Admissions unreserved: The rise of women in professional kitchens

In a world that was once biased towards men, women have donned the chef’s hat with a flourish and added to India’s growing repertoire of leading restaurants. The rise has only just begun.

Anahita Dhondy, perhaps known best for her pioneering role in bringing Parsi food to national limelight with SodaBottleOpenerWala, distinctly remembers the gender ratio in her graduation course. When she pursued a culinary graduation course at the Institute of Hotel Management, Aurangabad, there were 40 men in her class — and 10 women.

“Soon after, when I joined Le Cordon Bleu in London over a decade ago, I saw a dramatic shift — our 15-people classroom had eight women and seven men. The change was happening, and I could see it,” says Dhondy.

Still, when she took up the reins of SodaBottleOpenerWala, the team she was given to work with had plenty of conflicts with her. “Among other factors, they were never used to working with a woman in the kitchen,” she adds.

Today, Dhondy is one of the leading women in the Indian culinary landscape, headlining an act that is seeing an increasing number of women wearing the captain’s armband in professional kitchens. The journey has already been long and arduous — according to a Mint report, in the early 2000s, women had a hand-counted number of roles in the Indian culinary industry. As of around 2019, an estimated 15 percent of chefs in India were women — per this report.

“We have to come to a point where we treat women as equals in the kitchen, and not as mere tokens to showcase diversity. It calls for a massive change in the mindset of people both inside and outside the kitchen, because this has been a male-dominated field for years,” says Radhika Khandelwal, chef and owner of Radish Hospitality, the holding company behind New Delhi’s Fig & Maple.

Khandelwal says that this mindset shift is an all-important one, for biases in the professional kitchens remain even today. “Vendors would want to speak to a man, and guests and sometimes even my own staff would refer to me as ‘ma’am’, instead of ‘chef’. This is something that has been internalised by them. A professional kitchen, and especially a hot kitchen, is seen as a tough space which is conventionally synonymous with masculinity,” she adds.

What compounds this factor even further is the fact that outside the professional realm, stereotypes have forever linked the home kitchen with women. Naturally, one wonders why the participation of women in the professional kitchen has not been proportionate. The Covid-19 pandemic has since blurred the lines to an extent — according to an annual report on trends in the food and beverages industry for 2021 by restaurant tech platform Dineout, the number of home chefs offering near-professional food delivery services in India was expected to rise 4x.

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Last year, an Economic Times report detailed the rise of platforms aggregating home chefs in various cities. One such platform, Food Cloud, stated that some of the more successful home chefs on their portal were earning over Rs 2 lakh every month — underlining the blurring of lines in the culinary professional space. Many of them have since also partnered with leading hotels across India, hosting festivals of niche cuisines — and in turn getting an experience of the professional kitchens.

Chefs, on this note, state that more women are definitely showing interest in pursuing a professional culinary career than before. As Vanshika Bhatia, founder of The Petite Pie Shop says, “Every day I get an influx of questions and comments on my social media by young people who are entering the industry, or are new in the industry — and I’m very happy to see that a lot of them are women. Yes, there are many women entering the industry — and I hope a lot more do.”

This, Dhondy says, has been happening consistently over the past few years. However, she also believes that a lot depends on the chefs themselves. “For instance, in my early days with SodaBottleOpenerWala, despite being the head chef, I started reaching the kitchen earlier — in time with the rest of my team. We would do the prep and early morning breakfasts as well together, which really helped me form a bond with my team. In a way, this also helped me earn their respect,” she adds.

Bhatia concurs, saying, “Comparisons of the gender further the already existing divide. It all depends on skills, experience and a willingness to learn and grow. Gender shouldn’t have a place in the kitchen — a chef is a chef, and everyone is equal. It should not matter if a woman or a man made the pie.”

Manisha Bhasin, corporate executive chef at ITC Hotels and an industry veteran, says that while there weren’t many women at the executive chef stature back when she began her career, she never felt like an outsider. “Yes, there were some who probably wondered if I would actually stick around for long. But, to be honest, I was never made to feel that I was from another gender, or that I was not equal. Personally, I did not feel biases on the undertone, due to my gender — even 20 or 30 years ago,” she says.

“I’ve often felt that women have this innate ability to multitask. They’re alert, they have this eye for detail and can pivot through tough situations. That is why, the first thing I tell any woman who joins my team is to know that they’re superior,” Khandelwal adds.

All of these leading women of the Indian kitchens have been institutions in their own right. Bhasin, for instance, is one of the biggest names among all Indian chefs in the country right now. Dhondy, on the other hand, is on the verge of opening her own restaurant in Delhi in the coming months. Each of them is contributing to the growth of women among professional chefs in India, establishing a gender parity in a field that still has some distance to traverse in this regard.

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