Founder of Sydney-based eatery Lankan Filling Station talks food and the new normal
Lankan Filling Station is a casual eatery in Sydney, Australia that serves food inspired by traditional Sri Lankan recipes with an Australian twist.
The Sunday Morning Brunch chatted with O Tama Carey, the Founder of Lankan Filling Station, to find out what it is about this quirky establishment that is capturing the hearts of Sydney foodies.
Becoming O Tama Carey
Carey grew up in Adelaide in South Australia before moving west to Sydney with her family in her mid-teens. She is of Australian and Sri Lankan heritage (her mother is Sri Lankan). Food was a big part of her life, but Sri Lankan food was something that only came out at parties or special occasions, or something she learned about when visiting her grandmother who lived in Perth. Soon, Sri Lankan food found a special place in Carey’s heart.
Carey’s journey to becoming a chef started rather accidentally. On graduating high school, Carey and her mother took an extended trip to Sri Lanka, spending about six weeks there surrounded by friends, family, and food. It was Carey’s first long visit to Sri Lanka and is a trip she will always remember.
Her ambitions after visiting were to travel further, and the next step in her grand voyage took her to London; a teenager fresh out of high-school, Carey decided to work in London for a bit to get some money together for the next step in her tour.
Through a friend, she found herself working at a small kitchen in London called The Good Cook. It was here that Carey discovered a passion for cooking professionally, and though she didn’t know it at the time, it was the start of a career in cooking spanning more than 20 years. Staying in London for a year (a lot longer than Carey had anticipated), she went back home to Sydney for her mother’s 40th birthday.
After securing herself a position at the Billy Kwong restaurant in Sydney, Carey decided to give cooking as a career a proper try, and she hasn’t looked back since. The intervening years saw her work at multiple restaurants learning to cook various cuisines including Chinese, French, Japanese, and Italian cuisine.
Carey gained recognition in Sydney for her inventive cooking style as the Head Chef at the Italian restaurant Berta before deciding to strike out on her own and cook Sri Lankan food professionally.
Creating Lankan Filling Station
The name “Lankan Filling Station” was suggested by Carey’s partner on a previous visit to Sri Lanka. Based on signage for Sri Lankan petrol stations which read “filling stations”, the idea of Lankan Filling Station, with its association to a place where people come to fuel or re-energise through her food, appealed to Carey. Australia uses the terminology “petrol station”, and “filling station” is not a term Australians are familiar with.
After a few years cooking at pop-ups and market stalls, Carey decided to take the plunge and start her own restaurant. Finding a small space in the city and working with David Mitchell Architects to create a chic, modern eatery with an open kitchen, Carey opened the doors to Lankan Filling Station just under two years ago.
What sets Lankan Filling Station apart is that there aren’t any other restaurants that make high-quality meals that are Sri Lankan and incorporate traditional Sri Lankan flavours and techniques while also accommodating the Australian point of view and palate, which is quite sophisticated and has lots of influences from all over the world that come into play.
The fare at Lankan Filling Station is traditional in terms of flavour as are a lot of the dishes. The mainstay of Lankan Filling Station is hoppers with their accompanying curries and sambals. Part of Carey’s reasoning behind opening Lankan Filling Station was to have a place that served hoppers all the time. It is her favourite food.
Another favourite of Carey’s – a dish that she loves cooking and eating – is crab curry. Lankan Filling Station offers a special crab curry banquet on the last Sunday of every month, giving customers the chance to enjoy the culinary adventure of eating traditional crab curry.
Charmaine Solomon was an influence in Carey’s life when she was first getting into South Asian cooking. Solomon is a Sri Lankan-born chef and author who has made a mark in Australian culinary circles, being one of the first to introduce South Asian cooking, flavours, and techniques to Australia.
Sydney and Lankan Filling Station in the wake of the pandemic
The Covid-19 pandemic has hit Australia hard. Though they have had a relatively small number of cases starting in early March, restrictions gradually increased to the point where pubs and bars were asked to close, and restaurants could only function for takeaway and delivery. Lockdown was pretty heavily implemented, and even though things have been easing out over the last few weeks with pubs and restaurants being allowed to open, there are strict rules in place that all businesses must follow.
After closing for three or four weeks at the start of the lockdown, Lankan Filling Station resumed operations with takeaway and delivery menus, and have now opened for customers again with appropriate health and safety guidelines in place, making sure customers are safe.
During the pandemic, Carey took part in a food series called Takeaway, an initiative that was designed to help food venues (big and small) across Australia create small, inexpensive paperbacks that can be shared with people who love what they do. Carey has put together a little book that speaks of spices, with a little bit of history and some stories, ideas on flavours, and one real recipe. This book is being presold on the Lankan Filling Station website and is published by Somekind Press.
The silver lining of the pandemic is that lots of little changes are happening to create a more supportive and positive environment in Australia, with people from all industries and businesses coming together and supporting each other.
Adapting to the ‘new normal’
Speaking about how restaurants can adapt to recovering faster post pandemic, Carey explained consistency was very important in the restaurant business – not just in terms of the quality of food, but also in terms of engaging with customers and having a clear message about what your business does. The pandemic has turned this concept of consistency on its head, demanding restaurants constantly change and adapt. It is now important to re-evaluate what you’re doing very frequently and make sure your customers are aware of what you are doing and why.
This concept of agility and adaptability in business is something that she thinks will become a practice that restaurants around the globe, even in Sri Lanka, will need to consider moving forward in the “new normal”.
What’s next for Lankan Filling Station?
The future is both exciting and uncertain. While Carey has many plans, the economic impact of the pandemic is going to be felt for some time to come, and recovery is Lankan Filling Station’s top priority.
In addition to serving delectable Sri Lankan cuisine, Lankan Filling Station also hopes to open up a spice shop and sell more Sri Lankan goods. They already sell some Sri Lankan spices and ingredients out of the store, and Carey has begun importing her own rice directly from Sri Lanka. Carey is hoping to expand on this concept, which will give her a good excuse to visit Sri Lanka more frequently for purchasing, making it a win-win in her eyes.
Keeping that passion alive
For new chefs and food enthusiasts trying to make their mark in the culinary world, Carey shared that in her experience, the best way to develop and nurture passion, talent, and skill in food and cooking is by eating. Trying different kinds of foods frequently and experimenting with different flavours is key to improving skill and enriching culinary experience.
Carey commented: “The best way to learn to cook is to eat.”