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The bitter sweet truth


Pastry chefs are among the least paid in a kitchen. So why do female chefs sacrifice higher salaries for the position in the first place?


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In February this year, French magazine, Le Chef published their list of the top 100 chefs from around the world. Only four women made it to the list. This reflects an unfair global reality: women occupy just a small percent-age of head chef positions at restauKarishma Dalal, owner and head chef, Bombay Salad Co rants. Things are changing gradually, but in the Indian scenario, culture, safety issues and a poor transport system work as speed-bumps, impeding advancement opportunities for women in an industry that the National Restaurant Association of India (NRAI) estimates will grow at 11 per cent annually (The NRAI valued the Indian Food Services industry at Rs 247,680 crore in 2013 and expects it to grow to Rs 408,040 crore by 2018).


Drawing on her experience with students at Sophia Polytechnic’s prestigious HAFT (Hotel & Food Technology) programme, Dopati Banerjee, head of department, says, “While we have also had female students work success-fully as chefs with cruise liners (whose kitchens are very demanding), a majority of women seek positions in bakeries and patisseries. Recently, we had two female students, one who started working at a bakery, another at a restaurant. After a year, the one in the bakery was still there while the one in the hot kitchen had quit and was exploring other options. This is not an isolated instance; we have seen it play out often. Typically, women choose to be pastry chefs.” It’s an expensive choice. According to an online salary and compensation information company, the average pay for an executive chef in Mumbai is Rs 12 lakhs per year whereas a pastry chef earns an average salary of Rs 3.5 lakhs.

Both positions require the same training plus a sense of aesthetics and dexterity, and both require you to be on your feet for hours at a time. Why, then, would women voluntarily consign themselves to an area of the industry that means settling for a smaller pay packet than their peers?


The answer may lie in the different operation styles of hot kitchens, that is, kitchens equipped for cooking and plating hot meals, and cold kitchens, where the emphasis is on the assembly of cold dishes (such as salad and sandwich bars, bakeries and patisseries). “The only difference between a hot kitchen and a cold kitchen is the air-conditioning,” says Karishma Dalai, owner and head chef, Bombay Salad Co, who earned her stripes in the kitchens of Masala Bay and the 24-hour coffee shop at Bandra’s Taj Lands End. “Both involve long work hours and both jobs are very demanding physically.” Dalal does, however cknowledge, “There’s a lot SATISH MALAWADE more pressure in hot kitchens because you have to prepare multiple appetisers and main-courses. You’re not cooking on customer demand in pastry kitchens; you’re making a large quantity of each recipe and keeping it ready before time. So, here, mise en place is done beforehand,” she explains. “Typically, there are also a lot more people working in hot kitchens, so the work environment is more chaotic. Most prefer to hire men for hot kitchen positions because your staff must sometimes leave at 1 or 2 am, and there are genuine safety concerns in this country — when you employ large numbers of people, you don’t want to be stressed out about how they’ll get home.”

It was in the pastry kitchen that I finally found my place POOJA DHINGRA, FOUNDER/HEAD CHEF, LE 15 PATISSERIE


Although Dalai felt pastry was “too precise” for her liking and preferred the freedom that hot kitchens offer instead, Pooja Dhingra, Founder/ Head Chef of Le 15 Patisserie thrives on this precision. Dhingra arrived at the decision to specialise in the field after working across the kitchen. “Interning at hotels while getting my business degree at Cesar Ritz College, Switzerland, gave me a clear idea of the different departments, right from the front desk to house-keeping. It was in the pastry kitchen that I finally found my place.”


Executive Chef of Bar Stock Exchange, Kshama Prabhu, on the other hand, was just as passionate about preparing hot (and haute) cuisine. When I started my career in Dubai at a restaurant on Jumeirah Beach, I was the only lady chef in a kitchen with 25 male chefs,” recalls Prabhu, who also previously worked Chef Kshama Prabhu at Bar Stock Exchange, Kamalailas at The Boxwood Café, multi-Michelin-starred chef, Gordon Ramsay’s London restaurant.

Prabhu, a single-mother who raises a five-and-a-half-year-old and heads a team of 100 men, says that sexism is rife in the industry. “When you’re the only lady, there’s a notion that there are things that you cannot do. I started my career as a Commis (basic) chef at level 3. I pushed heavy trolleys, emptied out heavy dekchis… And I wanted to do all of it because I knew I had to prove those who felt I wouldn’t be able to wrong.” The bias is far from imaginary. “I realised this career was not going to be a cakewalk when I was interning at a hotel in Pune, 17 years ago. I’d be given basic tasks like peeling onions. When I insisted on more challenging assignments, the chef said, ‘Can you make dough for naan?’ I jumped at the chance. I had assumed he wanted about 1 kg of dough. The chef said he wanted 10 kilos — not a problem, I thought, because, they did have a dough-maker, but he said, ‘Turn haath se maroge. You make it by hand.’ He wanted to see if I could do it. There’s definitely a need to prove yourself. I did manage of course. I made two batches of 5 kilos.”


Thomas Zacharias, executive chef, The Bombay Canteen, explains the lopsided sex ratio. “In a team of 26, we have nine women chefs,” says Zacharias, who worked in NYC for three years. His company’s focus on qualifications and experience, rather than gender, has translated into a female to male ratio of roughly 1: 3, a lot higher than the industry average. The code, enforced through strict policies about language and respect for personal space, also means no unusual adjustments are made for women. “We’re just as accommodating for our male employees … It’s a win-win policy because happy employees deliver better quality, which translates in satisfied customers,” adds Zacharias.

Source: Mumbai Mirror