Five minutes with: Dom Fernando

The founder of lauded Sri Lankan restaurant Paradise on his love of cocktails, the misconceptions about Sri Lankan cuisine and why he loves Maldon salt

Food and Drink 17 May 2022

Dom Fernando of Paradise restaurant, Soho

Can you describe what diners can expect from Paradise?

Paradise is a progressive, contemporary modern day take on traditional Sri Lankan cuisine and flavours, where we put our ingredients at the heart of everything that we do. It’s playful, and we like to think we are pushing the boundaries of Sri Lankan food, which is very unique: nobody is really operating there at the moment. Our food is served in a small, intimate, cosy space in the middle of Soho in a brutalist minimalist designed restaurant.

What do you wish Londoners knew about Sri Lankan cuisine?

I wish they knew how distinctive it is – it has very specific flavours and ingredients that aren’t often found in other cuisines. It is a real mix of South Indian, Indonesian, Thai, Malaysian and Arabian, flavours that gives it its very distinctive taste. I think that there’s a misconception that Sri Lankan cuisine is closer to South Indian, but it isn’t really. This is a generalisation, but if you look at the majority of Sri Lankan restaurants in London, irrespective of whether they are in Harrow, Wembley, central London or East Ham, they will probably be delivering something that is a bit more South Indian in its look and in its taste. But actually, traditionally, Sri Lankan food isn’t necessarily always like that.

Paradise restaurant, Soho
Paradise restaurant, Soho

Is there a signature dish at Paradise and if so, what would it be?

We don’t have a signature dish per se. Each dish on the menu has its own dimensions. We’re probably most famous for the hogget shoulder roll, which is our take on a short-eat from Sri Lanka. It’s traditionally a mutton or a beef roll but we use hogget, which is a cross between lamb and mutton, and we serve it with fermented chilli sauce. One of the most popular dishes from the veg and plant section is our aubergine and jaggery moju. It’s made from aubergine that has been steeped in turmeric, deep fried and pickled for about three or four days then mixed with jaggery, which is palm sugar, so it’s spicy and sweet at the same time. It’s a great condiment to go with everything else on the menu. I’d say the next most popular dishes are the stir fried devil prawns – in-your-face, punchy, punchy flavours, the hottest dish on the menu and distinctively very Sri Lankan.

Cocktails are a big thing at Paradise. Why did you choose to make them so central to the restaurant experience, and which is your favourite?

My love of cocktails is probably why we put them front and centre at Paradise. I used to work in hotels: I lived in Dubai and Singapore and spent a lot of time travelling and cocktails are something that I always go for, probably even more than wine. We can also be a bit more playful and innovative with cocktails than with wine, which is a bit more tricky to pair with the spice of Sri Lankan food. My favourite on the Paradise menu would probably be the Clarified Pineapple Punch because I love sweet drinks. But equally up there is our off-menu cardamom-infused espresso martini.

The past two years have been really hard for restaurateurs. What have you learned during this time?

Three main things. Number one is determination and persistence. Keeping the belief in what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, how we’re delivering it and not to compromise on any of the food standards that we have, or what we’re trying to do. Number two is to really focus on innovation and offering guests a unique experience with our take on Sri Lankan food. And number three is to focus on our team – their growth and career progression because in hospitality it is harder and harder to retain and attract really talented people and people are at the heart of everything we do.

What ingredient can you not live without?

Maldon salt! I put Maldon salt on everything. On my breakfast in the morning, we put on our spicy prawns in the restaurant. It lifts every single dish – specifically Maldon salt. I can’t get enough of it.

Dom Fernando
Dom Fernando

What are your biggest passions outside of food and drink?

Sport is one of my biggest passions and boxing specifically. I used to like to box a lot pre-pandemic. And it’s something I am trying to put more time into now things are getting back to normal, getting back into my fitness. Arts and culture are another passion and I am really getting into photography. 

Who is your role model?

I would probably say I’ve got a couple of different role models. My old bosses from InterContinental Hotels are a couple of my role models just in terms of being super focused and targeted about work. And I’d probably also say my father, who had a relentless work ethic. Being a restaurateur, you have to have that get-up-and-go drive and I think I inherited it from my father.

What is your favourite restaurant in the world?

I don’t have one, but there are a handful of amazing restaurants that I’ve been to. So for example, Sunda in Melbourne, which is modern Vietnamese, South-East Asian. Cloudstreet in Singapore that’s run by a fellow Sri Lankan Michelin-star chef, Rishi Naleendra. In London, I love Legare and Leroy, just amazing, innovative cooking. I like small independent restaurants: somewhere where you’re always going to get great vibes, a great experience. 

Who, living or dead, would you most like to invite for dinner at Paradise and what would you serve them? 

I would say Martin Luther King. He could have anything from my menu but I think inevitably we’d probably end up listening to him more instead of eating.