This Women’s Day, we ask (and answer): Where are our women chefs?
Thirty-five years ago, when restaurateur AD Singh was working as a software engineer, he and his friends would often joke about making the big shift to the hospitality industry. They thought they would meet some “nice girls” in the line. To them, it seemed like an obvious choice of profession for women, as it offered them a chance at becoming professional chefs. “But I was so surprised to find that it was dominated by men,” says Singh, who believes that the culinary world in India is still ruled by male chefs. “Things have changed in a limited way, but the male-female ratio is still terribly skewed,” he says. Singh estimates that out of the total number of chefs in India, 80-90% are men.
Mars vs Venus
According to a few women chefs, the general notion is that since cooking in a “hot kitchen”, and always being on your feet, can be physically strenuous, the job is better suited for men. The language used inside a kitchen, too, tends to get crass due to the high-pressure environment. The space is largely considered incompatible for women, as they don’t have the same built as men to carry, for example, a 20kg sack of flour.
According to Kshama Prabhu, executive chef of The Bar Stock Exchange, that may be the reason why most women choose to work in the dessert and patisserie departments. “While giving my interview for admission to the Merit Swiss Asian School of Hotel Management, Ooty (Tamil Nadu), I told the interviewers that I wanted to work in the hot kitchen, and they asked me, ‘Why?’” says Prabhu, who went on to work in Dubai (UAE), Australia and at Chef Gordon Ramsay’s now-closed restaurant - Boxwood Café - in London (UK). Prabhu was trained to deal with the hot kitchen. But she admits that it can be tricky with no proper training.
Take the example of Rhea Barucha, a 23-year-old baker who works with The Sassy Spoon, Nariman Point, as a pastry chef. She is the only female member of the culinary team at the eatery. “It’s not that a woman can’t work in the hot kitchen. But I wasn’t trained. I once interned at an eatery, and I fainted because of the heat,” says Barucha.
The bigger picture
UK-born chef Anjali Pathak (34), who opened a cooking studio called Flavour Diaries in Khar (W) almost a year ago, travelled extensively around India in the 2000s. She worked for a few months in places like Kashmir, Rajasthan, Goa and West Bengal. Everywhere she went, she found that the kitchens were full of male chefs. “But then the industry is male-dominated across the board, and not just in India,” says Pathak, who has also worked as a teacher at British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s cooking studio in London. However, she feels that it’s the struggle to choose between a career and having a family that forces women to take a step back. Women are not provided with flexible enough timings to balance both those fields.
Anahita Dhondy, the 25-year-old head chef at Soda Bottle Opener Wala, agrees. In India, women are confined to being homemakers, she says. Even though the scenario is changing now, being a chef is still “scary” . “When I was at the Institute of Hotel Management in Aurangabad (Maharashtra) in 2008, there were 50 boys and only 10 girls who opted for the culinary course,” she says. But when she attended Le Cordon Bleu, London, there were an equal amount of male and female students. “In the UK, kitchens are designed in ways that are better suited for women, and both genders are given equal responsibilities. In India, people say, ‘Let’s not ask a girl to do this work’,” says Dhondy.
Pathak also points out that the cuisine a female chef is involved in may have a part to play in her career. “Indian cuisine is male-dominated. Italian cuisine is open to women, while French kitchens have more male chefs,” she says. Interestingly, an incident in Japan supports Pathak’s theory. In 2015, a woman named Yuki Chizui opened an all-women sushi restaurant in Tokyo to challenge ‘sushi sexism’, as sushi making is considered a male territory in the country.
Set the record straight
Nonetheless, gradually, an increasing number of women are joining the field. They are starting out young, and despite facing difficulties, they continue to work.
Celebrity chef and restaurateur Ritu Dalmia did it in 1993, at the age of 22. She opened her first restaurant in Delhi, called MezzaLuna, though it was, by no means, a frightening experience for her. “I was lucky in my career,” stresses Dalmia. “But I was also my own boss. Though there were some chefs who had serious problems [taking orders from a female chef].”
Dalmia was convinced about what she wanted out of her life. Her restaurants were her “babies”. “The profession is anti-family. So, it becomes difficult to juggle a home and a restaurant. Sacrifices have to be made. I often joke that if you don’t have a life, you should join the hospitality business,” she adds.
But if flexible working hours can be arranged, maintaining a family and professional life may be possible, albeit difficult. For instance, Singh has a female chef, who joined one of his Olive Bar & Kitchen outlets in her twenties. Later, she dropped out to take care of her two children, only to return later to work as a part-time chef.
Prabhu was bolder while dealing with the career-family conundrum. After working for several years abroad, she began working for The Tasting Room in Lower Parel. While she was there, the chef continued working even when she was eight-months pregnant. “I was going to give up [in India]. When I started here, I got cold shoulders. But, you have to hold your own. I believe a woman can handle much more than men,” says Prabhu, adding that one needs to have a certain attitude to succeed in the kitchen.
Essentially, Pathak says, it’s more about the skill than the gender. “It’s quite wrong to have a woman-only kitchen as well. Then, it’s sexist towards men,” she says.