Four chefs, incidentally all women, talk about being in the profession

They have been sought out and scooped together every now and then — they make stories of success. Chefs, women at that, tease curiosity. Clichés tag along their identities — women who have stormed into the male bastion, women who have made mincemeat of gruelling work hours, women who have made a mark in an arena that tests limits.

Kitchen, carved out as a natural space at home, was a stranger to them at mighty five-stars till few decades ago. Chefs, who are women, may still not be an easy spot, yet a growing number. When we brought together four chefs from four leading five-star hotels in New Delhi, they surely were not surprised. Their gender in a decidedly masculine space has always invited interest. However for them, after years of experience, the point has almost ceased to matter.

“When I am in a meeting, it is only when I look around that I realise I am the only woman in the whole group,” says Manisha Bhasin, senior executive chef at The Maurya. A profession they chose, as it was a passion they carried all along or they discovered, they remain wedded to it as the passion never ceased.

The number of corporate chefs in the country can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Nita Nagaraj is one. The corporate chef, Jaypee Hotels, however, had an interesting entry into the world of knives and grills. About 30 years old in the profession, Nita says cooking was never her dream. She joined the hotel management course as she says, “There was nothing better to do at that point in time.” Nita stresses on “that point in time”, as time told a different story — of a lot of success. “As a corporate chef, when it comes to food production, the buck stops with you.”

But Nita still remembers the first few months in the job. “I hated it in the first month and was ready to quit, may be because the actual action hadn't started.”

Veena Arora, senior Thai consultant at Spice Route, Pan Asian restaurant at The Imperial, ventured into five-star kitchens a little late. Born and brought up in Thailand, with no formal training in the field, Veena found her niche with Spice Route. She has nurtured the restaurant and its staff since it started. At 55, she admits, “it is not an easy job.” But it is her love of the space that puts thoughts of retirement on the backburner.

Veena handpicked the 10 boys who worked with her at the restaurant. “Spice Route is my baby. I took these boys from small restaurants, told them this space is yours and make sure it runs. Over the past 13 years, none of them have quit and joined another hotel in India,” she says with pride, adding those who have left have gone abroad to earn much more. “They treat me like their mother.”

Nazneen Nikhat may be fairly young with about five years in the job. The sous chef in-charge of the bakery at Sheraton says she was always set to the idea of baking for a career. “I always had the inclination to cook and bake.” Creativity brings alive a pastry for Nazneen. “You have small kids coming with ideas for their cake and you try to do that extra thing. When you see them happy, your day is fulfilled.”

But Nazneen admits the job demands one to be tough. With eight people working under her — incidentally all men — she says the key is to be “assertive” and “strong”. For Manisha, being in a top post, is about a fine balance between “being aggressive and being assertive”. “Aggression is not very acceptable. A man can get away with aggression,” she adds.

Nazneen believes it is “the survival of the best” at work. Nita adds, “The woman has to work twice as hard. You have to mean business, you are here because you enjoy the profession.” Once you put on the uniform, Veena says, “You have to be one among them.”

Manisha, having spent 22 years with the ITC Welcom group, is certain she doesn't want undue stress on the gender part in her professional identity. She asserts attention should be paid on “the efficient part, the assertive part.” Manisha adds with exasperation, “The minute you are labelled as a woman chef it underplays everything else, your achievements. There was a time may be 10 years ago when there were not many women here. Today, there are women everywhere.” According to her, she would rather be in a category where she is judged on individual skill and merit. “I have proved myself.”

However, with these chefs in charge of large and small groups, their roles are beginning to grow beyond the kitchen. With about 150 people working with her, Manisha says her moment of challenge came during the “transition from number two” to her current position. “Here, you are taking responsibility not only of their work, but their well-being. You are being a mentor. You also have to create a healthy work atmosphere.”

Nita says it is the team spirit in the kitchen which is the key to success. As the corporate chef she might miss being confined to the kitchen, but the spirit which she wants her team to have remains the same. “They have to enjoy what there are doing, otherwise it won't last.”