Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Making the Kitchen a Woman's Place

This piece first appeared on www.livemint.com on 8th March 2016. 
Consider the culinary scenario in India today. Opening value-for-money, concept restaurants is now the norm, not the exception. There’s a refreshing new focus on Indian food, and local sustainable eateries are gaining momentum. Pay scales in restaurants and hotels are also far better than they were even a decade ago. In short, there has never been a better time to be a chef in this country. Well, a male chef at least. 
That is still one major conundrum which plagues the hospitality industry in India: The huge gender disparity in the kitchen and, more importantly, how we treat the ones that do manage to be a part of these hallowed portals.
With just seven years of professional cooking experience, I’m pretty much a newbie in this line of work. I love being a chef and I thrive on the highs (and lows) of restaurant life. But this gender imbalance is the one thing I just cannot wrap my head around. 
The fact that we are pleasantly surprised every time we see a woman cook behind the pass is telling. With the exception of a few prominent chefs—Ritu DalmiaMadhu Krishnan to name two—women in restaurants and hotels are largely confined to front of the house. Which is surprising, especially in a cultural context that has always considered mothers and grandmothers to be “the best cooks in the world”. 
Why then is the female representation in this industry so low? Attempting to answer this is akin to figuring out why a nation of 1.25 billion people cannot come up with an 11-member team worthy of qualifying for the football World Cup.
The obvious crux of the problem lies within the kitchen itself. It’s a tough line of work and demands immense passion and dedication of anyone choosing this career path. It also means a substantial commitment of time and energy; and, consequently, de-prioritizing family life. The fact that sexism and sometimes, even misogyny, are still very much an intrinsic part of the restaurant culture only compounds the problem. Society has classified the restaurant kitchen to be a high-testosterone environment that encourages boisterous, abusive behaviour, where women “have no place”. Girls, therefore, are strongly discouraged even from applying to hotel management institutes.
Nevertheless, as in every male-dominated field (and, make no mistake, they are all male dominated) in India, thousands of women still do enter this industry with a passion to succeed and excel. As they mature, however, their environment pulls them down, family pressures takes their toll, and survival needs take over. This has a domino effect on younger aspirants, dampening their enthusiasm for the field, and giving their critics another handle. In short, the factors behind the woefully small presence of women in the professional kitchen are no different from the factors that keep them back in other challenging fields. 
It may be premature to be optimistic about something that’s so deeply ingrained in our society but I do think we are making a difference in our own way at The Bombay Canteen. We have nine women in our kitchen team, almost a third of our total strength and I’m unabashedly proud of the fact. Most of them are line cooks, while others are trainees from hotel management institutes. There are even a few from other fields of work testing waters in our kitchen with dreams of a career change. This would’ve seemed absurd say, 10 years ago, but today it’s possible. A good sign.
For women—and men—seeking a career in the kitchen, there’s also a new brigade of young female chefs and restaurateurs such as Pooja Dhingra, Gauri Devidayal, Naina de Bois-Juzan, Karishma Dalal, Anahita N Dhondy and Sanjana Patel who have carved a niche for themselves in India. We need more and more such women who fight the stereotype and emerge as role-models for young people considering this line of work.
I think the onus is also on industry leaders—chefs, restaurateurs, hoteliers and hotel management professors—to provide women a platform that will reinstate their faith in this career. 
For a good many years after its launch in 1994, the ITC chain of hotels had its West View restaurant brand run solely by women. They have since changed their women-only policy. Only two West View restaurants remain in the country, one in New Delhi and the other in Kolkata. When I called to enquire, I was informed that there were now only two or three women working in each of the outlets. 
While a fantastic initiative, I think such extreme steps could end up being counter-productive. What would be far more conducive to encouraging equality in the professional kitchen is a more equitable work environment. 
First and foremost, it is important for male cooks—who may never have worked with women before—to understand what women need, to respect boundaries and get accustomed to female co-workers. Being surrounded by men for 10-12 hours a day can be overwhelming and small gestures, such as respect for their personal space, can go a long way.
Policies regarding abuse, be it physical or verbal, need to be not only adopted but also strictly enforced. Superiors need to be approachable and accommodating, whenever possible, especially with regard to shift timings and travel arrangements (think going home alone at night through unsafe neighborhoods). It is equally imperative for women to know they don’t need to “man up” in the kitchen; but only to pull their weight to win their male colleagues’ respect. 
Empathy in a kitchen is a valuable trait. Nearly a year ago, not long after The Bombay Canteen opened, I noticed one of the woman cooks struggling to reach her station’s assigned shelf in the walk-in cooler. It may seem comical in hindsight, but shifting her mise-en-place to a lower shelf was a simple yet rather impactful step, one that I could very easily have missed.
A kitchen dominated by male cooks is boring and monochromatic. Women bring in a whole new dimension to the table. This is not to say that they cook better or worse than their male counterparts—just differently. That is definitely a welcome edge in an otherwise mundane setting.
Mint Lounge columnist Samar Halarnkar has argued long and convincingly about the need for men to start cooking at home. The other side of that argument is that more and more women need to enter the pro kitchen. 
As an Executive Chef, I do not go out there and scout for women cooks but if there’s an applicant with potential and the requisite experience, she deserves a place in our kitchen. We do not look to run a kitchen of women, just one where they feel equal. 
Thomas Zacharias’ inspiration to become a chef came both from his grandmother who gave him his first culinary lessons in Kerala, and his mother who constantly pushes him to do better. He now dons the clogs of Executive Chef at The Bombay Canteen, and looks forward to a world with many, many more women chefs.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Eating My Way through India

The travel bug is far deadlier than I had imagined. After my culinary jaunt through Europe in the summer of 2013 (read more here), I came back to India refreshed, recharged and brimming with energy. Soon after I settled back into my regular routine, I was itching to get back on the road, travelling and eating my way across the land. This time it would be in more familiar territory: India.
My learnings during the four months in Europe were immense and, in retrospect, indispensable in developing menus at the European kitchen I was running in Mumbai at the time. But, somehow, I suddenly felt disconnected with what I was doing. Here I was, so deeply in tune with the nuances of various Mediterranean cuisines, but so out of touch with the food of India, my homeland. Ironically, it had taken me four months of travelling through 36 towns and cities in Europe to realize how ignorant I was of our own country’s vast and varied cuisines. Armed with newfound vigor and an equal measure of guilt, I left my European kitchen and set out on a mission to explore as many regional Indian cuisines as I could.
By the time I set out on my India food trip, I had harnessed considerable culinary contacts across the country. That, coupled with the power of social media, helped me crowd-source not just suggestions and advice in each place I visited but also allowed me to connect with people who could give me deeper insight into local culture and cuisine.
In Coorg, I spent a few days with Nimmi Chengapa at her beautiful homestay called Elephant’s Corridor. Nimmi generously shared her knowledge on Kodava cuisine and taught me how to make dishes like paputtu (a super light, steamed rice and coconut cake) and kaad maange (wild mango curry), convincing me that there’s a lot more to Coorg than just pandi curry! 
During my travels in the northeast, a friend connected me with Naga chef Joel Basumatari, who runs a restaurant in Dimapur. Joel took me on a gastronomic expedition of his hometown, opening my eyes to dishes made with bamboo, smoked pork, multicolored corn, frogs and beef intestines, which I couldn’t possibly have experienced on my own.
In Tuticorin, near the southern tip of Tamil Nadu, I reconnected with a college friend, Anjana. After a fun evening exploring her family-owned saltpans, she introduced me to their ‘night clubs’: late night roadside stalls that serve kothu parotta, a spicy mash-up of flaky, fried parathas, eggs, onions and the previous night’s leftover chicken curry – perfect food for a drunken soul. 
Travelling in India was a little more difficult to execute compared to Europe. I couldn’t find any guidebooks that properly documented regional food in India, and getting from one place to another was either expensive or inconvenient. But what India lacked in accessibility, it more than made up for in sheer diversity. And in that regard, my food experiences during this trip were far more revelatory than the Euro-trip ever was.
I remember queuing up outside Jani Farsan in Surat before the break of dawn (try their famous Surti Locho, a kind of chaat I’d never tasted, made with a steamed mixture of chickpea paste and chutneys. I found out at a military hotel in Bengaluru that the Kannadigas make an excellent masala preparation of boti or goat tripe, which could very easily stand up against an Italian tripe stew.
And then there were the markets! In every place I visited, I was able to find amazing local ingredients that seldom make it to restaurant menus. Drumstick (moringa) leaves in Hyderabad, silkworms in Dimapur, peppercorn leaves in Guwahati, koorka or Chinese potato in Kerala, chhurpicheese and fermented soybean in Gangtok, aam ada(mango ginger) in Kolkata to name a few.
My food travels were by no means exhaustive but they were quite extensive. From deep down south around the backwaters of my home state of Kerala all the way up to the mountains of Himachal Pradesh and from the plains of Gujarat to the hills of the North East, I covered 15,000 kilometers.
However, it was rather upsetting to see that while home cooks from an older generation were very rooted to their own cuisines and took pride in them, local restaurants seldom did. It was sometimes easier to find western food in restaurants than local cuisine. This wasn’t the case during my travels in Europe. There, one could quite easily find seriously good local grub, both traditional and modernized with integrity. The chefs and restaurateurs in these places continuously explored the depths to which they could take their native cuisines.
I’d like to believe that such a reverence for one’s own food existed in India too. But somehow, over the years, we’ve forgotten or ignored it. India has such an abundance of culinary wealth both in terms of cuisines and ingredients that remains to be tapped. 
Our food is as diverse as our people and our regions. In Kerala, where I grew up, the cuisine changes dramatically from one part of the state to the other. The Arab-influencedmoplah cuisine in the northern part of the state contrasts starkly with the European-influenced Syrian Christian cuisine in the south. Coastal Kerala boasts an abundance of seafood dishes while in the interiors of the state, meats like beef, pork, duck and quail are more popular. 
Fate would soon bring me to work with chef Floyd Cardoz at The Bombay Canteen, a restaurant that celebrates the regional diversity of Indian cuisine. Our restaurant, coupled with several other outstanding eateries in the country, is now making wholehearted efforts towards a revival of Indian food. Perhaps, for a true appreciation of our cuisines, more of us need to take to the road and travel to the far corners of this incredible country to see and taste for ourselves.
When he’s not on the road in search of the best markets or the most popular local dives, Thomas Zacharias dons the clogs of Executive Chef at The Bombay Canteen.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

A Chef's Grand Culinary Journey through Europe

This post was first published on December 31st 2015 in Mint Lounge's online portal, http://www.livemint.com
Long before shows like Masterchef Australia had me salivating, it was Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations that stole my heart (I should probably say stomach). Here was a series that chronicled a 50-something chef’s culinary adventures across the globe. Every action-packed episode portrayed him meeting superbly informed local guides, making pit stops at the best eating joints in a city and indulging in one incredible meal after another. 
Green with envy, I too dreamt of travelling like him one day and, in the summer of 2013, I finally set out on my adventure. I started out with an ambitious plan: A four-month sabbatical, hoping to cover as many gastronomic regions across France, Italy and Spain as I possibly could. My reasoning behind such a food-focused trip was two-fold. One, of course, was the lure of having the best food experiences of my life. 
The second reason, though, was far less obvious. I had, by then, finished six years of a predominantly western culinary education, worked at a French restaurant in New York City and helmed the kitchen at a Mediterranean eatery in Mumbai, all without ever having stepped foot in Europe. So this was the culmination of many years of yearning to explore the countries whose cuisines I’d been cooking for close to a decade.
The plan was to travel to over three dozen towns and cities, visit local farmers’ markets and producers, experience the best of street food as well as high-end cuisine, drink my way through the finest wineries and perhaps even apprentice at a few restaurants. 
While a travel show like Bourdain’s definitely had a fixer, I, unfortunately didn’t have that luxury. I also wanted to stay away from group tours and not be restricted to eating and moving about in accordance with someone else’s schedule. 
However, finding great non-touristy food on my own at each destination was extremely difficult. I chose my meals through a combination of guidebooks, website reviews, social media crowdsourcing and suggestions from locals. The formula I used was simple. If at least three out of these four sources recommended a particular restaurant, it usually ended up being fantastic. I made it a point to strike up conversations wherever I went. Whether they were vendors at farmer’s markets or fellow diners at a restaurant, it was these encounters that often led me to the best experiences later.
My itinerary was always limited to a week ahead. I wanted to plan only far enough to find the right places to stay and eat, but remain flexible to last minute changes. Transportation was always by train or road, and stay was either in a hostel or through couchsurfing.
My trip was further enriched by a few well-connected friends and acquaintances. Sarah, a batch mate from culinary school who had prior work experience at wineries across the world, connected me to at least four different boutique winemakers in France and Italy. Heather, a pastry chef I’d met while working in NYC, helped arrange free accommodation in Rome as well as an apprenticeship at a modern Italian restaurant called Settembrini .
I had met Spanish chef Dani Lopez during his visit to Mumbai years ago, and he’d agreed to let me intern at his one star Michelin restaurant Kokotxa if and when I ever made it to San Sebastian. I jumped at this opportunity and spent a week training in his incredible kitchen, cooking food people travelled across the world to come eat.
When it was time for me to leave his city, Chef Lopez coaxed me into extending my stay so that he could take me to his favourite restaurant Casa Urola . It turned out to be perhaps one of the best meals of my life. Planning is essential but it is equally important to leave certain things to chance; you never know where it could lead you, and sometimes that’s a good thing.
In the end, I covered 36 different places and it was a truly magical experience. From sampling a syrupy, 100-year-old balsamic vinegar out of a barrel in Modena to munching on a tripe panini off a street cart in Tuscany; scarfing down escargot in Burgundy and slurping down an authentic bouillabaisse in Marseille; savouring jamón ibérico de bellota in Sevilla to going pintxo bar hopping in San Sebastian, I pretty much did it all by the end of this Bourdain-esque trip. 
Perhaps my biggest learning in those four months was the realization that it is not the price or extravagance that determines the quality of a meal. Cycling 50km to a tiny Spanish town called Albufera to find true Valencian paella was just as special an experience as the exquisite multicourse dinner I had at Osteria Francescana 
Somewhat midway through my travels, at an Indian dinner I cooked up for a couchsurfing host in Bologna, I met an Italian student named Giorgio, who insisted I alter my itinerary and visit him in Verona. A few weeks later, I found myself breaking bread with him and some friends around a bonfire in a small farmhouse on the outskirts of his city. We chatted at length about the journey and my passion to understand the regional diversity of European food. Each one of them embarrassedly admitted that I’d seen more of their home country than they ever had, and suddenly a sense of shame dawned on me. I realized how little I myself had travelled around India and how ignorant I was about regional Indian cuisines. Freshly bitten by the travel bug and overwhelmed by this newfangled guilt, I vowed to change that at the next opportunity I got. And soon enough, less than a year after my epic Euro trip, I quit my job and embarked on yet another food excursion—a two-month long part-research and part-passion project—across India this time.
But that’s a story I’ll save for another day.
When he’s not on the road in search of the best markets or the most popular local dives, Thomas Zacharias dons the clogs of Executive Chef at The Bombay Canteen.