February 27, 2024
Wine & Dine

Three minutes with Sol Rooftop’s Raj Kumar

Fijian-born chef Raj Kumar is making his mark as the new head chef at SkyCity’s Sol Rooftop, leading the restaurant through a major transition from fine dining to approachable, yet high-quality, modern Australian cuisine.

SkyCity’s Sol Rooftop head chef Raj Kumar.

BEN What was it like growing up in Fiji, Raj?

RAJ My siblings and I were raised on our family’s farm where we grew and harvested our own food. We lived close to the beach, so there was so much fresh seafood, too. I think the most important thing I’ve learnt from my dad is how to cook many different species of seafood.

BEN Has your dad had a big influence on your career?

RAJ He did – he worked as a chef at the Shangri-La resort, which was the biggest in Fiji at the time, so he would come home and bring some of his flare and work ethic to the kitchen. That’s where I picked up his passion for cooking; it’s kind of in the blood. My sisters and brothers are all good cooks. I recently returned from visiting my parents in Fiji and I had a great time cooking with my dad for the family.

BEN Tell me about your journey to Adelaide.

RAJ I started working at the Shangri La, where my dad had worked. For six years I moved through the resort’s several restaurants. I was trained by some great chefs, and it was fun because many of them had worked for my dad previously. I started with SkyCity in Queenstown, New Zealand, in 2010 and worked across six different outlets. I came to Adelaide to work at Madame Hanoi about six years ago. It has been a lot of fun combining Vietnamese and French cuisine and building that venue’s reputation.

BEN How do you describe your style and what are your strengths?

RAJ I’d say my strength is creativity. I like to combine Asian cuisine with different styles and plate the food in creative ways. And colour – I love colour. SkyCity has supported me in entering cooking competitions that have helped me to develop my creativity. I’ve worked across many different restaurants and cuisines in my career and that is something my father encouraged me to do – to keep moving and challenge yourself.

BEN Tell me about the new menu and direction for Sol Rooftop.

RAJ Rather than high-end fine dining, we’ve developed a more approachable offering with something for everyone. We want to cater to a wider clientele. This is a different Sol, and we will be changing the menu every three months – that’s across the a la carte dining, functions, brunch and high teas. So, it keeps our team excited and we want to create an offering like nowhere else.

BEN What do you hope guests take away from their experience at Sol?

RAJ We have a luxurious venue with a lot to offer, so the dining must be fun and vibrant, and we’ll push the boundaries to achieve that. I’ve been here for six months and I’m seeing returning guests, so we are ticking that box. Our kitchen team is sticking together too, which is a good sign. It shows people believe in you. Chefs like to be creative in the kitchen, so if you can facilitate that and challenge them, they will stay with you.

BEN What do you like to do outside of the kitchen?

RAJ A lot of snorkelling and fishing! One of my friends has a boat and they always take me out. It’s a good deal – they take me fishing and I cook for them. We go fishing on the Yorke Peninsula and we do deep sea fishing too. I also do a lot of gardening at home, which comes from growing up on the farm in Fiji. My whole backyard is a garden now. I grow plants from seedlings and plant them out in my garden.

BEN Who are your most influential mentors?

RAJ Auckland-based chef Alfie Spina is a master in Italian food and he taught me traditional steps that he learned from his family. I learned a lot from him. I also had an opportunity to work with renowned NZ chef Nic Watt, who taught me Japanese food for the first time. He started training us in tempura, grills, sashimi, sushi, all of those things. I taught myself French-Vietnamese fusion here at Madame Hanoi! Chef Nic Watt encouraged me to take the job and told me to be creative, be who you are, and keep going. I sometimes phone him for advice.

BEN What is your favourite food to cook at home?

RAJ To be honest … chicken and chips! I love karaage chicken and I love sticky rice too. Very basic, but sometimes that’s exactly what I want.

BEN What are your favourite restaurants in Adelaide?

RAJ I’d say Shobosho and Golden Boy. When I first moved to Adelaide to launch Madame Hanoi, I tried most of the restaurants to get a feel for what other people were doing. We wanted to be very different from everyone else.

BEN You recently had a trip back to Fiji, what was that like?

RAJ When you go to Fiji, you don’t want to come back. Staying on the farm, with beaches all around, everything’s so green. You wake up and it’s just Fiji time! It was great. My dad keeps asking me whether I’m going to move back to Fiji. I showed him photos of where I work and what I do, and he was very happy.


This story was first published in the September 2023 print edition of SALIFE Magazine.

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