and benches arranged with cutting boards and knives in a lean-to outside their home. This time, they’ve added an entire second storey addition to their home with a gleaming long granite top table and a dedicated teaching kitchen above the family’s living quarters. They built the entire thing themselves.
I ask Sheril what his ultimate dream is?
He points to the empty lot of land on the road below their home through the open front windows. “A restaurant”, he says, “I’d like to fill this vacant lot below us with a restaurant where we could cook, serve and host people every day.”
Sheril’s got a personality that can only be described as jubilant. His distinctive laughter (a joyous and genuine cackle) is often heard. He gains control of large groups with ease because he’s an engaging teacher who gets his students involved from the outset.
For a student kneading a huge pile of bread dough, he coaches them on with a chorus of “more power, more power”. When faced with a mountain of vegetables to chop, he demos the technique and then sings, “chopping, chopping, chopping”. The groups quickly catch on and soon are singing along with him as they are “stirring, stirring, stirring” and “frying, frying, frying”. There may also be a bit of “drinking, drinking, drinking” as ice cold Kingfisher beers appear from a nearby refrigerator but, with or without the beer, a lot gets done in a short amount of time and the whole group is seated and feasting within 90 minutes to two hours depending on what’s on the menu.
Sheril’s background story is a great one.
He was a “tuk-tuk” auto-rickshaw driver before he opened his cooking school. He invited our guide friend Charles home for dinner with his family after Charles had befriended him on his many tours through the area. Charles was so impressed with the family’s cooking abilities he asked them if they might consider teaching visitors to the area. Sheril, who had the dream of a restaurant, even then, took up the entrepreneurial challenge.
Thekkady Barbeque has come a long way in a few short years. Being featured in The New York Times and consistently achieving TripAdvisor certificates of excellence has helped the business boom.
Affording better equipment has also helped. His mother, Yeye, used to grind the spice pastes with a heavy stone rolling pin mortar and pestle base. Now, she whizzes up ingredients in an electric mini-chopper.
Sheril used to make his famous paratha breads on a wood stove griddle, now he has an electric one. Still, modern conveniences have not interfered where flavour counts. He still lights a wood fire and lets it burn down to coals to slowly fire-roast his famous barbequed chicken recipe. The results are sumptuous.
The whole family have made a lot of progress in a short time but they still enjoy the tradition that matters most in a South Indian home – they live together in happiness. We are beyond happy to share Sheril’s family’s fabulous recipes in the upcoming posts and hope you’ll visit them and enjoy the fun of “cooking, cooking, cooking” together as we have.
Thanks to the KTM Society and Travel XS for sponsoring our travel throughout South India in 2016. Thanks to Sheril and his family for the full day of cooking lessons and the chance to photograph them in action. It was sheer joy for us.
All words and photos are our own and were not shared with the sponsors before publication.