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A baker’s journey

MY STORY

I’m a complete foodie!! Why is food so emotional? The smell of food stirs up numerous memories. Cooking for and feeding someone is one of the sweetest gestures in the world, even watching someone eat or talking about food can be a delight. Food and love are undeniably connected!
Food makes the world go around! It is such a central concern for all. Even for those on fasts. The thought of food awaiting them at the end, keeps them going. Business deals worth millions are not signed in board rooms, but around the dining table. The most planned agenda of everyday life is the daily menu in any household. Most people have also thought about what their last meal should be!
I come from a family where everyone is obsessed with food. We live to eat. I can’t imagine a day without discussing and planning what we will be eating for the next meal. I associate food with fun and entertainment. Both my grandmothers paternal and maternal are excellent cooks and so is my mother. The desire for good food and cooking it myself lead me to the kitchen at an early age. One of the first kitchens I was introduced to served almost 3000 people a day; it was the Langar at Bangla Sahib Gurudwara. I went every Sunday with my grandmother and made rotis. As a young girl I made my first few bucks by catering for my parents and aunt’s small parties. I would shop, cook, serve and clean. I just knew I had to make a career out of this. I loved every bit of it.
Food was my calling. It was not just a way of appeasing my senses, it made me come alive. I decided to explore the furthest boundaries and specialize in culinary arts. Since the birth of civilization, preparation of food has been the domain of women. However when this activity becomes a professional one, it is the men who dominate. So when I chose on becoming a chef, I was forewarned that I would be stepping on some real meaty and nasty toes. I was adamant, and determined to pursue my dream. My focus and clarity inspired friends and peers to discover their passion.
In catering college I began to face the first challenges- there was nothing more disheartening than to be amidst a group of people who were not there to pursue their passion but because they did not clear an engineering ,medical or law entrance or they didn’t make the cut offs. There was only a handful there following their dream. There was one person just like me equally crazy about food. We took the college by storm, never missed the opportunity to cook something new or get our hands on the best books the library had. We tried making each day a culinary expedition and discovered the best of Rajasthan. People began to envy the fun we had pursuing our dream.
This was still not the real world in our industry; Industrial training gave us a taste of that. It was where the learning actually began. My first experience with a hotel- The Oberoi New Delhi was an eye opener. I was overwhelmed by the size of the kitchens, the number of chefs, the variety and quality of ingredients and the equipment. I worked 16 to 18 hr days to absorb and learn whatever I could. I treated the 5 months like an educational opportunity that I was missing at my college, eventually learning more on the job than sitting through any of my classes at college in three years. I took pride even in peeling onion, potato, garlic, chopping chili, peeling 70-80 kilos of sweet lime every day, with hands covered in cuts- stinging and burning. No job was small! I would see the Sous chef pick up the mop and sweep if need be, he would peel sweet lime with us trainees if the bulk was too much. It was chefs like him who inspired the entire team to do every task assigned no matter how small it was, to the best of their ability. It taught us to be grounded and humble. We had no qualms in cleaning sinks, drains or empting the garbage. If we left work at 3 in the morning and were expected to be back there all dressed for morning briefing at 6.45am, we were there.
The Oberoi Centre of Learning and Development was the most sought after place to be in. It was the ultimate goal for most hospitality students and me too. I was on top of the world to know I made it through. I was the only one in my college to be selected for the Kitchen management program and one of the 25 across the country, also being one of the youngest in the batch with no prior work experience. I was told that it was hard to get through and even harder to successfully complete the 2 year program and it was true. I had a lot to live up to and compete against. Back to back theory and practical classes, endless assignments and submissions and everything had to be nothing less than perfect. I was beginning to understand it was not about just cooking , in fact we spent least time on cooking and learnt more about management concepts , running a kitchen, accounting, costing, budgets and handling a team. At that point I felt I wasn’t cooking enough and developing my skills as expected instead I was bogged down with tons of assignments. I am glad that I was patient and stuck it out. I see its benefits today. To satisfy our desire to cook, few of us would get together after class or on off days and cook to our hearts content. It was the need to cook that connected us; we learnt tremendously from each other and did not let the passion fizzle out. As a group motivated each other to perform to the best of our ability and get through the 2 years.
During the 2 years I then trained on the job at three different Oberoi properties. I still remember on the first day when I met the Executive Chef he said, “Welcome to hell – the next 5 months will be your toughest!” and they sure were. We really had to prove ourselves; long hours of hard work in brutally hot kitchens, with flaring tempers was our daily routine. There were no more Sunday offs, no Friday, Saturday partying, always working holidays, missing out on all birthdays and weddings, being the busiest when the rest of the world is just getting out of work. In spite of everything this lifestyle was still crazy fun. Those 2 years have been the best time of my life so far.
I was finally placed at Trident Nariman Point, Mumbai as kitchen executive. Hoping to be placed at the South East Asian outlet, I was extremely disappointed when I was asked to take over the cold kitchen of Frangipani – the all day dinning and Verandah the 24 hr coffee shop. I still gave my 100 % to the job and had to try really hard to fit in. Often discouraged by the chauvinistic attitude of seniors, as they repeatedly told me no woman has ever survived this kitchen and never will. I realized it was not because of the extremely large scale of operation, or the extreme pressure or even leading staff whose years of experience was equivalent to your age. I suspect that the mindset is such that in India, that there is still some resistance to women in this profession. I worked hands on with my team and earned their loyalty. They would even ask to work with me. There was no appreciation or recognition of the effort put in. But after a while I realized that my professional growth was being hampered in such an environment. One must be ready to read the signals and make the choice when the opportunity arrives. It was a difficult choice to give up a solid salary, a great designation and the association with such a reputed brand. I left to find a more promising career as a chef elsewhere. There are times when you will be faced with similar situation and you have to choose your passion over money or position. It is people who have the courage to choose their passion that will find true success and joy.
I believe in the saying –“Find something you’re passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it. Above all be true to yourself, and if you cannot put your heart in it. Take yourself out of it”.

Hanisha Singh | My Little Food Company

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