THE YOUNG BOSS: ‘I HAD TO DEMAND TO BE HEARD’
At 23, Delhi-born Anahita Dhondy took up her first job in a professional kitchen. Armed with a grand diplome from Le Cordon Bleu, London, she joined as chef manager, a title which put her at the top of the kitchen’s pecking order. It was also a title that would become one of her biggest challenges over the next three years.
“Being young and a woman acted doubly against me,” says Dhondy. “I was seen as flippant, someone who would leave the kitchen in a few years when I wanted to ‘start a family’. The immediate perception was — this girl has been hired because she looks good and can chat with the guests.”
Dhondy’s team at SodaBottleOpenerWalla — an Irani café-themed restaurant chain based in Delhi — consisted of 13 men, ranging from interns to fellow chefs.
“I was in charge of men with ten and fifteen years of experience. They would not take me seriously,” she says. “If I suggested flavour inputs for dishes, for instance, they were never implemented.”
Dhondy says it took three months of uphill work before she was taken seriously.
“I had to learn how to compete in a kitchen full of men,” she says. “That meant making a change to the way I acted. It wasn’t enough to just be the boss; I had to explain my expertise to them. I had to be clear that though I lacked the hands-on experience that they had, I more than made up for it with my technical and creative expertise. I had to be forceful about my inputs, repeating myself and standing firm. I had to demand to be heard in a way that others didn’t have to.”
Dhondy says she didn’t verbalise these concerns to her seniors. “I felt it was important to handle it myself,” she says. “But yes, the professional kitchen is a very sexist place in two ways — it’s hard for women to enter, and once they do they have to work doubly hard to prove their mettle.”
Restauranteur AD Singh, owner of the SBOW brand, says it is harder for women chefs in India. “They have to work much more to stand out. We get very few female applicants. Anahita is articulate, attractive and Parsi, with many amazing stories of her own and of her family to tell. Of course, she is also a very talented chef, who last year was one of two employees who made it to the Asia finals of an international competition for young chefs.”
Dhondy is still the only full-time woman employee in her kitchen, which is among Delhi’s most popular. “We had a girl in the Mumbai branch, but she’s quit,” Dhondy says. “I want to be impartial in how I hire chefs, but at the same time I want to encourage other women, so it’s a balancing act. Things are changing, but very slowly.”
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