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Women’s Day special: 5 female chefs who are making the world go Indian

Meet the ladies whose unique spin on desi khana is making the world sit up and take notice from London to Bangkok and Nashville!

brunch Updated: Mar 03, 2019 12:55 IST
Romy Gill with additional reporting by Lubna Salim and Sarah Mirza
Romy Gill with additional reporting by Lubna Salim and Sarah Mirza
Hindustan Times
Women’s Day special,Indian,female Indian chefs
Only 32 years old, Garima is the first female Indian chef to win a Michelin, an honour she had aimed for from almost the moment she graduated from the famous Le Cordon Bleu cookery school in France(Rohit Chawla )

“I’m hearing more and more stories of female Indian chefs all over the world who are making their mark on the hospitality industry. It’s a fairly new development, though: we come from a culture where it’s perfectly normal for women to be in charge in the kitchen at home, but the concept of men answering to a female boss in a professional kitchen has to overturn centuries of cultural norms.

There are many challenges. For instance, I had to overcome two huge ones when opening my restaurant, Romy’s Kitchen, in Thornbury, just outside Bristol, England. The first: finances. A huge number of banks turned down my request for a loan. Finally, though, NatWest came to my rescue.

And the second? How could I create a great business while still being a great mum? That’s become easier to manage over time, but the early days were tough.

Now, with a book deal, TV appearances and an MBE – and two very proud children – it’s been well worth the stress, the lack of sleep and the upset over the years. Here, five other female Indian chefs share their stories, showing that anything is possible with hard work and persistence.”

Garima Arora
Gaa, Bangkok
The first Indian woman chef to win a Michelin star thinks gender plays no role in being a good chef

Garima whips up dishes like (from top) grilled corn, chilled mango pumpkin soup, potato mochi with pickled chive and mustard flowers and ‘Khap moo’ dipped in Balinese chocolate and floral herbs at Gaa

For Garima Arora, choosing a favourite spice is like figuring out a favourite kid. Fortunately, the Mumbai-born Michelin award-winning chef doesn’t have to play favourites: the menus at her Bangkok-based restaurant, Gaa, play on both her Indian upbringing and her international experience, meaning she can have it all.

Only 32 years old, Garima is the first female Indian chef to win a Michelin, an honour she had aimed for from almost the moment she graduated from the famous Le Cordon Bleu cookery school in France. “I started my career in Bangkok because Michelin does not include India among the places that it gives awards,” she says. “So it’s a good feeling to be recognised; for an Indian to get a Michelin.”

“I started my career in Bangkok ‘coz Michelin does not include India among the places that it gives awards!” —Garima Arora

Plenty of Indian chefs abroad now boast a Michelin or two, but till Garima received the award in November 2018, none were women.

“Cooking professionally is physically demanding; the hours are really hard,” she says. “I guess that’s what makes it a difficult profession for women. And so far, the professional cooking scene has been built to suit a certain kind of lifestyle, but I think that is changing.”

Food for thought

You see more women in professional kitchens now, and that has a lot to do with the choices women are allowing themselves to make, muses Garima.

“Man or woman, you need to do the same amount of work if you open a professional kitchen,” says the chef. “Any prejudices that might exist in the culinary world belong only to the prejudiced, not to me. Everybody wants you to fit in a certain kind of mould, but I am who I am, man or woman I don’t care.”

Garima’s approach to cooking is based on the Neo-Nordic philosophy that compels one to think intellectually about food. “It helps you justify why you cook the way you are cooking,” she explains. “Cooking has become the art of the 21st century. It is what people invest in, what they crave. It has an anthropological and even emotional aspect to it, which makes you realise there is more to this profession than simply cooking.”

Family values

The chef’s interest in cooking was inspired by her foodie family, particularly her father. After graduating from Le Cordon Bleu, Garima worked with acclaimed Danish Michelin star chef, René Redzepi, who became her mentor. “I’ve always looked up to him for his advice,” she shares.

Though she lives away from her family, she is never homesick because the people she works with are also her family. “I’m really lucky,” says Garima. “At Gaa, we are a group of 30 people from 17 countries. It can be difficult to be away from your husband and family, but the people closest to me sometimes know me better than my husband does.”

Another such ‘family’ member is Asia’s most popular chef, Gaggan Anand, whose restaurant is just a street away from Gaa. “I think we are very cordial neighbours,” grins Garima. “I worked with him once, but he is an extremely busy man and you’d be surprised how little we see of each other. However, when it comes to our kitchens, they are here, borrowing stuff from us, and we are there, borrowing from them!”

—Sarah Mirza

Maneet Chauhan
Chauhan Ale & Masala House, Tánsuo, The Mockingbird and Chaatable, Nashville, Tennessee
Fighting for a visa, this go-getter became a permanent judge on Chopped and Wedding Cake Championship to build her fame

Maneet serves up (from top) steak and brussels , Chauhan burger and wok-blistered Shishito peppers

Maneet was born into a Sikh family in Ranchi, Eastern India, where she grew up in a community made up of incredibly diverse cultures and equally diverse food traditions. From a young age, she gained insight into regional cuisines by visiting her neighbours and quizzing them about how they cooked their family meals.

To new beginnings

She began her culinary education in India, before moving to the US to study at The Culinary Institute of America. But her life in the States wasn’t all positive: after witnessing first-hand just how bad the US representation of Indian food could be, she decided she needed to make a difference.

“My one bit of advice would be to not be afraid. Once you face the situation, you come up with the most amazing solutions...” —Maneet Chauhan

Her first challenge? Finding sponsorship for a visa to stay and work in the US. In the end, she took a role with her aunt and uncle who were opening a new restaurant, before moving on to Chicago and applying for a job at Vermilion. Her relationship with Food Network began in 2009. She’s a permanent judge on Chopped, and also a judge on Wedding Cake Championship.

Morph Hospitality, Maneet’s venture in partnership with her husband, now owns three restaurants in Nashville, Tansuo, Chauhan Ale & Masala House, and The Mockingbird, and has set up an Indian street food eatery, called Chaatable.

Maneet has appeared in media across the globe, and has also co-authored a cookbook: Flavors Of My World.

—Romy Gill

Asma Khan
Darjeeling Express, London
Not a fan of British food, she returned home to master family recipes, only to become Britain’s most talked about chef today

Asma Khan offers a feel-at-home experience with anda curry, a creamy coconut curry, murgh rezala and chilli prawns and at Darjeeling Express

Former supper club host Asma moved to London in 1991 after getting married, having met her lecturer husband in India where she was working as a journalist in Kolkata. Unable to cook, and not a fan of British food, she returned home in 1993 to master family recipes, before starting a pop-up restaurant in her own home.

HT Brunch columnist Vir Sanghvi showered praise on Asma in his column Rude Food recently

Taking the plunge

Opening a restaurant was never Asma’s intention: she didn’t want to go into a business partnership or plunge into debt to be able to pay for premises, and for the costs involved in fitting it out. But then a regular diner at her supper club told her of a property in the heart of Soho that required no non-refundable lump sum to be paid by the tenant – a rarity in central London.

“I am hoping my story may change the mindset of more South Asian women who feel a professional kitchen is not a place for them” —Asma Khan

She applied for the property, and was successful after a very competitive bidding process. Her restaurant, Darjeeling Express, opened its doors in June 2016.

Since then, Asma – whose restaurant features an all-female kitchen brigade, serving up authentic royal Mughal recipes – has gone from strength to strength. Her first cookbook, Asma’s Indian Kitchen, is out now, and she will also be the first British chef to appear on Chef’s Table on Netflix next spring.

—Romy Gill

Ravinder Bhogal
Jikoni, London
Winning Gordon Ramsay’s The F Word led this family cook to master the restaurant business

Ravinder Bhogal whips up exotic dishes like (clockwise from top right) Congee with Scallops & Sichuan Oil, Spatchcock Lemongrass & chilli Chicken, Mussel Rice & Sweet Corn Soup and Dashi Braised Broccoli with Roasted Sesame Sauce

Born into a large extended family in Kenya, peace and quiet was something that Ravinder did not know as a child – especially at meal times, where there were always at least 15 mouths to feed. As one of the four daughters, she was always roped in to help in the kitchen – reluctantly at first, but her love of cooking grew over time. And when she moved to the UK aged just seven, food became a way to fill the void of the friends, relatives and memories she had left behind.

“I don’t believe in secrets in the kitchen.... The kitchen is a place for generosity of spirit” -Ravinder Bhogal

Her career in food, though, was not intentional. After completing an English degree and becoming a journalist, a colleague encouraged her to enter a cookery contest on Gordon Ramsay’s The F Word – and to her surprise, she won. This was the big turning point, leading to more TV appearances, a book, and a second turning point when she co-hosted a TV show with food critic Jay Rayner, who encouraged her to learn the restaurant trade.

Her true calling

Stages, pop-ups and private catering gigs followed, and after two years of searching for the perfect location, she opened her restaurant, Jikoni.

This, says Ravinder, is her biggest success to date: it’s challenged her to learn finance, manage a team, develop her skills as a chef and run busy services – all a baptism by fire. At times it did – and still does – feel difficult, but she has learned to dust herself off and keep going. Self-critical by nature, she tries hard not to focus on failures, regrets and mistakes, but to learn from them.

Every day is an education, and it’s given her a deep respect for those in the hospitality industry – as well as a way to provide a service for her local community and beyond, and to meet some of her biggest food heroes.

—Romy Gill

Dipna Anand
Brilliant Restaurant, London
The Punjabi food expert with a Kenyan twist feels privileged to inspire others to take up cooking as a profession

Dipna’s most loved dishes include (clockwise from top right) fried squid tempura to snack on, jalebi cheesecake, strawberry dessert and Dip sea-bass

She has written a cookbook, is a familiar face on television courtesy her show Dip in Kitchen, bagged an award, runs a cookery school, has been praised by former UK Prime Minister David Cameron – and she’s all of 35!

“The old belief that professional kitchens are for men only is dead now!” -Dipna Anand

I was raised to believe that a woman didn’t belong in the kitchen, that the cook’s role should be split,” says chef Dipna Anand, whose restaurants – Brilliant in Southall and Dip in Brilliant in London’s tony Chelsea neighbourhood – are where many award-winning dishes are stirred.

Dipna’s grandparents moved from Gujrawala to Nairobi, Kenya, where her parents were born. “The food we serve is Punjabi, and some dishes are with a Kenyan/Indian twist,” she adds.

A woman’s place

Dipna grew up in a household where both her parents cooked. “My father is a chef and at home he also helps mum with the cooking, or gives her any help she may need,” she says. “The responsibility for everyday cooking should be shared.”

The old belief that professional kitchens are for men only, because it is a strenuous and stressful job, is dead now, she says. “I’m an example here,” she explains. “I go into at least two different kitchens across London city every single week, doing pop-up events for up to 500 guests at one time. I cook in bulk in bratt pans, using my long mixing ladles and building my muscles just as well as a male chef.”

It can be challenging to lift 40 kilos of chopped onions, she grins, but then she asks for a little assistance.

“I like to think I can do my role just as well as a male chef can, if not better,” she says. “It’s about having the right can-do attitude and confidence in the kitchen.”

Yes, teacher

Ironic as it may sound, Dipna’s father, a chef, has been her role model and mentor. “While growing up and helping mum and dad in the restaurant business, I’d always aspire to be like dad,” says Dipna.

In the professional realm, she looks up to Gordon Ramsay, who she watched on TV. When Ramsay visited her restaurant, she found herself teaching him about Indian food.

“I got to train him on how to cook our recipes and use the clay oven. He was with us for a good 12 hours,” says Dipna.

Watching Ramsay take up challenging tasks and trying till he succeeded in Dipna’s own restaurant kitchen was a true inspiration, she says. And she knows that she herself is an inspiring figure for Indian women who are beginning to see cooking as a career option.

“It’s very inspiring for me to know I am inspiring others to pursue careers in the cooking profession,” says Dipna. I love it when I am able to pass on my skills and knowledge to others.”

—Lubna Salim

Join in the conversation using #SmellsLikeIndian

Romy Gill is a British-Indian chef and owner at Romy’s Kitchen. She was appointed an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) in the Queen’s 90th birthday honours list in 2016. She has written food columns for various publications and regularly appears on various cookery shows.

From HT Brunch, March 3, 2019

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First Published: Mar 02, 2019 19:25 IST