On International Women’s Day, MetroPlus meets a few women in the city who are behind some of the sensational stuff we eat
Shruti Nayar took the long route to the culinary world. She first graduated in philosophy and literature, completed a degree in law, worked at a children’s workshop, spent three years in the advertising industry, freelanced as an assistant film director and then decided to explore food for she loved it as much as films. That took her to Ireland’s Ballymaloe Cookery School, and later to Paris’s Le Cordon Bleu to specialise in pastries. For over a year now, Shruti has been research and development chef at artisan bakery and cafe, French Toast.
It was in Ireland that Shruti discovered her penchant for pastries. Ballymaloe is run on a 100 acre organic farm by renowned chef Rachel Allen and her family, who train students in world cuisines, ranging from Ethiopian to Vietnamese. “In the three-month intensive course, we learnt both cuisine and pastry, worked on the farm, baked bread daily, fed chicken, milked cows and harvested herbs,” she laughs. “I soon learnt that I was better at baking than anything else.” After a few months whipping up plated desserts at Indigo restaurant in Mumbai, Shruti took off to Paris. “Pastries are considered to have originated in France. And pastries from other countries invariably use many French techniques. So our study put together both theory and practicals in pastry-making,” she adds. While her training at Ireland focussed on the taste and texture of baking, Paris emphasised on perfection and presentation.
The two have come together in Shruti’s role at French Toast where she develops new products—both desserts for their Kathrikadavu outlet and a la carte pieces for their Panampilly Nagar outlet edition. Eight of her key creations centre around the different breads the restaurant bakes. For instance, brioche bread is served with fresh strawberry sauce and pouring cream, while cinnamon and walnut French toast goes with apple sauce. “With everything we create, we try and keep the ingredients local so that they can be sourced regularly without depending on imports.”
Shruti’s first love for pastries remains with her innovating fresh dishes such as the Devil’s Food cake (a moist chocolate cake with dark chocolate and mousse frosting) and her latest for Christmas—Lady Santa-red velvet cake with dark chocolate ganache and white chocolate mousse. “It takes almost a month for a new product to release. I start experimenting with ideas, something eventually comes through and then it takes two or three weeks for it to be polished and finalised.”
Besides this, Shruti is also involved with training French Toast’s staff, and keeping a check on quality.
The culinary industry invariably comes with long hours and tough schedules, and women are seen few and far between. “In bigger cities, they’re rare in central kitchens but are seen quite often at restaurants. In Kochi, women chefs are still perceived as novelty,” says Shruti. But she’s quick to add that she savours the experience: “This isn’t a routine job where I’m perfecting only specific skills each day. I love the freedom that this job gives me to create.”
A chef’s job is as creatively challenging as it is physically demanding, says Osk Omarsdottir, executive chef at Cocoa Tree. Just as it involves long hours and peak-hour stress, one has to constantly rustle up innovative ideas, she says. “You know, sometimes, I experience the culinary version of writers’ block.”
Osk, who is from Iceland, spends the tourist season here in Kerala and the summers back in her country. Her third season in Kochi, Osk says though hospitality is generally considered a male-dominated industry in India, her experience as a chef has always been encouraging. “I find that people here show me more respect. Of course, I am strong, but those working under me have shown no hesitation in taking orders. I dont know if it is because I am white, but I have enjoyed working as a chef here,” she says.
Specialising in continental and Kerala cuisine, Osk developed a special liking for Kerala on her previous travels to the State. She decided to settle down here to help out a friend from Iceland who set up her hotel in Fort Kochi. Soon, an opportunity at Cocoa Tree came up. Ten years into the profession, she says she has learnt the ways of the kitchen.
“One needs to stand up for oneself. Being assertive is extremely important in this line of work.” She has never been to a culinary school. “I did my bachelors in psychology. But cooking was and is a passion. I used to cook at home and gradually learnt it on the job,” she says.
Though Iceland has comparatively more women in the industry, Osk finds that they move out of restaurants sooner to cater to specialised sectors such as schools and kindergartens. “Essentially, it is a man’s job, as the work begins in the evening. For women with children, it could be a challenge to handle such working hours. In India, the barriers between men’s jobs and women’s jobs are coming down, but women still marry young and household responsibilities may come in the way of professional commitments.”
After 25 years in the kitchens of various restaurants in Kerala, Chef Latha says acknowledgement is tough to come by in Kerala. here. Chef Latha, with two partners, is part of a restaurant consultancy, Vaiga. For the last year-and-a-half she has been working at Mamma Mia in Kakkanad. Her consultancy designs menus and trains kitchen staff for restaurants. Of her 25 years cooking in restaurants, She has worked in the city for the last 18 years.
“I have visited several properties abroad, I have been surprised by the way I am treated which is quite unlike from how it is here. There is no parity of wages either. For a long time, I was paid much lower than what my male colleagues were given.” The work is hard, the hours are long but what deters young women from donning the chef’s hat is the treatment. Latha’s daughter wanted to follow in her mother’s footsteps but her friends warned her against it, “I told her there is nothing like that.”
She debunks the theory that men make better cooks or rather chefs. Women, according to her, are naturally wired to use common sense in the kitchen.
“Cost effective and we try not to waste things.” Curry leaves are preserved more carefully, if half a tomato can be saved women do it, left-over onions are used, utensils are checked for cleanliness over and over “as we would if we have to feed our families.” She attributes her culinary skills to her genes, her paternal and maternal grandmothers. “They were both exceptional cooks, my paternal grandmother especially.” Her ambition was to cook when she grew up like the cooks who prepared the food at functions. The ambition took her to the Food and Craft Institute at Kozhikode, her hometown, for a six-month course.
She remembers the initial days when her job description included washing utensils and cleaning the kitchen.
“That was alright but the unfair treatment I couldn’t stomach. There was a time in kitchens when the dictum was ‘chef is right’. Pachadi was garnished with coriander despite my telling the chef, who was a Tamilian, that it should be seasoned with curry leaves and red chillies. And when it looked like flak was on its way, the dish became my sole responsibility.”
The way to the top has been difficult and has demanded sacrifices, but she rues the fact that very few women opt for this as their profession.
The hospitality industry draws women in large numbers more for the front office kind of position, rarely to the kitchen.
SHILPA NAIR ANAND