While cooking is generally associated with women, in most professional and commercial spaces, we see men running the show in the kitchen. The reason why so few women enter professional kitchens is simple: a sticky mess of kitchen misogyny, casual sexism, and a culture that sees men as more competent and professional than women.
However, some women are challenging men’s dominance in professional kitchens, beating them at their own game and claiming the respect they deserve. There’s also a crop of women who are donning the chef’s hat and challenging this culture from the confines of their home kitchens.
Sunita Rajendra Sanglikar, in her mid-fifties, is one such woman. For someone who started cooking when she was at a tender age of 14, cooking is the “easiest thing she knows”. At Zambar, where Sanglikar is part of a collaboration that plates out her home-cooked specialties as a part of a 13-day-long festival ‘Marathwada Mejwani’, she takes us through the spread and explains the dishes with excitement. Delicacies like hurda bhel, a tender sorghum millet bhel, that she had to source from her home town Aurangabad and curries like chicken curry, pithla bhakhri, patal bhaji and kombdi wada, along with chutneys like panch amrut and tilachi were laid down on the table among others. Her food, much like her, tasted warm, welcoming and evoked memories of home in no time.
“We have a spread that consists of dishes that are made mostly at my home in Aurangabad. I like simple food and I prefer to keep it simple. I feel like food must be kept authentic. In our cuisine, we eat a lot of millets and ground spices. People in urban areas prefer refined and processed foods and restaurants cater to what they need. Home cooking also tells you what you need to eat. For instance, if you have foods rich in spices and oil, you should drink a glass of solkadi with your meal. There’s nothing a glass of solkadi won’t solve after spicy food. Home cooking also means feeding with care. That’s my forte and I do that the best”.
Like Sanglikar, Peeka Chatterjee from Peeka’s Bong Box started her career as a home chef specialising in regional Bengali cuisine. “I learned cooking only after marriage. My interest took shape solely because of two things – I watched Sanjeev Kapoor’s Khana Khazana and I started trying out new things and secondly, my daughter-in-law and her friends gave me the much-needed push to start my career.”
While Chatterjee does not feel there is much difference between cooking for family and cooking on a commercial basis, Fareeba, a refugee from Afghanistan and a home chef at Khanapados, that organises pop-ups and also provides tiffin services, feels the heat when it comes to wearing a chef’s hat. “When I cook for family, I know what they like. But when I cook for others, I am not sure if I can impress them”. Ladan from Somalia, who is also a part of the same kitchen adds, “Making for others means you have to deliver food to them at the exact time. You cannot afford to make silly mistakes. You also need to be very particular about sourcing right ingredients at the right time. There are many checklists you have to tick”.
Being a woman home chef might have not exposed many to the struggles of a professional kitchen, but for some, the journey has not been without difficulties. “People talk behind my back all the time. It is difficult for them to stomach the fact that I am cooking in a kitchen and also earning out of it. But I do not care. I enjoy it. It’s not like I’m committing a sin”, Ladia says.
Speaking to these women, the reasons of their success are evident. They are driven by their love for food, they are direct and they refuse to shy away from facing any challenge. Not all of them might want to step into professional and commercial kitchens but there has emerged a self-reliant and confident tribe of women who are expanding their reach and cooking up a storm from their home kitchens, one dish at a time.