A woman's place
After British chef Marco Pierre White suggested that women are unequipped for the kitchen as emotional beings, we spoke to successful, badass ladies from the F&B world to understand what makes them perfect for the task
Misogyny, much like life, is fraught with paradoxes. And so, the same tools are used both for and against women. For so long fervent feminists were being asked to “go make a sandwich.” But the moment someone said, “Hey, you know what? I’ll make you a darn good one, but pay me for it,” things changed. It must be the same train of thought that led British chef Marco Pierre White to tell an international publication in a recent interview that “men can absorb pressure better, because women are emotional and take things personally”. White then goes on to equate a woman’s efficiency with her presupposed inability to “carry huge pans.” Which is all well and good, except that none of this is true.
Soon after White’s interview, Asma Khan — an Indian chef based out of London, who has been lauded for her maiden restaurant, The Darjeeling Express, which is run entirely by women — took to social media to criticise the veteran chef. Khan, who also featured in the famed web series, Chef’s Table, tells us, “Dividing your kitchen team into testosterone-packed men or hormonal women is nonsense. Emotion is not a weakness — it conveys empathy and love. It is also about understanding the challenges someone else may be facing at work and responding to that with a helping hand. I would want that response from men and women [in my kitchen].” She adds that White’s dismissive language is unhelpful, and points out how she and her team closes 200 covers a day in a 55-seater restaurant.
A little hot, a little cold
Asma Khan and her all-women team at The Darjeeling Express
The baggage of being called “too emotional” is one that is weighing women down in all sorts of jobs. But what makes White’s comments particularly counterproductive is the fact that unlike in, say, the police force, the fast-evolving hospitality industry begs for emotion. It’s food, after all, which is as much science as it is sensibility. Founder of The Chocolate Spoon Co, that owns several restaurants and cafés in Mumbai, Rachel Goenka reiterates this, adding that such patriarchal notions are best left in the past. A woman’s innately sensitive nature, in fact, helps the cause. For example, Goenka says that the language used by men inside a heated kitchen, which is often mired with profanities, can prove to be demotivating, when compared to a female chef’s gentle disposition. “I am not saying that men cannot be sensitive; and it ultimately depends on the individual. But in my experience, women are calmer,” she argues, adding that motherhood has inculcated patience and the ability to be nurturing, all of which helps her be a better worker and leader.
Apart from Khan, White’s interview also grabbed SodaBottleOpenerWala chef Anahita Dhondy’s attention, who had so far looked up to White, and felt so shocked that she took to social media to share her disappointment, too. “Even today, women are expected to coordinate matters of the kitchen. If you’re not cooking, you’re instructing the maid. It continues to be our job to figure dinner out,” she tells us, asserting how women are sociologically cut out to play the role of a chef. Dhondy also makes an interesting point when she says that the industry, both here and abroad, tends to pre-decide what roles women are best suited for. “Most people assume that women are better suited for a cold kitchen, like the garde manger or the bakery, because it’s more comfortable, rather than the chaotic and sweaty hot kitchen,” she reveals, adding that the “strength factor” should not subtract from a chef’s calibre. “I mean, yes, it is difficult to be menstruating and stay on your feet for eight hours straight, but so many of us are doing it, right?”
What women bring to the table
Popular pastry chef and founder of Le 15, Pooja Dhingra, agrees with Dhondy’s point about preconceived notions around where women fit and what they can do in the F&B industry. But she turns the argument on its head. “Unlike food, pastry is more delicate and it requires a lot of patience, and that’s why women are better suited for it,” Dhingra argues, adding that traditionally, hot kitchens were designed for men, which made it difficult for women to be there.
“But things have changed. And I don’t think it’s about being able to do what men can. I just look at it like, ‘As a woman, what are my core competencies and how can I lead better with what I am great at,’” she shares, highlighting that the idea is not to emulate the other gender, but be treated as equals for who you are.
Amninder Sandhu, chef at Arth Restaurant & Lounge, who appeared on The Final Table, another culinary show available on the same streaming platform as Khan’s docu-series, echoes Dhingra. She adds, “We are not weightlifters. We are chefs. I see no issue with being emotional; there is a lot that we can accomplish because we are that way. I have felt overwhelmed at times, but I have never fled the scene.” Khan echoes this when she says, “We are a team of six beautiful, emotional women. And my kitchen is a place of joy and peace.” So, whether it’s cleanliness, attention to detail or empathy, there’s clearly a lot that women, quite literally, bring to the table.
To be honest, White was working at a time when the industry was completely different. It has evolved considerably today. I have been working with and reporting to a woman for the past three years. She is very calm and understanding. At the end of the day, we’re all humans and everyone gets emotional. As does Rachel, but she channelises it for the good and by being helpful when an employee is going through a tough time. I would in fact say it’s great to be led by women, because they are perfectionists.
Amit Bhatia, Culinary Director, The Sassy Spoon
This is the first time that I am working under a boss lady and I am lucky that she is a good human being. She respects and cares for her staff and that is the most important thing one can expect from their superior. I have gained a lot of knowledge, which has helped me to grow in the industry.
Shaikh Arshad, Sous Chef, Le15
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