Why these Mumbai chefs feel the worst bosses are the best ones as well

Jan 14, 2018, 08:36 IST | Anju Maskeri

They've been made to put in inhuman hours and yelled at for small mistakes, but Mumbai's chefs will tell you that the worst bosses sometimes can be the best ones as well

Those of you who've watched chef Gordon Ramsay's Hell's Kitchen are familiar with the insults that fly around, sometimes even saucers. It's almost strange then to think of Ramsay joining the very polite and encouraging cast of MasterChef Australia, but then there's good every where. Chefs from the city who've taken a beating in their previous jobs tell us how they've survived it and the lessons they've learnt.

Chef Supreet Ghai

'Today, I love baking, and I have the Frenchman to thank': chef Nagraj Bhat, executive chef, London Taxi 
I was 20 years old and it was my first job as a line cook at a 3-star Michelin restaurant in London serving French cuisine. I thought I had a fair understanding of the language, but once you get into those kitchens, it's a different world altogether. It's a high-pressure environment, and when you have orders being barked out in French and can't understand a word, you feel dumb, out of place and miserable. I once ran away from the kitchen, and my boss, a Frenchman, called me back and gave me a pep talk over a beer. He was a stubborn, imposing figure. When I look back, I feel he really pushed me over the edge.

Once, we had to make a fish stew with crostini, small, thin slices of toasted bread, in it. The crostini made by a colleague turned out to be burnt, it wasn't my fault but the boss asked me to bake all the breads in the kitchen from scratch, because he thought it was my responsibility. Though my shift ended only at 2 am, I had to  return by 5 am for this. Till then, I had a twisted understanding of baking: It wasn't a man's job. But he changed all that. He ensured I baked the breads to perfection. It was a rite of passage. Today, I love baking, and he is to thank for that.

Chef Tanai Shirali

'Don't trust people at the workplace blindly': Chef Supreet Ghai, executive chef, Hopping Chef 
I joined a popular, fine dining destination a couple of years ago. My immediate boss was somebody who was associated with the place for almost two decades. And there I was, this ambitious, young chap with a culinary degree in my kitty. I think he felt threatened. There was no direct friction but I could sense the tension.

At one event, I was supposed to prepare food for 40 guests. I had everything sorted. There were 30 minutes to go for the event, when the executive chef calls me and yells at me. Every dish is salty, he said. I was aghast because I had tried each dish and it was fine. That's when I realised it was his handiwork, because I was saw an evil smirk on his face. I salvaged the situation and managed to put up a good show. My executive chef later called me and appreciated my job, but I was always 
on my guard after that.

Chef Ajay Thakur

'Sometimes you need someone to shake you': Chef Tanai Shirali, former Vice President Operations at Bellona Hospitality Services Limited 
MY first stint was in 2001 as an assistant chef at a five-star hotel. I went as a starry eyed 20-year-old, but it took few days for my bubble to burst. I was made to do everything except cooking. At the time, I felt like this wasn't what I had signed up for. It was common being yelled at, but that's how things were at that point. Today, if I yell at my subordinates like that, they will walk out, because you have so many options. But those years strengthened me and taught me so much more than just cooking.

Later, I joined another set up, and it was there that I met my mentor, somebody who shook me out of my comfort zone. He taught me about menu engineering and management which at that point, seemed irrelevant. But, 10 years down the line, those lessons are coming in handy.

Chef ajay chopra

'Till date, I have never made a mistake while grilling steaks': Chef Ajay Thakur, Head Chef, HITCHKI & Henpecked
Most people think being a chef is a glamorous job where one bosses around yelling orders in the kitchen at all time. But this is far from reality. Being the chef at the pass (the last checking point for food before it makes it to guests' table) is one of the hardest jobs. He has to make sure that each plate going out is absolutely perfect. A non-perfect plate increases frustrations as the entire line slows down and breaks the flow.

A similar incident happened once during my third job, when I was a Chef De Pattie in one of the Caribbean islands, Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands. There was a yacht party for one of the well-known person from the island. I was on the grill section, cooking steaks to order. The order was for a medium rare, but, due to a busy kitchen the steak got cooked to a medium. (A big mistake when it comes to steaks).

The chef checked it and that would have spelt the end of my job. Usually in a restaurant the chef sends you home, but here in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean he just kept shouting at me. So, much so, that by the end of it, I had tears in my eyes. I just wanted to get off and go home. But from that till today I never made a mistake when it came to grilling steaks. He was not a bad boss but a tough one.

ajay chopra

'I yelled at my boss, and resigned. He tore it to shreds': Chef Ajay Chopra, culinary mentor, The Empresa Hotel 
AT the time, I was working as a sous chef for a 5-star in Mumbai, and the owner was supposed to visit us from England for seven days. I probably slept a total of 18 hours that week. On the eighth day, when everybody had left, I signed off after putting out the dinner buffet.

I forgot two errands that night - Sunday brunch menu and food cost report - but could have easily done them the next day. However, when I did reach home I got a call from my boss (there were no cellphones then), who asked me to come back immediately. At the restaurant, the boss questioned me about the incomplete tasks. Here I was, tired to the bone, and I couldn't fathom the heartlessness of this man who was giving me grief for something that could have been easily done the next day. I yelled at him and I said "I quit". I even wrote a letter and submitted it to him.

My boss tore it and just chuckled. Looking back, I realise that the moment taught me that the industry comes with several pressures and there are several moments when you want to just quit. In fact, I have even cried during my first stint as an executive chef. But if you withstand that, you can take on anything. One more thing, that night also taught me not to procrastinate small errands just because you are feeling lazy.

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