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Countering the macho mindset of the kitchen

Women are at the helm of a number of kitchens, bars and restaurants but still face workplace sexism

Sexism is ingrained in the language of the kitchen, and spills over into bars too.
Sexism is ingrained in the language of the kitchen, and spills over into bars too. (iStockphoto.)

Mumbai restaurateur and chef Devika Manjrekar recently posted a story on her Instagram page, citing two instances of discrimination: One about a young chef who did not join their team because it was run by women; the other about a disgruntled diner who insisted on speaking to the “male” head chef. Manjrekar is the head chef of Toast Pasta Bar, which she owns. “Days like these really, really bum us out. So, good morning to everyone except these two sexists,” she wrote.

Experiences like these are not uncommon in restaurants and bars across India. These fast-paced, high-stress spaces have traditionally been led by men, where tempers run high and the smallest mistake can invoke a litany of cuss words. Kitchens are plagued by gender stereotypes: women can be excellent cooks but can’t do the heavy lifting to be a chef; women cannot handle a hot kitchen and are better off as pastry chefs; and women drink wine and cannot be good bartenders.

This was not Manjrekar’s first experience of sexism in the kitchen. In 2015, she returned to India full of enthusiasm with a culinary degree from London’s Le Cordon Bleu, but was disillusioned by the work culture. In 2016, she read an article in The Guardian featuring Indian-origin British chef Sabrina Gidda. “The next generation of chefs and restaurateurs aren’t people who left school at 15, worked as a commis chef in a three (Michelin) star until they’re broken and then perpetuate the same thing in their kitchens. It’s people who gave up degrees and business and other things to do what they really love,” Gidda had said. It inspired Manjrekar so much that she wrote to Gidda and got a job. It is there that she learnt to run a kitchen with empathy and celebrate her feminine side rather than toning it down. “You can look good and you can still do a killer dinner service.”

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Chef Anahita Dhondy, former chef-partner of Soda Bottle Openerwala, a chain of Parsi restaurants owned by the Olive Hospitality Group, recalls her early days as an intern in a professional kitchen. This was in the late aughts when she was 19 and a senior chef in his 40s would comment on her looks and make remarks about a hot kitchen ruining the skin. At first, she was scared, but when it happened again, she told him it was tantamount to sexual harassment and she would report him to the human resources department. These are just one of the many instances in her 14-year career as a chef. Dhondy is now 33, and believes the only way to put a stop to sexist behaviour is to call it out at the very first instance.

Sexism is ingrained in the language of the kitchen, and spills over into bars too. The term “female bartender”, for instance, irks Kimberly Pereira, the chief operating officer of the liquor brand Maya Pistola Agavepura. “It’s just bartender. Period,” says the 37-year-old.

Sexism is prevalent in the alco-bev industry, too, she explains, and both professionals and patrons reinforce gender stereotypes. She has observed that women brand ambassadors aren’t taken as seriously as men for whiskies or darker spirits, compared to wines or gins. “Women behind the bar are scrutinised for their appearance. This could take the form of lewd comments or unwelcome advances. All of this creates an unsafe working environment, making it challenging for women in the industry.”

Bartender Feruzan Bilimora, 29, who works with the homegrown alcohol company Third Eye Distillery, has freelanced in bars and nightclubs . She says women who could bartend were hired for freelance gigs to add “glamour” and if they could speak English, it was a bonus. “I tried hard to push against that perception. I wanted to be hired for my talent, and over time, I built my personal brand. That is something I encourage everyone in this industry to do.”

The culture of not accepting a woman in a leadership position shocked Thai chef Seefah Ketchaiyo, 40. She moved to India about 12 years ago as a 27-year-old sous chef for a five-star hotel. “I was working in China, and I didn’t have much of a problem there, but here, I had to fight a lot. Although I knew what I was doing, people reporting to me kept pointing out my mistakes. One of “my mistakes” was my English, which has a heavy Thai accent. I had the support of my head chef, and I gave myself one month. I told the team I am there to run the show and they need to listen to me. I had to keep repeating this till they got it and the tide turned.” Ketchaiyo worked there for a few years before going independent. Today, she and her husband Karan Bane run one of the most successful Thai restaurants in Mumbai, Seefah.

Even when one makes a name for oneself, the patriarchy can rear its head. Amninder Sandhu, 45, who runs Bawri in Goa and Mumbai, and Palaash by Tipaai near Nagpur, was a trainee chef in a hotel in Delhi in the early 2000s. The toxic work culture and sexism left her disillusioned, and she moved to Mumbai to work at Masala Bay at Taj Lands End. Over time, she has opened and managed successful restaurants and delivery kitchens in multiple cities, but says she still isn’t insulated from sexism. In 2019, she was invited by a five-star property in Delhi for a collaborative pop-up with eight chefs, and was the only woman. “They messed up my ingredients, gave me a corner in the kitchen to cook and rushed me, saying a celebrity male chef was coming and I needed to finish quickly.”

While restaurants helmed by women are on prestigious lists—Mumbai’s Ekaa with co-founder Niyati Rao ranked 98 on Asia’s 50 Best 2024—there’s still a long way to go. Sandhu notes that world over there are only 9% top ranked chefs who are women. And, not many women, especially younger ones, can call out sexist incidents on social media for fear of losing their job or future opportunities.

Manjrekar found her beat when she worked in Gidda’s team. Similarly, Sandhu found hope when she joined Masala Bay in Mumbai in 2005. The chef in charge, Jaspal Arora, she says, treated everyone equally. Change, therefore, has to come from the top. Bilimora says, “In a work environment, breaking the cycle of sexism always happens top down. It has a trickle-down effect.”

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