16 min read.Updated: 08 Dec 2018, 12:15 PM ISTDiya Kohli
Garima Arora is the first Indian woman to win a Michelin star, signalling how a new generation of Indian female chefs has fought the biases of male-dominated professional kitchens to create a new order
In 14 November, 32-year-old Garima Arora’s Bangkok restaurant Gaa was awarded a Michelin star, making her the first Indian woman to win the honour. While the Michelin star is a global standard of culinary excellence, in this instance, the honour represents something bigger—a transcending of gender and race barriers.
On 20 November, chef Amninder Sandhu was introduced as the sole Indian contestant on the newest international cooking show on Netflix, The Final Table. The show brings together 24 chefs from around the world to compete in a global cooking competition judged by nine of the biggest culinary stars, including Vineet Bhatia from India, Yoshihiro Narisawa from Japan and Grant Achatz from the US, all of whom run Michelin-starred restaurants. Sandhu, who runs Arth, India’s only gas-free fine-dining restaurant, was also awarded the National Tourism Award for Best Lady Chef in India in 2015-16.
These are big achievements in their own right. But more importantly, these women are an inspiration for female chefs at home and across the world.
Food and female empowerment have shared a complicated relationship since the emergence of second-wave feminism, never quite managing to overcome the oppression of the domestic kitchen or the male-dominated world of professional restaurants. Indian society’s age-old paradigm of a woman’s domestic role and a man’s bread-winning responsibilities has perpetuated this divide. Women are already underrepresented across sectors in this country. According to a June article on women’s decline in the Indian labour force published in Mint, women account for only 25% of the total workforce. The gender disparity in the F&B industry is a micro reflection of a much larger problem. While there are no official statistics, as per the patterns in individual restaurants, women account for 10-15% of all professional chefs in India today.
This, however, is an improvement on the early 2000s when cooking was largely considered a blue-collar job. It was an unheard of profession for girls from “respectable" families and the few women that existed were all in the five-star space. Back then, a handful of pioneering women like Ritu Dalmia of Diva, Veena Arora of The Imperial, Manisha Bhasin, executive chef at ITC Maurya, and Nita Nagaraj of Jaypee Vasant Continental broke gender stereotypes to enter a space where they had no professional precedents.
By the time Garima Arora started her culinary career in 2008, the tide had somewhat turned. The Indian restaurant business had expanded in the two decades since liberalization. Stand-alone fine-dining formats paved the way for a new creative approach to food. Icons of Indian cooking like Tarla Dalal, the doyen of Indian vegetarian cooking; Balbir Singh, the woman behind the best-selling cookbook Mrs. Balbir Singh’s Indian Cookery; and TV show host and food writer Madhur Jaffrey, were joined by a new sisterhood of female food bloggers. Among them were women like Sailaja “Sailu" Gudivada of Sailu’s Food, who introduced local home-cooked Andhra recipes to a wider audience, Lounge columnist Nandita Iyer, who put a creative spin on Indian ingredients and healthy eating through her blog Saffrontrail, and Sandeepa Mukherjee Datta, who gave Indian women in the US quick fixes to recreate dishes from back home through her blog Bong Mom’s Cookbook. In 2009, MasterChef Australia appeared on Indian television and ceviches and croquembouche towers entered our living rooms. The show’s unexpected popularity suddenly transformed cooking into a glamorous option .
But these were not the things that made Arora consider the career of a chef. She confesses that growing up, she would only enter the kitchen when her father was cooking dinner for the family. As someone who was in the event management business, he travelled extensively and the meals he made represented a diverse range of international cuisines. This was her first introduction to a wider world of food. And still, cooking was not Arora’s first choice in college. Instead, she opted to study mass media at Mumbai’s Jai Hind College and even embarked on a career as a journalist with The Indian Express. And then, at the age of 22, she realized that food was her true calling. She quit her job and joined Le Cordon Bleu Paris armed with little more than enthusiasm and grit. After graduating, she climbed her way up from commis chef at Gordon Ramsay’s now shuttered Verre at the Hilton Dubai Creek to chef de partie at Rene Redzepi’s award-winning neo-Nordic restaurant Noma in Copenhagen. In 2015, she moved to Bangkok to work as a sous chef under Gaggan Anand and after a year, decided to strike out on her own to open Gaa in 2017. Anand, who has worked and travelled extensively with Arora, saw her potential early on. “Garima is a very hard working chef who has a good hold of how she sees food and the way she creates it out of local ingredients. She does not shy away from taking responsibilities and has great leadership qualities," says Anand. For him, it is a combination of her knowledge and a new approach to food that made him invest in Gaa (he has a 20% stake in the restaurant). Gaa’s cuisine-agnostic and ingredient-focused approach pushes the creative boundaries of food in the Thai capital. It comes as little surprise that the restaurant earned its first Michelin star within 15 months of opening. This made her the second Indian after Gaggan Anand to helm a Michelin- starred restaurant in Bangkok, and among a handful of Indian chefs anywhere in the world.
From ‘bawarchis’ to Michelin stars
When Ritu Dalmia started her first Italian restaurant MezzaLuna in Delhi’s Hauz Khas village in 1991, there were less than five female chefs in the country. “I was 21 and I started MezzaLuna with an all-male crew and for the first few days they wouldn’t even make eye contact with me," she says. She explains that in the 1990s, there was no concept of a “chef" and cooking in a professional kitchen was considered a menial and dirty job. “In the early days, one of my customers called me to his table and offered me a job cooking in his house where he would offer me boarding, clothes and a salary of ₹ 25,000 a month. For him I was no more than a bawarchi," says Dalmia. Although MezzaLuna was a failure, Dalmia jokes that it taught her more and cost far less than a degree from a business school or a French culinary academy. These lessons held her in good stead when she opened Diva in Delhi’s GK-II Market in 2000, a restaurant that introduced a new fine-dining concept to the Indian market. Today, Dalmia operates restaurants and catering businesses across Delhi, Goa and Milan and has plans to expand further in both India and Europe.
Arora’s career trajectory has been more conventional in that she has worked her way up the ranks. In the last 10 years, she has worked in some of the most creative and high-octane professional kitchens in the world. As the newest icon for women chefs, Arora minces no words when explaining what it requires. “When you are young, you just work and there is no life outside of it and that is the sacrifice you make," says Arora, whose early days as an intern and junior chef stretched across 16-18-hour workdays doing mundane repetitive jobs across different sections. “It is also training to survive in this high-pressure environment. You just need to love what you do," she says. And it is perhaps this love that has led Arora from one success to the next.
Arth is a sprawling restaurant by Mumbai standards with plush velvet couches and gold accents on the wall. In this setting, it is an oddly heartwarming sight to see the restaurant’s petite executive chef, Amninder Sandhu, standing on a stool to reach the high marble counter. On it are placed her sil battas, in which she hand-grinds her spice mixes, and sigrees (braziers). There is barely any high-end gadgetry in sight in her kitchen and the whole place is infused with an earthy smell of coal and woodsmoke. Sandhu’s story is one filled with highs and lows. Her career transitioned from a young science student who spent long hours in laboratories to a culinary school trainee who spent even longer hours learning how to flip a roomali roti right. It was a long and difficult journey through five-star kitchens where she started as a junior sous chef to finally helming the kitchen at Arth, an Indian restaurant with outposts in Mumbai and Pune that focuses on reviving heritage recipes. Her restaurant uses traditional cooking methods like a sand pit and sigrees powered by charcoal and wood and showcases ingredients from across the country. Sandhu’s recent experience at The Final Table saw her partner up with chef Monique Fiso from New Zealand, who has a similar cooking philosophy, reviving traditional Maori cuisine and cooking techniques. They were the only all-woman team in the competition and impressed the judges with their creative collaborations. Sandhu joined other chefs from around the world as a culinary ambassador, each presenting their own food, history and culture on a global stage.
Despite their successes, Dalmia, Arora and Sandhu agree that a kitchen is a difficult place for women. It is physically demanding, with high temperatures, space constrains, requiring long hours on the feet as well as a sacrifice of personal time. Historically hot kitchens have been dominated by men and this has bred an inherent sexism and gender bias towards women who are later entrants in the profession. Many of Dalmia’s head chefs and top management are all women and yet, even in her kitchens, the numbers are skewed with a 30:70 ratio of women to men. “This is still a big win and a far cry from the early days when no women were interested in working with me because of family pressures," she says. When she hired the first two girls on her team, she would get calls from their parents in the middle of dinner service, demanding they be sent home. And eventually they got so frustrated that they left.
As chefs in positions of leadership, they believe the focus should be on talent rather than a gender bias towards women or men. “I don’t believe in labelling as a man, woman, lesbian or gay person. Hiring should be based on talent and equal to all," says Dalmia. In an article published in Lounge in March 2016, Thomas Zacharias, executive chef and partner at Bombay Canteen, placed the onus on industry leaders to pave the way for positive change in restaurant kitchens without creating a gender bias. He put it succinctly, “We do not look to run a kitchen of women, just one where they feel equal."
Riyaaz Amlani, CEO, Impresario and former president of the National Restaurant Association of India (NRAI), says that despite the changing approach to professional cooking, the number of women in the F&B industry has not increased exponentially in the last 25 years and he believes the problem stems at the career planning stage itself. The profession of a chef still remains far less attractive than more conventional jobs with public holidays and 40-hour work weeks. “For the women who do enter the F&B world, hot kitchens are avoided in favour of a front-of-house role or pastry. More women should want to take up jobs in the hot kitchen, as wait staff and at the bar," he says. And this, he believes, will come through awareness generated through career counselling and equal opportunities afforded to both genders. Amlani and many other restaurateurs across the country claim to have instituted systems and processes to make their kitchens and restaurants a safe space for female employees. Late night drops, adequate maternity leave and strict guidelines against sexual harassment in the workplace are all moves in this direction.
Although an egalitarian work ethic might be on the agenda of many fine-dining establishments, there are instances of discrimination and harassment that continue to emerge, indicating the distance that still must be covered.
In October, one of the stories during India’s #MeToo storm was the sexual harassment faced by a young female member of the kitchen staff at Sly Granny, a restaurant and community space in Bengaluru’s swish Indiranagar neighbourhood. The woman, who chose to remain anonymous, shared her letter with Sandhya Menon, one of the journalists who spearheaded the movement. In the letter she recounted the various instances of abuse and how it gradually wore her down physically and emotionally, causing her to resign at the end of three months. Her letter was posted by Menon on Twitter on 13 October and the management was held accountable for ignoring the events that had transpired. In the wake of the campaign, Sly Granny issued a statement promising immediate action for any unethical conduct at work. Although this is a victory of sorts, it is also true that the trauma remains a part of this young woman’s experience of the restaurant business. And it is one that holds true till date in India and abroad.
Yet it is also a fact that a lot has changed in the last three decades. Dalmia talks about a time when kitchens outside five-star hotels didn’t even have toilets and changing rooms for women, because traditionally you wouldn’t find women there. “Today’s kitchens, while still being limited in space, have enough room for men and women to work together," says Dalmia. “Yes, it is also sexist and while things have become better, we still have a long way to go," she says. As a woman helming the business, safety is top priority. “There is a fear of god instilled in everyone that no one can f*** around with my female team," says Dalmia.
Sandhu carries the bullying of her early days as a trainee as a lesson for her own kitchens. “My training could have been an enriching experience. And we did learn a lot but not in a nice way as people were unnecessarily mean and insecure," says Sandhu. “You are constantly told that you will not make it and that you are not cut out for it. And in order to make up, you work doubly hard," she says. A direct result of that is that her kitchen is a gender-positive space—it is always open to aspiring female cooks and trainees who want to learn more.
Arora says she has been lucky to work with very professional and understanding chefs but she is also aware that there is a fair bit of sexism in the industry. However, she believes the roots of the issue lie elsewhere. “We need to make sure that we have enough young women join the kitchen, but also that they stay in that profession 10 years later. And I think this is one of the biggest questions—are we turning our kitchens into spaces where women are comfortable enough to be themselves?" She feels it is more important to find a solution to this before creating a surface diversity and ensuring that half your kitchen staff is female.
The new brigade: mutton ‘dhansak’ to macarons
A new generation of female chefs are treating these challenges like just another day’s work. Take the case of Megha Kohli, 28, who joined the industry when she was just 17 years old. There was little that had prepared her for the rigours of standing on her feet for 16 hours a day and peeling 30-40kg of onions. She was lucky to find a mentor early on in her career in the form of Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, whom she met at Olive Beach in New Delhi. She worked with him on different projects till she was finally given charge of Lavaash By Saby, a speciality Armenian restaurant in Delhi’s Mehrauli area. However, luck had little to do with her appointment as executive chef. “In my case, the male chefs wouldn’t take me seriously till the time I stayed back till closing time at 1am everyday. I had to prove that I knew how to cook well," she says. Taking orders from a female chef is still unusual and she recounts that whenever she would correct her staff on some dish, they would respond with, “Why don’t you fix it and show us". Today she has unlimited creative freedom to create the food and environment that she wants at her restaurant.
Twenty-eight-year-old Anahita Dhondy, chef-partner at SodaBottleOpenerWalla, Gurugram is often pictured in her chef whites with a flower in her hair and a bouquet of vegetables in her hand. She is also the woman who has taken the Parsi mutton dhansak and akuri to a pan-India audience. Charting her own course in this industry, her references were male chefs and her mother who ran a Parsi catering business. Determined to make it, she made her way through culinary school, hours of training at five-star properties till she finally found the right mentors in the form of A.D. Singh, managing director of Olive Group, and chef Sabyasachi Gorai who was head chef at Olive Bar & Kitchen in Mehrauli, Delhi, at the time. They had been discussing a new kind of casual dining chain modelled on Mumbai’s old Irani cafés. And Dhondy took up the challenge, helming the first SodaBottleOpenerWalla in 2013. Its success continues five years later and the brand has now expanded to nine restaurants across the country. Today, Dhondy visits hotel management schools, explaining her food philosophy and inspiring young people to join the industry. “I think the conversation now needs to move beyond male, female or any other labels towards a new identity for Indian food and all that it takes to be a good chef irrespective of gender, age or class," she says.
Interestingly, while there is an evident gender skew in hot kitchens, the evolution of dessert menus in the country has been spearheaded by female chefs-turned-entrepreneurs. In 2004, chef Kainaz Messman set up Theobroma, a stand-alone patisserie and chocolaterie in Mumbai, giving the city a choice beyond pastry shops in five-star hotels and Irani bakeries. It introduced Mumbai to raspberry mousse and decadent brownies in half a dozen variations. For many, Theobroma, which has 30 outlets in Mumbai and Delhi NCR today, still remains a trusted choice for fresh bakes, though Messman says the trust was hard won. “We had to beg customers to try our carrot cake; they would cringe at the suggestion of vegetables in cake. It was at Theobroma that many of our guests tasted frangipani or tiramisu for the first time," she says.
In 2010, then 23-year-old Pooja Dhingra (see page 18), introduced the city to a new French dessert—macarons. These colourful meringue-filled confections were instantly popular but unlike other faddish food trends, it is here to stay. In the early days of setting up Le15 Patisserie, however, Dhingra had several run-ins with the inconvenience of being young and female in the restaurant business. “Everyone wanted to know where my father was, or where my husband was, when I would go to sign on a new property or meet suppliers," she says. Messman also remembers being disregarded for her gender on several occasions, both as a young trainee and later as a businesswoman. “At OCLD (Oberoi Centre for Learning and Development), I was the only female chef in training alongside 17 men. One chef predicted that I would get burnt a few times, worry about no man wanting to marry me because of that, and leave the profession. I do have a few burn scars," says Messman, “And I wear them with pride."
Kitchens breaking the gender barrier
Lounge picks six unique restaurants helmed by women that have opened in the last five years