Some dishes have certain interesting twists. The initial taste of some delicacies may not be that enticing but once you start eating they can open new vistas in gastronomical experience and their taste will linger in you for a long time to come. Same is the case with Aswini Geetha Gopalakrishnan's career as a chef.
When the going got tough, Aswini had cried in desperation sitting in the dark corner of a hotel’s kitchen. But a senior chef’s words of wisdom proved to be a game changer for Aswini. “You won’t achieve anything through tears, motivate yourself and surge ahead with confidence. Don’t fear anyone and move forward,” the chef advised.
A culinary journey through Aswini’s life…
Aswini decided to do a course in cooking after class XII following advice from her father. Aswini, who hails from a small village, didn’t have much hope while submitting an application for Taj group’s culinary arts course as she was not confident of clearing the multi-stage interviews in English. But she proved herself wrong and got admission.
Aswini was pretty clueless about a career in cooking when she stepped into the college. She started to think about her career only after her culinary lessons began. Many people close to her family asked, “What’s the purpose of teaching Aswini by shelling out huge amounts of money?” But her parents and brother shrugged off the question and backed her. Later, Aswini became utterly resolute to make a career out of this culinary arts course.
Challenges were aplenty when Aswini got a job. She was entering a male bastion as there were very few women chefs around. Moreover, there was a preconceived notion that women were not fit to become a chef. Aswini’s first challenge was to overcome these hurdles. If men worked for 12 hours, Aswini made it a point to work for 14 hours. If male chefs took up individual assignments, she also undertook various tasks to prove her mettle. The first 3 years were very tough for Aswini.
Though Aswini started her career in 2010, she couldn’t make a mark in the industry. Aswini focused more on her career after she started working with Taj Bengaluru in 2011. The highpoint of her stint with Taj Bengaluru was that she got able guidance from her colleagues. The prestigious hotel always had a conducive atmosphere for women chefs though the job at hand was challenging. “The senior chef was 64-years-old. Initially I took up tasks that were doable for me to prove myself,” she says.
During earlier times, there was no proper training and one could become a chef by washing utensils and chopping vegetables to help out the main chef. There are many chefs of repute in the industry who took this route to have a perfect understanding of cooking. Later, the common trend was to take a diploma in food arts and become a chef. Aswini entered the industry with a degree in her pocket after 4 years of intense training. But one shouldn’t get complacent or boast around with the formal education as hands-on experience is invaluable. And the most important thing is to have an open mind to learn new things. It will take some time for a fresher to know the nuances of a work culture. Aswini is indebted to executive sous chef Thomas who guided her. “Aswini, you have to make a space for yourself. No one will help you to build your career,” Thomas told her.
In the initial days, even small mistakes unsettled her. But later when Aswini got a grip of things around, everything became easy and others too gave a helping hand. After working at Taj for 3 years, Aswini joined Ramaiah Institute in Bengaluru as chef trainer and worked there for one year. Later, she became a freelance consultant and provided service for 3 years. Aswini, who had an interest in food business, opened a restro bar, ‘Rural Blues’, in Bengaluru by joining hands with partners. Aswini slowly came into limelight after she stepped into Hyatt as chef in 2017. Many women chefs were working at Hyatt, and Aswini got lot of media attention while working there and her confidence skyrocketed.
The trend is always changing. Except for physical endurance, there isn’t any difference between men and women in this industry. During the initial phase, one has to chop 25 kgs of onions at a stretch and this is part and parcel of the job. If one is ready to put in long hours and work hard, anyone can scale heights as a chef. A positive attitude and an open mind to learn new things are two vital cogs of a chef’s life, especially for novices in this field. On-the-job training will be different from academic training and freshers should have a positive attitude to learn new things. The food industry has many opportunities in terms of food vloggers, critics, food art, and small related ventures.
Few women in this sector?
Women, especially those married, can thrive in this sector only with the support of family members. Many women don’t have that support and this is a pressure-cooker job. With mental and physical strength, anyone, men or women, can excel as a chef anywhere in this world.
There isn’t a concept like favourite chef. But there is a chef who gave a motivation in life – Neetha Nagaraj who was Aswini’s colleague in her first job. When Aswini was in tears, Neetha said, “You won’t achieve anything through tears, motivate yourself and surge ahead with confidence.” After this piece of advice, Aswini started to observe Neetha and got motivated by the senior chef’s ‘no-fear attitude’. Tears are signs of weakness and others will capitalize on that pitfall. One should not cry before anyone if one aspires to have a successful career and that holds truth in personal life too, says Aswini.
“After the advice from my senior chef, I haven’t expressed my emotions in public,” she adds.
Doubts were raised from some quarters when the concept of serving ‘pazhamkanji’ at Hyatt was first mooted. Many people, mainly NRIs, welcomed the move with both hands that too with a touch of nostalgia. Some visitors were so overwhelmed by emotion that they even cried. During earlier times, most Keralites’ breakfast was a bowl of ‘pazhamkanji’, day-old rice gruel mainly mixed with curd, green chilli and fish gravy.
Ride on bullet motorcycle and then food
During childhood, Aswini, who hails from Ranni in Pathanamthitta district in Kerala, along with her family members used to go on a journey to dine at Ernakulam. Now, her family is of the opinion that Aswini cooks well when she is angry. When Aswini was at Amritsar in Punjab, she used to travel 150 kms on her motorbike to have ‘butter kulcha’ at Haveli. Her favourite food destinations are Bengaluru, Hogenakkal, Hampi and Kozhikode.
Aswini, who is currently on a maternity leave, is gearing up to leave her imprint on the culinary space with some novel ideas after the break.