Trial by fire: Women chefs and the challenges they face in kitchens
The restaurant kitchen remains a male bastion. A look at how women chefs deal with being told they can’t measure up, asked if they can handle a big knife or cut an onion.more lifestyle Updated: May 23, 2016 14:29 IST
Sometimes it’s an offer of help -- ‘let me take that, it’s too heavy for you’. At other times, it’s more overt -- instructions are met with a grim silence, audible whispers talk of ‘teaching her a lesson’.
It’s hard work fitting in if you’re a woman in a professional kitchen -- one of the last remaining male bastions in the white-collar world.
In Chennai, 23-year-old Komal Sunder Rajan was singled out on her first day of training at a five-star hotel kitchen and asked if she could cut an onion. “No one else was asked,” she remembers. “I just looked at the instructor and said, I can cut an onion.”
In Guwahati, entry-level chef Kavya Gupta* says she has endured open hostility ever since she began her career eight months ago. “The men tell me I talk too much. They say I won’t be able to perform at their level,” says the 26-year-old. “I‘m not allowed to work on main courses. If I offer an idea, it is met with silence.”
Gupta says that the discrimination has left her disheartened, but determined to continue. “It’s been my dream to be a professional chef, so I won’t quit, but I have been depressed, frustrated and angered by the treatment I have received -- for no other reason than because I’m a woman in a professional kitchen full of men who don’t like that.”
Sexism in the kitchen is alive and kicking and it comes down to two factors – the physically strenuous nature of the work, and how male-dominated the industry is, says Vir Sanghvi, food writer and editorial adviser to the Hindustan Times. “These two factors make it a very ‘macho’ environment,” he adds. “In the metro cities, chefs tend to be well-educated and this can make things slightly easier. But there’s a long way to go before the situation equalises, and that will only happen over time as more women enter professional kitchens.”
‘I’ve been asked, “Can you cut an onion?” On the other hand, I’ve been told to roast a chicken, though I’m not at that level yet, just to try and intimidate me,’ says Chennai chef Komal Sunder Rajan. (AR Sumanth Kumar/HT Photo)
What makes the identity of the woman in the kitchen so interesting, especially in India, is how bipolar it is, adds Smriti Godbole, a Bangalore-based sociologist who is working on a PhD thesis on indigenous foods of the Konkan region. “In the home, the woman was traditionally told her place was the kitchen. The professional kitchen, however, was never associated with femininity or women’s work, but with making money, ” she says. “It then became a male zone, and still remains one -- in many cases.”
For a long time, Godbole adds, women who wanted to cook outside the home navigated this by writing cookbooks or being ‘home chefs’, catering for special events or supplying packed lunches.
“When I started out in 1975, we didn’t have a single woman working full-time in our kitchen,” says Rahul Akerkar, the chef and restauranteur behind the Indigo chain of restaurants. “That has changed now, for a couple of reasons. One, professional cooking has emerged as a legitimate and ‘honourable’ profession, whereas earlier it was just seen as hard labour. Second, the role of women culturally has changed, so they’re not hesitating as much to venture into traditionally male arenas.”
It also helps that there are now mentors and role models to light their way. In Mumbai, Pooja Dhingra has launched Le 15, a successful patisserie chain. In Delhi, Megha Shah is head chef at Lavaash by Saby, a one-of-its-kind Armenian restaurant. In Chennai, Aloka Gupta runs The Bayleaf, one of the city’s most iconic restaurants. In Bangalore, Tori Macdonald is the head chef at The Humming Bird cafe and bar, one of the city’s most popular music venues.
Macdonald is one of those who found the constant offers of help from her team of 12 men discriminatory and oppressive. “I was forced to enact rules to curb this problem,” she says. “Now, nobody is allowed to help me unless I ask them.”
THE NEWBIE: ‘I’M HOPING TO HAVE BETTER LUCK ABROAD’
‘People in the kitchen call us ma’am, but the men are called chef,’ Devika Manjrekar says. ’Any opinion we offer is dismissed, or met with an awkward silence -- as if I?shouldn’t have spoken at all.’ (Aalok Soni/HT Photo)
“Cooking is what I love more than anything else,” says Devika Manjrekar, 22. “So as soon as I had graduated, I got my culinary degree in the UK.”
Manjrekar then moved back home to Mumbai and, three months ago, was hired as an entry-level chef at a newly opened café in Colaba. She is one of only two women on the team of 12, and she’s now looking to move on to kitchens abroad, frustrated with what she found in Mumbai.
“People in the kitchen call us ma’am, but the men are called chef,” Manjrekar says. “Any opinion we offeris dismissed, or met with an awkward silence -- as if I shouldn’t have spoken at all. It’s clearly a culture thing. It’s not overt hostility, but it’s the constant strain of knowing you are unwelcome in this space and having to scurry around andwork harder just to get the same amount of validation.”
Manjrekar adds that she doesn’t feel she can talk to anyone in the kitchen, even about things other than work. “It’s got to the point where I start every day with the thought that I just need to get through it.”
She now plans to head out to work in kitchens abroad. “I’m hoping to find a better kitchen culture,” she says.
THE YOUNG BOSS: ‘I HAD TO DEMAND TO BE HEARD’
At 23, Delhi-born Anahita Dhondy took up her first job in a professional kitchen. Armed with a grand diplome from Le Cordon Bleu, London, she joined as chef manager, a title which put her at the top of the kitchen’s pecking order. It was also a title that would become one of her biggest challenges over the next three years.
“Being young and a woman acted doubly against me,” says Dhondy. “I was seen as flippant, someone who would leave the kitchen in a few years when I wanted to ‘start a family’. The immediate perception was — this girl has been hired because she looks good and can chat with the guests.”
Dhondy’s team at SodaBottleOpenerWalla — an Irani café-themedrestaurant chain based in Delhi — consisted of 13 men, ranging from interns to fellow chefs.
“I was in charge of men with ten and fifteen years of experience. They would not take me seriously,” she says. “If I suggested flavour inputs for dishes, for instance, they were never implemented.”
Dhondy says it took three months of uphill work before she was taken seriously.
“I had to learn how to compete in a kitchen full of men,” she says. “That meant making a change to the way I acted. It wasn’t enough to just be the boss; I had toexplain my expertise to them. I had to be clear that though I lacked the hands-on experience that they had, I more than made up for it with my technical and creative expertise.I had to be forceful about my inputs, repeating myself and standing firm. I had todemand to be heard in a way that others didn’t have to.”
Dhondy says she didn’t verbalise these concerns to her seniors. “I felt it was important to handle it myself,” she says. “But yes, the professional kitchen is a very sexist place in two ways — it’s hard for women to enter, and once they do they have to work doubly hard to prove their mettle.”
Restauranteur AD Singh, owner of the SBOW brand, says it is harder for women chefs in India. “They have to work much more to stand out. We get very few female applicants. Anahita is articulate, attractive and Parsi, with many amazing stories of her own and of her family to tell. Of course, she is also a very talented chef, who last year was one of two employees who made it to the Asia finals of an international competition for young chefs.”
Dhondy is still the only full-time woman employee in her kitchen, which is among Delhi’s most popular. “We had a girl in the Mumbai branch, but she’s quit,” Dhondy says. “I want to be impartial in how I hire chefs, but at the same time I want to encourage other women, so it’s a balancing act. Things are changing, but very slowly.”
THE SUPPORTIVE ENVIRONMENT: A DIFFERENT KITCHEN CULTURE
“I’ve been doing this for four years and I’ve loved every minute of it,” says Shradda Tayade, 26, a chef at The Bombay Canteen, a modern-Indian cuisine restaurant in Mumbai.
Tayade started out under a female head chef, where she says she received the kind of mentoring she needed. “I was included in every stage of the cooking process. It was very educational. I was never underestimated as I have heard other women chefs tend to be.”
A year ago, Tayade moved to her current workplace, where she is one of five female chefs on a team of 18, an unusually high ratio.
“Here, the owner and the head chef are male,” Tayade says. “But everyone only cares about the work.”
Co-owner Sameer Seth says it wasn’t difficult to create a gender-neutral environment in his kitchen.
“This was my first foray into the restaurant business, so I had no conception of the professional kitchen being a stereotypically male area,” says the former banker. “I think the second that our team realised that keeping it about the work was going to help us work better, everyone got on board. We never had any incidents of men and women being treated differently because right from the start and down the line -- from the management down to the guys washing the sinks -- it was made clear that Bombay Canteen is a group effort and negativity will not be stood for.”
SINGLE, WHITE, FEMALE
Before moving here in 2014 to be closer to her Indian boyfriend, Canadian chef Tori Macdonald had worked almost exclusively with female head chefs. “That isn’t the norm abroad, but I guess I got lucky,” she says.
Macdonald, 30, now works at The Humming Tree, a music venue and bar in Bangalore. She is head chef, and the only woman in a kitchen of 16 men, which has led to some unique problems.
“Sometimes the guys I work with have really low expectations of me,” she says, laughing. “So if I am making a bacon whisky chocolate tart, they would insist on cutting up the bacon for me rather than have me handle such a large knife.”
The language barrier was a problem too. “I had some difficulty integrating into the kitchen culture because of both being a woman and not being able to speak any Hindi, Kannada or Telegu,” she says.
In the two years since, Macdonald has learnt some basic words in the local language -- and enforced a strict rule in the kitchen. “Nobody is allowed to help me unless I ask,” she says.
It’s true that there are fewer women in kitchens than men, but it’s hard to say why, says restaurant manager Anuj Mehta. “I have worked with some very talented female chefs, but 80% of chefs are still men,” he adds. “I think we need to encourage women more. Tori is a strong woman who can handle these pressures.”
PICKED ON, IGNORED
Kavya Gupta*, 26, has been an entry-level at an Indian restaurant in Guwahati for six months.
“But the trauma of working in a kitchen full of men has been too much to handle,” she says. “I am still working here because it’s my passion, but it’s changed me as a person. I’ve started feeling like there’s something wrong with me. The men say I’m too talkative, that I would have to be taught a lesson. I’m made to work extra hours, stay back to clean dishes after everyone has left. I don’t talk less or work less, because I’m stubborn. I think, why should I let these men cow me down?”
Trying to talk to a senior about her problems only made the team more hostile.
“The kitchen has a very strong hierarchy, and if you breach it you get punished. Kitchen culture is very toxic,” she says. “The stress of all this impacted me very badly in the beginning. I was sleeping less and lashing out at friends and family. Now I’m calmer. I know I can take whatever they throw at me and I won’t stop working.”
She has a new mission too, she adds. “Two months ago another young woman joined. I have been mentoring her because I don’t want her to have the same bad experience.”
(* Name changed on request)
Watch: Women chefs from Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai discuss their experiences