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From chaos to calm in the kitchen


Banish scenes of vitriolic cooks barking orders a la Hell’s Kitchen. Today, chefs are all about being zen and making their workspace stress-free and exciting

The opening scenes of Eat Drink Man Woman, the first of Ang Lee’s movies to become both a critical and commercial hit, show the protagonist, an older, well-respected chef, cooking a meal for his three daughters. His quiet, measured movements, as he deftly slaughters a chicken, debones a fish, and turns both into an elaborate meal is almost meditative to watch, showing us that cooking is as much performance art as it is a skill.

More often than not, however, movies that portray chefs have you at the edge of your seat.

Burnt, the most recent in a slew of movies about kitchen culture, features the toothsome Bradley Cooper as a brilliant but troubled chef who can’t help being destructive in his manic need for perfection in the kitchen. This has been a recurring theme in pop culture — remember Hell’s Kitchen with 16 seasons of Gordon Ramsay blowing his top, kicking things and insulting cooks till they break down? There’s a series of memes doing the rounds on social media of some of his choicest insults. To his credit, they are rather imaginative and creative.

Line of fire

The stereotype of the volatile, vitriolic chef is, of course, rooted in a certain amount of truth. Restaurant kitchens have long been known to be one of the most inhospitable workplaces. In 1996, Tom Aikens, head chef at a two Michelin-starred restaurant in London, came under fire for ‘branding’ a junior chef on the arm with a hot knife.

A few years later, Anthony Bourdain published his memoir, Kitchen Confidential, that raised eyebrows even further by laying bare the unpalatable truths of working in a commercial kitchen.

A story that stands out is of a young Bourdain burning his hand on a hot pan. A fellow cook who was watching, picked up the scalding pan, moved it off the fire with his bare, calloused hands, turned to Bourdain and said, “Would you like some burn cream, white boy?”

The ladder game

To a certain extent, politics in the kitchen can be attributed to the way teams are organised. The rigid hierarchy that most restaurants adhere to was set in place by the legendary French chef, Georges Auguste Escoffier. The brigade system, inspired by his stint in the army, assigns cooks to a particular section of the kitchen while also providing ranks. A high-pressured, adrenaline-pumping environment often becomes laden with machismo.

David Chang, the mastermind behind the Momofuku empire — popular for its particular brand of Asian-American fusion — is known as much for his volatile temper and use of profanity. However, in a recent piece published in the food journal, Lucky Peach, he talks about the need to have a more nurturing culture in the kitchen.

Bourdain too has also softened his stance. In a recent piece for The Guardian, he writes, “I’d put aside my psychotic rage, after many years of being awful to line cooks, abusive to waiters, bullying to dishwashers. It’s terrible — and counter-productive.”

Winds of change

Of course, this is not easy to put into practice, but there are several restaurants in India working towards a healthier balance.

At The Bombay Canteen in Mumbai, executive chef Thomas Zacharias strives hard to maintain a healthy working environment for his team.

“We want the staff to feel excited to come to work every day,” he says. He tries to incorporate this into the core culture at the restaurant — whether it’s through staff parties, or one-on-one sessions to help chefs figure out where to improve.

17mp MEGHA
Megha Kohli, head chef of Lavaash by Saby, is also determined to create an encouraging environment. She started her career at 17, working 16 to 18-hour shifts every day. “I always knew that when I had my own kitchen, I would change things.” Her staff work no more than 10 hours a day, with a weekly day off. In the off-season, she sets up two-day stages for them to work at other restaurants. One of them was recently selected for an internship at Gaggan, in Bangkok. “I’ve told him that he doesn’t need to quit, he can come back and create a special menu based on what he’s learned,” she says.

Team matters

While both Zacharias and Kohli run restaurants that have been established in the last two years, the story is slightly different in some of the older establishments.

Tulsi Ponappa, a trainee chef de partie at Olive Beach, Bengaluru, previously worked with the Oberoi Group, where she says the pressure is of a different kind. A larger team also means more hierarchy. Kohli echoes this sentiment — “If I had to change the garnish on a plate, I’d have to ask my supervisor, who’d talk to the head chef, who’d have to then write to the corporate chef,” she laughs.

The other potential source of conflict comes from the background of the chefs — there are those who have a degree in the culinary arts or hospitality, and those who’ve learnt on the job. Ponappa, who graduated with a degree in culinary arts from Manipal University, says that “sometimes you get a lot of resistance from the older staff — they would have worked their way up from the bottom, and someone with a degree will become a sous chef in less than two years.”

As for all that dramatic yelling and flinging things, Kohli says it is inevitable. “It happens in the heat of the moment. After service, we’re all chilling together.”

The author is a food writer and blogger based in Bengaluru.

Source: The Hindu

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