A burning desire to cook led Latha K. to start out on her own and she may well be the only woman Malayali chef, sweating it out with men in swanky kitchens, says Shilpa Nair Anand

Latha K. can well be the poster child or poster woman for the ‘can do' attitude. Her firm handshake exudes attitude, and that is the only thing that lets on that her tastes are different. Literally. Latha is a chef, a minority in Kerala, she probably is the first one.

Women cook at homes or run catering businesses but women chefs, at least in Kerala are few. Latha also finds it odd that there are no or very few women chefs in Kerala. “Cooking is something that women do all the time or at least most of the time. It is almost natural to then, but I don't find women chefs.” Latha is sous chef at Aiswarya Hotel.

Passion for cooking

She goes on to explain what led her to that conclusion. “When I cook, I know the exact quantity of ingredients required to make a particular dish, therefore there is hardly any question of wasting anything. And if, for instance, there are some leftover onions I will think of a way of using the onions and it will not be the waste bin.”

She learnt her cooking the only way it can be done, by cooking. No fancy qualifications or degrees, just what she learnt through hard work in the kitchen. Ironically that is one of her regrets, not going through a formal course. By the time Latha finished class 10, she was married off. And the only exposure that qualifies by way of culinary education is a six-month course at the Food and Craft Institute in Kozhikode.

Aided by Kudumbasree, Latha and some of her friends started a catering business in Kozhikode. After 10 years she realised that if she had to learn she would have to strike out on her own and move out. This thought led her to a hotel and its kitchen in Chennai. After a few months there she moved to Kerala. She started a restaurant, ‘Tashkent' in Kozhikode for a year-and-a-half and moved to Kochi two-and-a-half years ago. Of which two years she spent in Saj Resorts, Nedumbasserry as the seafood speciality chef. “Most of what I know today I learnt from there.” The list of people who have had the seafood that she has cooked reads like Kerala's who's who …featuring people like Mohanlal, Suresh Gopi, Shaji Kailas etc.

Another list that she reels off is one of what cuisines she cooks. Thai is prominent on the list. Desi thai? “No, no! I learnt to cook Thai food from Thai chefs who had come to Saj Resorts,” says Latha. The no-nonsense woman's face creases with a smile at the memory of rummaging through the bin, looking for the mysterious ‘khai'. “The Thai chefs wanted ‘khai', their Thai and my English were of no help. I took them to the store, opened every bottle and container and showed them. And they would keep shaking their heads and we couldn't find this ‘khai'. And finally in desperation I overturned the dustbin and began rummaging through the contents looking for ‘khai' and found them…eggs. Both sound the same to me, but now I can say I can make out the difference.” (‘Ghai' is Thai for chicken and the similar sounding ‘khai' for eggs). A burning desire (and there is no other word for it) to learn got her going to the Thai chef after her duty hours to learn how to cook Thai food.

Learning Thai was easy compared to learning how tribals in Wayanad cooked. She lived close to where these people lived to learn the nuances of their cooking.

Self taught

As the conversation veers towards the healthy techniques that the tribals adopt, she talks about a drink that tribals make out of pumpkin and honey. “They lop off the head of the pumpkin, fill it up with honey and fruits such as jackfruits and plantains etc and put the ‘lid' back, seal it, and bury it for around a month. At the end of that period if you open the pumpkin, the lid will be blown off literally. So they poke holes into the pumpking and collect the fermented drink…it gives you a real high!” The whole world is talking about slow cooking, but when this woman talks about it and the healthiness of it, the glossy la-di-dah sheen fades away and only common sense remains. “Everybody is in such a rush. They , turn the fire on full and cook-it-fast seems to be order of the day. When something is cooked slow it is tastier and healthier.”

She may not be formally trained in being a ‘chef', but she compensates by being extremely professional. She has put up a list of things that those entering the kitchen have to do before they start, and she will not compromise. And she says she checks. “I have a problem with slipshod work.” Hands on chef that she is and a perfectionist to boot, talk of perfectionism leading to garnishing and presentation. “The aim of cooking for a hotel is to make money by making people eat. And how does one do that? If something looks tempting people will eat, so why not make something look appetising? Garnishing therefore becomes important. Say it is fried fish; cabbage and carrot will not do, it will have to be onions, curry leaves etc.”

Latha talks of how chefs from fancy institutes have turned to her in times of crisis. “These people have told me that ‘although we may have the degrees to become chefs and executive chefs, it you who is the master chef'.” Fair enough because in a profession like Latha's, it is the food that does the talking not where the chef earned his cap.

A woman doing a man's job in a man's world, the gender dynamics of the situation? It hasn't been a problem for her, so far, she says. “I have worked under some great chefs, men of course! And they taught me a lot.” She is also grateful to a supportive family, most of all her husband and three daughters “without their support none of this would have been possible.”