Kitchen Bitches and Why I Love Them

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Kitchen Bitches and Why I Love Them

Illustration: Shivali Devalkar

“D

on’t stare at me madarc**d, I’m not your mother. You don’t frighten me,” said a short woman with sharp features, as she chewed out a friend for not keeping his station clean. “And you, fatso, you’re not a chef yet, so try not to show off. You won’t last five minutes in a real kitchen,” she screamed at me, as I repeatedly tossed a chicken breast in a pan like I’d seen on TV, despite being told to do it just once.

Malathi came into our lives when we were wet-behind-the-ears kids, fresh out of junior college, learning at a catering school in Mumbai, the foundations of what it takes to hack it in a real-life, balls-to-the-wall, hotter-than-Emilia-Clarke, commercial kitchen. She was about 5’2’’ and she taught a class that had quite a few strapping Jat boys, in addition to the rest of us, all hooligans who came in an assortment of shapes and sizes. Yet, she struck the fear of God into the lot of us.

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If Malathi was cruel to us, she was ferocious with the women. One day, we were being taught the fine art of making mayonnaise, and Chitra, a mild, sweet-faced girl, dumped an egg yolk into an aluminum bowl. The sulphur in the yolk reacted with the aluminum to produce smelly, pistachio-green mayonnaise.

Malathi lifted the bowl and turned to the class. “Who knows what this is?” The room was filled with silence. She repeated the same question in Hindi. The silence ensued. Chitra’s face turned as pallid as the mayonnaise her novice hands had conjured up.

“I’ll tell you what this is. This is why women have no place in the kitchen. I’m telling you, dear girl, quit right now. Go home to your mommy and daddy, tell them to find you a nice boy, settle down, and have kids. Might as well quit before you start, rather than starting and then quitting midway, because judging by this mayonnaise and your face, you’ll last exactly three days in the kitchen, before you fuck up and have a man tell you that you’re no good. I’m a woman, so I’m doing you a favour. Take your tears and go home now.”

I hated Malathi, even as I wondered what made her such a bitch.

I got my answer a few years later, after I started working in professional kitchens. I realised two things: one, they have brand of kitchen humour, which is highly pornographic, and two, the men, who populate these kitchens, are sexist bastards, who have a bias toward women that is stronger than blue cheese.

She was far more talented than the rest of the crew and had an impeccable work ethic, but her retinue of Bihari male cooks refused to take her seriously.

I’m talking all men. Not just the grand old men of cooking. The prep cook, who whistles at the new woman intern every time she passes by, the dishwasher who “accidentally” splashes the woman sous chef with water, every time she hands him a dirty utensil, the others who ogle lustily as soon as she enters, and pass curt comments when she leaves. They all also most fervently believe that women are just not “on par” with their male counterparts and are physically weaker. How is a woman, or a “kitchen bitch” as she is fondly called, to respond to such an environment, where a sharp knife may not know your gender and a hot pan may not care if you have a penis, but the men wielding them definitely will? There’s just something about all that testosterone in the air that makes you want to laugh at a crude joke about your woman co-worker’s body. It’s like a submarine, you either fit in, or fuck off, there’s no in-between.

This fact hit home, the day we got a new woman sous chef. Anita had a degree in culinary arts from the US and had interned at some of the best restaurants in the country. She was far more talented than the rest of the crew and had an impeccable work ethic, but her retinue of Bihari male cooks refused to take her seriously.

Things came to a head one Sunday, during brunch, when a cook named Rakesh, fucked up an order of Eggs Benedict, and Anita, asked him to cook up a fresh order. Rakesh wouldn’t have it; instead of complying, he hurled the eggs into a bin, threw his hands up, and said, “Karna hai toh kar, warna gaand mara le. Main chala.” The kitchen immediately erupted into a chorus of laughter, jeers, and derisive snorts, all while sending out food at a steady pace.

Being a man down, Anita stepped in and manned the station, but the kitchen joined hands against her. If her omelette was two minutes from completion, the cook grilling a sandwich would delay the order, allowing the omelette to sit there sweating, the salad it came with wilting away to oblivion. This went on until the end of service. Finally, the head chef pulled up Anita for falling behind and being unable to handle the cooks under her. She quit a few months later.

Malathi, I realised then, wasn’t a bitch. She had no choice but behave like one, and during our class she was trying to mould Chitra. Malathi knew that in order to make it in the real world, she had to learn to become immune to misogyny, remain unfazed by all the penis jokes, be willing to pinch back when pinched, to swear back when sworn at, become adept at taking all that testosterone-fuelled teasing and turning it around, rather than escaping into a bubble of estrogen-addled tears.

Chitra didn’t make it as a kitchen bitch. She quit the course a few months later and I have no idea what became of Anita. But every time I meet a salty-as-a-sailor woman in professional kitchens, I can’t help wonder if she has passed the Malathi minefield and passed with flying colours.

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