When it comes to professional chefs, most people assume it is the men who know their onions. Women were great cookbook writers but when it came to wielding the ladle, men were thought to rule the roast. Well, the menu’s changed now.
Yes, the professional kitchen is a ruthless and tough place to excel in. But that didn’t put off Amrita Mukherjee who donned the chef’s hat instead of the lawyer’s robes her family wanted her to. Today, at 26, Mukherjee is a junior sous chef at The Park hotel in Delhi, heads a team of 15-odd people and is way ahead of her batchmates — the girls who quit and the boys who are still struggling.
“Not only are people abusive and try to pull you down, there’s also plenty of loose talk if you happen to be a woman. My other two female batchmates quit early on, since they couldn’t take it,” the feisty Mukherjee said.
Gourmet’s no party
Cooking gourmet food standing for long hours over industrial size burners is no Sunday school picnic. “Things like handling all those huge handis all by myself was tough. People would help me out, but only after they realised that I was good at my job,” says senior chef de partie Shaifali Kishore at Taj Westend, Bangalore.
The ambitious girl from Agra says she had never thought of becoming a chef. Today, she’s one of the handful of women specialising in Oriental cuisine.
“The job of a chef is no longer behind the scenes; it’s now a glorified profession. Mindsets are also changing, though women still have to work harder than the men. Earlier women would only take up housekeeping or front office, but not so anymore,” said Manisha Bhasin (in picture), executive chef at the Sheraton hotel in New Delhi.
Nita Nagaraj, corporate chef at the Jaypee group, added: “A chef’s job is more interactive now. There are open kitchens and live counters. The whole experience is so amazing.”
Nagaraj and Bhasin belong to a generation where being a chef was the last of career options. “Eighteen years ago, the scene was completely different. Now, women chefs are being encouraged at international forums like the Zurich-based World Association of Chefs’ Society,” said Bhasin.
Magaret Thatcher’s dictum that what a man can do a woman can do better seems to influence many employers in the hospitality business today.
“Women are preferred since they tend to be more loyal to the company. While many of them do quit because of family pressures, ultimately, it’s merit that counts,” says Rajindera Kumar, vice-president, Federation of Hotel and Restaurant Association of India.
Balancing many courses
For these multi-tasking women, the trick is to balance a demanding job with home. “After cooking all day, when you get home you are still expected to cook. That’s where family support really counts,” said Mukherjee, who got married a year ago.
“You have to be a good daughter, a wife and a mother, and unless you are mentally strong and passionate enough, it’s tough,” said Ashwini More, a chef at Taj Lands End, Mumbai.
There are other professional hazards too. “You can’t wear studded jewellery and make-up is a complete no-no,” said Kishore. Mukherjee added, jokingly, “After all, the laws were also made by men themselves!”
But none of that stopped Chef Eng Lee whose love affair with pastries began as a child. Her experiments with all things sweet propelled her to the post of pastry chef at the Grand Hyatt in Mumbai. She looks after all operations of the pastry kitchen of this large 547-room hotel with seven
Of the women who wield a mean ladle, ITC Maratha’s Executive Chef, Madhu Krishnan with 18 years’ experience figures among the top. Interestingly, she has no formal catering training. She spent two years at various ITC kitchens, getting hands-on experience.
As the junior sous chef, she had several people, some senior to her by decades, working under her. “You can’t boss around such people with so much experience and skill. My advice to young chefs is lead by example. Don’t teach these people what they already know, don’t call all the shots and don’t think of yourself as being in the driver’s seat. Value them, engage them and give everyone their place in the sun...I walk into the kitchen not as a woman but as a chef,” she said.
It may be difficult to prove yourself in a man’s world but chef Shefali Shah, sous pastry chef at ITC, said a feminine approach can be an advantage. “We can develop an emotional connect with our staff and empathise better,” she said.