The Theobroma Story – Book Excerpt

A woman’s place is in the kitchen

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As a woman in the restaurant industry, I’ve become used to solving challenges. Food and beverage has been a male-dominated industry both in India and the world over. At the top, at the bottom and at every tier in between. Women are in the minority for many reasons. The jobs are physically demanding, the hours are unsociable and role models are few. The world outside this immediate circle is also disproportionately male (think government agents, landlords, suppliers). As a woman, the biases you encounter can be demoralizing, but in my case, I was doubly determined to fight it.

I think that’s largely because I was raised to believe I could do whatever I set my mind to, and I have the best female role models. Tina and I are immensely fortunate to have been born into the home of our parents. As Mum put us to bed every night, she told us to study and work hard. Every single night, she would remind us that we had to be independent and able to stand on our own two feet. She instilled in us the importance of integrity and endurance. Mum certainly led by example – I have seen her get up at 5 a.m. to make sandwiches or work late into the night making desserts so that they could be properly chilled.

Most girls grow up with a father fixation – their first superhero is dad. I unashamedly acknowledge that my knight in shining armour, my hero and idol, is Mum. While growing up, I wanted to look just like her, elegant and stylish. She’s 70 years old today, and without any surgery or procedures, she still looks fabulous. If Tina and I look as good as she does at her age, we will consider ourselves extremely lucky.

Over the years, I’ve strived to emulate Mum’s strength, honesty and kindness. It seems I’ve also inherited her fiery passion and unpredictable temper. Mum is a fighter – our employee Sarosh told us about an incident when Mum was guarding one of our outlets: we were being mobbed by residents who did not want an eating establishment in their building. Instead of asking him to take charge of the situation, Mum stood up to the protestors. He called her ‘Jhansi ki Rani’, comparing her to the warrior queen.

Mom is a tigress when it comes to her cubs. She will never think twice before protecting us in any way. I am told that Mum saw Tina pull the tail of a horse when she was young, and pushed Tina away, only to be kicked by the horse herself. She still remembers the kick very vividly, and says it was the most painful thing she has ever had to endure. Mum has never forgiven Dad for first shouting at her for being behind the horse and then helping her up. Mum is loving and firm, and now that I am grown-up, I want to be just like her. I love being a mother and am enjoying parenthood. I want to raise my daughter much like I was brought up, not only focusing on academic achievement, but also teaching her strength, empathy and resilience. I want to be a good daughter for Mum and make her proud of the person I have become.

On my first day at IHM Mumbai, a bunch of male seniors sneered at me after I told them I wanted to be a chef, saying, ‘The kitchen is no place for a woman.’ I was told that after peeling one hundred kilos of potatoes daily during the six months of industrial training, I would want to quit or join housekeeping instead. ‘We will see,’ I politely said, when what I really wanted to do was to punch them in the face. Much to the chagrin of my college seniors, I absolutely loved the kitchen. I loved the atmosphere, the energy, the screaming and shouting, and the 18-hour days. I loved the teamwork, the solidarity and the adrenaline rush of a busy shift. I took the 100 kg sacks of onions and potatoes and long days in the butchery in my stride. I loved it all, I was going to be a chef and nothing was going to stop me. I returned to IHM and told those same seniors that I still wanted to be a chef. I was determined to become a better chef than them and I continued to work towards this goal. I did not hang around the college endlessly; I attended class and then went home and practised what I had been taught. I worked very hard.

At OCLD, I lived with 18 boys because the three other girls that joined with me all quit within the first few weeks or months. We had daily competitions, everything was about who could chop onions the fastest, clean the kitchen the best, make the most flavourful bone broth. We had tests every few days and we fought for every quarter mark in our race to ace every test or quiz. Everyone wanted to excel, be better than everyone else and get to the top. Early on in my career, a chef at Oberoi in Kolkata told me that there was no point in training me because I would get burnt a few times and then quit. He was partly right because I did get burnt along the way – it happens in the kitchen. I did not quit however, and I wear my burn marks with pride.

Today, the barriers for women chefs in restaurant kitchens are coming down. We are nowhere near achieving equality but progress is being made with small gestures and in quiet ways everyday

The Theobroma Sisters | Tina and Kainaz