Women In Commercial Indian Kitchens Are Still A Rare Breed

Anjali Pathak & Anahita Dhondy
Anjali Pathak & Anahita Dhondy

Perhaps one of the most significant changes that occurred post moving away from chaotic Mumbai to serene Goa was that our father was around more often. Coaxing my mother into going ahead with her dream bakery brought realisations with it that he didn’t (and couldn’t) shy away from–he was going to have to step it up around the house. Easier said than done within the confines of Indian tradition aka ‘man must earn, woman must cook/ clean/ raise children/ run the laundry/ generally keep everybody happy and alive’. Over the years, my father completely took over breakfast; he’s now even even known as the ‘Paratha Legend’ amongst my friends. He knows exactly how I like my comfort food (dal, chawal and spicy potatoes) the second he senses I need cheering up, and a morning isn’t the same without his adrak chai. My mother gracefully allowed him his share of fame in the kitchen, and it allowed her to focus on her business.

Growing up in a household where both parents worked, but found time for us wasn’t just a blessing; it was a proper life lesson for my brother and me. Yet, through the years, as we began to go out more and appreciate all that Goa had to offer—I noticed a pattern unlike the kind I had assumed was the norm. Whenever the chef came up to our table at the end of our meal for feedback; ten times out of ten, they’d be male.

Initially, I assumed it was a ‘small town’ thing. But family vacations proved the growing feeling in my gut–this wasn’t a small town-specific phenomenon or even an Indian one, the reality was everywhere. Which brings to the question, how is it (or rather, why is it) that the very women who’ve spent a good portion of their lives in a kitchen honing their skills, shy away from a field they could potentially excel at?

Out of the multiple reasons, the most jarring of them all would be the prevalent sexual banter that simply comes with most male-dominated environments—if not all. Throw in the need for heavy lifting, hot, cramped conditions and a side of raunchy kitchen talk, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. This bad reputation was only further highlighted by Anthony Bourdain’s book as an insider in the culinary world, ‘Kitchen Confidential’. In a revealing op-ed, a women chef even came out about how she ‘aimed to prove she was tough in the kitchen’, saying, “In the kitchen, I aimed to prove I was tough. I rolled my eyes when men ogled me; I responded to attempts at flirtation with epithets and smiles. When a manager reprimanded a cook for calling me mamí, I brushed it off.”

Two Sides Of The Coin

As a country, India does not fall short when it comes to great culinary experiences. In fact, India’s diverse palate merely gives the world’s many cuisines more of an audience here. Whether it’s local flavours infusing themselves with global twists or vice versa, there’s more than one path to tread as a chef in India. As this career and industry continues to bloom, it’s a wonder that India can only count their women celebrity chefs on two hands.

Thomas Zacharias (Executive Chef at The Bombay Canteen) rightly points out in his article on the same issue that our culture may deem mothers and grandmothers to be ‘the best cooks in the world’, but this pedestal is then passed on to male chefs, the second the word professional is slapped on to it. While talent, skill and passion are how these men have truly earned their own respect, it unfortunately also goes to show how yet another industry has been dominated by men, furthering the gender gap we face in the professional world. However, with feminism growing day by day, globally as well as nationally, the rise of women in this industry has been for lack of better words, a slow but steady climb.

However, if we’re going to be fair, patriarchy swayed men from this particular career line as well. Society wasn’t always the kindest to men who looked for a career in the kitchen—cooking wasn’t deemed the most ‘masculine’ of choices at the time. One’s reputation was potentially at stake, when every second Indian child was molded into the ‘perfect’ archetype: Doctor, Lawyer, or Engineer. Throw in the age-old notion of the man of the household being the breadwinner of one’s family and you’ve got yourself a saga of an argument unfolding.

This industry has seen a considerable struggle from both men and women through their endeavours to make it to the top in India. There were several who persevered and followed their passion irrespective of the circumstances, but a majority of these passion pursuers remained male.

Of Bad Reputations & Knowing Your Place

Being a minority in any workspace can be alienating. Not only could that affect your performance, but it could also seriously impact your mentality—especially as a sole woman in a male-dominated workplace. Feeling the need to prove yourself constantly can get overwhelming, a feat most women take on due to them feeling the needing to earn respect or to dethrone a system (hello, patriarchy) from its very roots, when all they really need to do is focus on their passion; i.e. what they’re here for. If we want more women in a professional kitchen, we’re going to have to take a step back and truly evaluate the situation—when a woman sees only men in a kitchen, or maybe one or two other women only, it begins to build a permanent narrative that there really is no place for women. It is this fear of a tense, non-inclusive, sexist environment that tends to make women uneasy at the prospect of becoming chefs.

Beyond inclusivity, it’s no secret that a professional kitchen environment puts one under severe duress constantly. Anjali Pathak (Chef and Owner of Flavour Diaries & Food Writer) has been a part of the culinary industry for over 15 years! From teaching masterclasses around the world, appearing on international television and media, and simply sharing her love for food, Anjali has even worked with Jamie Oliver through her multiple food adventures. “Kitchen life is high-pressured, demanding and the hours are incredibly long. You’ve got to be on your feet all day and you have to have thick skin to ‘take the heat in the kitchen’. That phrase has numerous meanings, but if you thrive in pressured environments, you’ll go far,” she says, when asked what a typical professional kitchen atmosphere was like.

Much like one would work towards a deadline at work, chefs work towards one too, except theirs hits them every single hour of the day—quite like an episode right out of MasterChef. There’s bound to be human error at some point, it isn’t always clockwork. Temperatures soar and when every chef is under pressure, tempers can fly too; something you’ve got to learn to live with if you want to succeed in a professional kitchen. Anahita Dhondy (Chef Manager of SodaBottleOpenerWala, Delhi) in an interview, agreed, “The beginning of your career in the food industry is pure labour, right from the first day till you own a restaurant. It’s not your regular 9-5 shift, it’s tough, its physical labour, long hours, crass language, so most females don’t wish to enter the industry knowing all this. The ones who actually get into it, do have a tough time in the beginning, dealing with all the above, but it gets better as your skills advance and you climb the hierarchy.”

Anjali Pathak continues, voicing her opinion on the matter, “Although I believe women should not be treated differently to men in a professional kitchen, there are a few hurdles women will always face. Personally, I have never encountered gender discrimination in the workplace but I know people who have. I firmly believe that talent will earn you respect, not gender.” In light of the same, Naina De Bois Juzan (Founder of Le Bistro Du Parc) too, spoke to DSSC of the issues she faced as a woman spearheading her own project in the industry, “First of all people don’t take you seriously, before I opened the restaurant they were thinking I wouldn’t do it. And when I did it, people coming to the restaurant assumed I was working for the chef or the manager, they never thought I was the boss. I had 24 employees, all men, all older than me, they thought I was some sort of diva and a rich little kid. People judge you very quickly as a woman, but I proved them all wrong & finally they respected me very much!”

Is It More Than Just The Pressure?

Beyond judgement and worrying about working in a male-dominated environment (as is with every industry), women are often looked over due to the fact that women per se have an ‘expiration date’. It’s either their career or their family at a certain point—and if the latter is chosen, their career comes to a complete halt or an end.

“By the time a woman reaches a position where she handles enough responsibility, which takes a few years in her career, it’s time for her to get married and have children (in the Indian patriarchal society), which only allows her to quit her job and continue with family duties. Thus you don’t see too many women among the top chefs,” says Anahita Dhondy.

One of the few women celebrity chefs who struggled to the top, despite having a family, is Madhu Krishnan (Executive chef, ITC Hotels). She said to TOI, “There are lots of things you miss out on when they’re growing up,” Krishnan says. “You can’t watch every tennis lesson but you’re always trying to find time to spend in meaningful ways.” She continued to say how back in the ‘90s when she was studying, there were four women in her batch, of whom none went on to train as chefs. Today is a different story though, as she has quite a few women trainees under her wing. In the same vein, Ritu Dalmia (Chef and Co-Owner of Diva), mentions how being single made it easier for her to focus on climbing the ranks—a feat she undeniably achieved. When asked about a change in the industry, she says, “We take in a lot of women trainees. Most have aspirations of opening their own restaurants,” but she also states that none ended up staying on because of the hours—their mothers would often be calling once the clock hit 10.

Like the experienced duo above mentioned, the industry does see a lot more women single-handedly running their own businesses. Perhaps it has to do with our current social context that is steadily opening up new pathways for women globally, and more importantly, nationally as well. Media campaigns are spearheading this movement, breaking conventions daily as they spread awareness to the masses. A great example is BIBA’s Change The Convention campaign, that revolves around how a father very pointedly asks a prospective groom if he too can help cook and manage the household as his daughter will be a working woman; or even Ariel’s #ShareTheLoad campaign wherein a father apologizes to his daughter for not helping around the house more, while she was growing up. Collective awareness paired with a woman’s passion for her own endeavours is why the industry could potentially have this gap filled—even if it could take a while.

“An industrial kitchen is definitely a difficult place for a woman, starting with the discomfort of being in a male-dominated industry to the rigorous hours put in and the sheer amount of physical strength required for daily production. The trend for women is usually to get into the Patisserie or the Bakery section, since it is more relaxed than the hot kitchen. In fact, I believe Patisserie and Bakery is still run majorly by women. I’ve personally worked in a hot kitchen—tempers run high, cuss words fly around during high pressure service times and you’re expected to work under the same kind of pressure and hours as any other employee which is completely fair. Sometimes you’d be seen as a liability if there was heavy lifting involved and you couldn’t contribute the same way. Women in the hot kitchen are usually limited to the salad section which isn’t considered too strenuous,” says Nuzha Ebrahim, (founder of The Jerk Store that produces artisanal Buffalo Jerky and The Fromagerie known for their gourmet grilled cheese), weighing in on the issue. Prior to her two brands, she has worked in the industry since 2011, starting with the JW Marriott, followed by 212, Indigo, Guppy, La Folie and then worked as a Food Stylist and Consultant Chef.

Physical strength is a major contender for why women avoid this industry—even those in training often complain of the same. However, Madhu Krishnan, a stickler for her passion, claims otherwise, “If you look at my build, you’ll see there’s nothing I can’t do that a man can. I’m not a petite girl. I can handle the physical pressure. It’s not really arduous. It’s frenetic and it’s not predictable. That makes it exhilarating.”

Physical liabilities aside, it brings to one’s notice that this so-called gender divide doesn’t just stop there.

Gender Wars In The Kitchen?

A majority of the women working in this industry who we spoke to had no complaints about the same, but there were some who spoke up against it. In fact, in an article by Hindustan Times, Ritu Dalmia, talks about how even though she was her own boss, there were some chefs who had ‘serious problems taking orders from a female chef’.

With over 10 years of experience, Namrata Pai (Ex-Executive Pastry Chef at The Table) looks back at her time in the industry and says, “When I started 10 years ago, it was definitely a space you ventured into only if it was really something you wanted to do. You’re in a country where men come in with preconceived notions of how women should or shouldn’t be. A lack of exposure and their lack of understanding needed to be tackled by restaurants properly. You have to tell them what’s okay and what’s not—if they don’t understand boundaries, then things can be misconstrued. Thankfully, things are changing in the industry today, else this would’ve been a very different interview.”

She continues, elaborating on the change the industry is seeing, “It’s been progressive over the last few years—chefs go abroad and come back with knowledge that older chefs don’t have. Male chefs like Thomas (The Bombay Canteen) and Alex (The Table) truly understand how to make the workplace more inclusive for women, which is why you’ll see both their kitchens have staff that comprises of at least 40% women.”

We asked Thomas about the same, who wholeheartedly spoke up about how Hunger Inc (the parent company of both, The Bombay Canteen and O Pedro) not only actively hires female employees but also takes steps to make sure they are happy and comfortable. “All our staff, whether male or female, are treated with respect. Sadly, I still hear third person accounts from other restaurants and kitchens where sexism and sometimes even misogyny are still very much a part of their work culture.”

For Tarini Mohindar (partner at Cafe Zoe), who has been in the hospitality industry for six years, the only time she ever faced an issue was when she dealt with licensing, “It’s always a bit of a surprise for the BMC offices to see a woman running a business, I guess. But otherwise, I’ve never really faced any disrespect from the industry.”

Andrea Cheung (Head of Marketing, Aallia Hospitality), who has worked in the industry for a good 12 years now, says, “Of course I’ve been treated differently by my co-workers because of my gender! But is this limited to the hospitality sector? Absolutely not. On top of being a female, I am also an expat, which means that there have been a few times that this combination has led to a few tricky, icky situations. However, I do see a shift in the industry now. I love that Merriam-Webster dictionary’s word of the year for 2017 is ‘feminism’. It might take ages but we are headed in the right direction.”

So Does It All Come Down To The Survival Of The Fittest?

Each chef we spoke to attributed their success to perseverance, passion, curiosity and of course, talent. It isn’t the easiest path to trod but once you earn respect in your line of work from sheer skill; it gets a tad bit nicer. Anjali Pathak even sheds a bit of advice, “Don’t let your gender affect how you can grow and shape your future as a chef. Find a mentor that will offer advice and guidance. Never stop learning from colleagues and peers. If you allow your gender to be a deciding factor in how you are treated, it will inevitably inhibit your growth.”

Working in a professional kitchen takes patience, dedication and effort, from what we’ve gathered. Accepting criticism and learning the value of organisation is another gem Anjali Pathak threw in. Adapting to this transient environment of trends on trends, means there’s only more room for creativity—it’s then that one’s hard work and passion transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.

“There’s definitely been instances of sexual harassment in the industry but I have also enjoyed being the ‘unicorn’ of the place too. I’ve been treated with the extra portion of dessert or cool drinks from the bar, especially on a hot day,” reminisces Nuzha Ebrahim.

“A positive change of mindset in restaurants and hotels, especially within the top management, towards women in the workforce would help. Only once this happens can we then move forward with steps like awareness sessions against sexual harassment. Male employees need to be coached to understand what women need, to respect boundaries and get accustomed to female co-workers. Supervisors and managers need to be alert and conscious of any incidents or potential cases of harassment, while following a strict no tolerance policy towards them once investigated,” says Thomas. A true enforcer of the above, several people have spoken praises of the open kitchen Thomas runs—including Namrata who commended the implementation of the same here and at The Table.

In addition to the above, Namrata goes on to say that larger restaurants should consider incorporating some kind of recreational facility; more so for those that live far away and do break shifts. Considering the industry is known to be “anti-family”, having flexible shift hours for both men and women that allow them to contribute to a level they are able to, while managing their family time would be apt—but is understandably difficult.

Anjali also ensures her staff gets home safely and even allows female members of her team to leave early if they need to, stating, “Providing options for safe travel for women is important if we are to encourage more women to join the industry!” It doesn’t always fall down to the more physical aspects of it all either—being a part of the culinary industry, like many others, requires mental perseverance. The ability to stay motivated, curious, creative, disciplined and hardworking is a skill in its own. Tarini expresses how time management is an incredible skill to have, “Don’t get too stressed out, just focus on your vision, keep your wits about you and you will go far.”

In the end, it isn’t about preferential treatment towards women—it’s about proving yourself and earning respect without having to be denied opportunities because of your gender. It is about equality—a rule Andrea observes in her husband Kelvin Cheung’s kitchen, “Initially, in our restaurants we unfortunately saw discrimination within our team not just based on gender but also race and physical characteristics. We then had rules specifically set by Chef Kelvin, that ensures everyone works together and treated equally, regardless of gender. If you find yourself in an environment you don’t feel comfortable and supported in, speak up and speak loudly.”

As a child of a woman in the culinary industry; I can assure you—these women work just as hard as any other man out there. From giving up Christmas (often the busiest time of the year for the family bakery) for a couple of years, to spending all night baking brownies to keep up with mass orders she received, to us all accepting that a fine layer of flour was just a part of our house deco till the factory came up—it took her a few years but boy, did she make it. Not just as a popular local establishment in Goa, but as an independent, strong woman who encouraged more to join her on this mission. She hired several local women (both, in the bakery and factory), attended multiple meetings as the only woman in an all-male industrial society so she could be a voice for others, and unknowingly, inspired all of us back home to pull up our own damn socks with her newfound confidence; all while holding down the fort.

This new year marks 13 years of her working in the industry, through the highs and lows of it all—but she surfaced stronger each time, truly personifying Michelle Obama’s wise words from 2012, when she said, “There is no limit to what we, as women, can accomplish.”

All you need is the passion for it.

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