Chefs and Restaurants
Note to Self #NOTINMYKITCHEN
Having spent more than half my life in the US, I am proud to call myself an American. I was born and raised in my beloved India, the original fabled land of magical spices, the place millions travel to seek meaning and spirituality. I’ve been lucky to have lived in two very diverse worlds and experienced first-hand how differently they view women. India has a complicated relationship with women: They worship goddesses and vote women into Parliament, yet somewhere in India, every hour a bride is doused with kerosene and set on fire by her greedy husband because of her dowry. There, women’s voices are distant echoes in the collective male-dominated beat of the nation, even when talking about sexual misconduct. America is not perfect, but at least here, we can have open conversations about the issue.
I was lucky to be raised by parents who gave me the kind of confidence only they could. However, like millions of other children, I was also a victim of childhood sexual abuse. I can tell you that once you are violated, however young, the memory is seared into your brain. The fear and distrust may go dormant, but they never go away. My perpetrator, an older cousin, was forever banished from our home, and for a few dark moments, there was a hush in our normally exuberantly happy household. Then we went back to life as usual; we didn’t talk about it. Pedophilia was an unheard-of word and family honor meant everything. That was the Indian way. But even though my experience was never discussed, nor was something I gave much thought to, it stayed buried in the deep recesses of my consciousness.
I went on to immigrate to America and fulfilled my dream of opening a restaurant. During the first year after opening Indika, I was an absolute terror. If any plate went out not looking perfect, I would fly into the kitchen in a rage and raise hell, berating my staff. Cooks dropped like flies and we were constantly hiring new ones. I was following “seen behavior;” the norm in restaurant kitchens. I almost felt like to be a badass chef, I had to be a bit of screamer, so I was. To this day, I still regret firing Ismael, a sweet kind bear of a man who had the habit of coming in stoned… all because of a mismatched garnish.
At the time, I was going through my own personal hell. My marriage was ending and my teenage children were scared and confused. When I started losing sleep about how I was treating others, I knew things had to change, or I would crash. I took a long hard look at myself and I was disgusted with what I saw. I knew my kids were looking at me as a role model, but what kind of an example was I setting?
Why is it that in restaurants it is okay to throw pots around, to berate and insult others? What’s worse is that sometimes we glorify this behavior. Yes, food is emotional and all that, but isn’t it time we evolved from the European old guard “Oui, chef!” culture? I wanted a happy kitchen, where men and women checked their egos in at the door and shared a mutual respect and camaraderie.
Change happened slowly but surely. Yoga has always been a big part of my life, and once again, it taught me to be accountable for my own actions. As I began to relax, the tension and fear in the kitchen folks began to ease up. Just like in parenting my children, I knew that discipline with love was the key. I learned to stop chasing the fleeting mirage of perfection and I faced the reality of what my kitchen could and could not handle.
Today, 16 years later; I can safely say that while transgressions may occur at Pondicheri, they are nipped in the bud as quickly as possible. Within the realm of kitchen banter, women and men in my kitchens are treated with dignity and know their voices will be heard and consequences will follow. Maybe this is why more half of our staff is female, (and they have plenty of their own stories to tell).
Note to my fellow restaurateurs. Change is coming. Take a hard look at yourself and around you and if you do not like what you see, do something about it. I did and I sleep better because of it.
We vote with every dollar we spend. Just as important as it is to eat local vegetables, happy chickens, grass-fed meat and sustainable fish, it is important that we think about the treatment of people in the businesses we support. Ayurveda, the 5000-year-old sister science of yoga has taught us that food prepared in a kitchen where love and dignity rise above fear, misogyny and oppression will taste better and make you feel better.
The perception of men being superior to women is deep-rooted, cross-cultural and age-old. It’s time to turn that on its head. Given that men have led the human pack for millennia, what would it take for men sit back and let women take the lead? I can only dream about a time when every mother establishes her clan, guides her children and sets the standards of behavior for her lovers. When mother's law forbids men to do violence to others and rape is unknown, because every sexual encounter is by a woman's choice. When men honor women for bringing forth and nurturing the human race. When the world is at peace, because men are forbidden to kill... and realize that the real foundation of human life is women. Would the world be a better place?
Note to my fellow women: Let’s rule.
Note to self: #notinmykitchen.
Anita Jaisinghani is the chef/owner of Pondicheri in Houston and New York.