"I was interviewing chefs [for Marcel's] when one male pastry chef looked at me and said, 'I'll work under any gora be it male or female, but I will never work under a female Pakistani chef'."
27-year-old Niha Akber, head pastry chef at Karachi's new eatery Marcel's, is not an exception when facing discrimination in the professional kitchen. In fact, a few female Pakistani chefs tell me that their gender commonly faces "resistance" in the field.
In our society, we're accustomed to and comfortable seeing women in household kitchens, it's deemed as their domain - yet professional kitchens don't share the same truth.
"At 21, when I returned from my studies at culinary institute Cordon Bleu [and began looking for a job], I was rejected by well-known cafes and patisseries in Karachi. They said 'You're too young to be a chef, we're not going to let you in our kitchen,' or 'Our kitchens are not clean enough for a female to work in' or, 'How will you work with so many males?" recalls Niha. "For six months I did nothing after I got back from culinary school."
Her family pushed her to resume her home-based service Niha's Patisserie, which she ran before going off to culinary school, but she was adamant to work in a professional kitchen. "If I just had to resume my home-based business why did I pay so much money to go to one of the best culinary schools in the world?" comes her reply.
Chef-turned-consultant Arooj Noman shared a similar fate when she went searching for a job at local restaurants.
"Restaurateurs were not very eager to hire me; they met me and said I looked like a kid," she laughs. "Even though by that time I had had a considerable amount of experience working in the professional kitchen."
Even now, after 14 years in the culinary world, she says she "receives a lot of negativity in the kitchen" when training staff at restaurants. "I will walk into a professional kitchen and there will be a chef who will look at me and say, 'I have 40 years of experience, why is this female being brought in to teach me? I have nothing new to learn.' That for me is the biggest challenge; to try to convince that guy that, 'Hey, hang on. I have something to teach you which might be worth your while'."
Owner of catering business Fatso's and restaurant consultant Maha Jawed seconds her female counterparts, "When there's a new project there is some sort of resistance because men have a 'Why do we have to learn from a woman?' demeanor but after a few days they go, 'Wow, we are actually learning something' that their puranay zamay kay chefs - ustads - didn’t teach them."
Faheem Jaffer, owner and head chef of Côte Rôtie, on the other hand, says he has yet to witness gender bias in the professional kitchen. "I haven’t had the opportunity to witness a formal training environment personally, but my male chefs have received feedback and advice from women without any issue. I worked alongside a female chef who was one of the hardest workers I have ever seen, she took fewer breaks than the men and never left her spot during service."
The friction largely exists due to the lack of female representation in professional kitchens, as Asad Aamir, Marcel's sous chef, says, "Men in positions of power are likely to breach professional conduct to pollute the workspace for women. Perhaps, it's because the [food] industry is relatively rudimentary here; things have been a certain way, and increased female participation in kitchens is problematic for male chefs."
Unfortunately, the bias is a global phenomenon.
"Restaurant kitchens are a male-dominated domain – this is not a Pakistan thing, this is a worldwide thing," says Maha. "Sure, there are a lot more women cooking now than they did 10-15 years ago, but commercial kitchens for the longest time have been male-dominated."
Though this bias is not just restricted to Pakistan, there's a major reason females here do not pursue a career in this field and it centers around societal norms.
Arooj breaks it down.
"Khana shaam ko bikta hai, aur raat ko bikta hai, and women like jobs that finish in the daytime. Cooking in the professional kitchen is unfortunately not that job," she says. "How many lunch shifts can you do and excel in your career? You can't. How many breakfast shifts can you do? You have to do the dinner shift, it is the major shift of any restaurant globally. That's one really big reason that pulls women back."
The 32-year-old consultant says she has had to face parents who refuse to allow their daughters to stay out working late in kitchens. "There is a lot of pressure from families because working in a kitchen means you have late hours. Weirdly, you don’t catch that bias with a lot of other professions like medicine - female doctors or nurses routinely work night shifts."
"In Pakistan, half the women I interview, their biggest issue is timing," complains Maha. The chef is opening her restaurant, Easy, and explains that although she had planned to hire a "women-dominated staff", timings and security concerns are a major factor when employing women.
Looking past social issues, women also have to deal with bias in the kitchen. Arooj and Maha believe that in order to excel in the field and move beyond the discrimination, women need to make their own luck. "How women are treated in the kitchen has a lot to do with how they deal with pressure. It's about being able to hold your own."
"You don't want them to think you're a female. You have to show them you are one of the guys," advises Arooj. "You have to show them you are here to do the job just like them. In this country there is this huge bias that women are not as good as men [but that's not true]."
However, it is unfair to place the burden solely on women to level the playing field. Men need to stop feeling "threatened" by their female counterparts, and structural constraints -- like a lack of safe public transport at night, for example, need to be corrected for women to make the same professional choices as male chefs. "They [men] need to be more encouraging to the efforts of women and consciously need to make the space comfortable for women," Arooj stresses.
"Females in Pakistani commercial kitchens are still an anomaly," says Asad. "Increased female participation, a more evenly distributed workforce may enable movement towards a more progressive culture in local kitchens."
The consultant adds, "Male head chefs and male restaurant owners should make an effort to hire at least two females in the kitchen. I’ve noticed that if there are two or more females in the kitchen it tends to put women at ease."
And Faheem agrees. "I think the main problem is there isn’t a prevalence of women in the field so people are unaware of their skills or talent."
He also points out something important: "We need to take into account when a restaurant is built there aren’t separate changing rooms or lockers for men and women. This may seem trivial but these are considerations that need to be understood to allow an equal working environment regardless of gender and religious ethnic differences."
And there is hope for change...
... but it needs to start with parents or guardians.
"My parents reacted very, very poorly," says Arooj when she broke news of pursuing culinary arts to her family. "They thought it was a joke, they were of the thought ‘Khansama bano gi, kya ho ga?’. You need to understand they’re from a generation where being a chef wasn't one of the more prestigious jobs."
Maha believes one has to push through regardless. Due to a lack of financial resources she had to look for an alternative. Luckily she was awarded the James Beard Scholarship and went on to receive culinary education at Cordon Bleu. "Initially my family didn't take me seriously and I literally had no money [to go to culinary school], but I made it happen."
However, some parents do come around. Niha tells me that "there was a bit of hesitation" on her parents' part, but they ultimately knew it was her decision to make.
The toughest job is getting past the first set of hurdles, i.e. parents, say the chefs. Once their perception of the culinary arts changes, children will be better able to follow this field without opposition; and more women will be seen behind those swinging kitchen doors.
But this requires a two-pronged approach; local governments also need to recognise the significance of culinary arts in the country - after all, the food industry is booming in Pakistan, especially Karachi and Lahore.
As Maha says, the government should invest in culinary schools because "not everyone can afford to go abroad and get formally trained." Likewise, restaurants should allow trainees and interns, to teach them the workings of a professional kitchen.
She hopes to train aspiring chefs in her soon-to-open restaurant.
"We have to start with ourselves instead of pointing at a flawed system," says Faheem. "We [Côte Rôtie] have not been able to do that yet but are hoping to hire more women in the kitchen and on the floor as hosts or servers. We’ve had female interns in the past which has been a great experience, and we would love to hire more women to create an inclusive space for all genders."
Seeing the lack of gender diversity, Arooj has taken up teaching to bridge the gap. "In Pakistan you barely see any [women in the professional kitchen], I’d like to see that change which is why I teach pro bono at [local] culinary schools. There are not that many, and the few that there are are limping along."
There are currently two well-known hotel management schools in the country, Pakistan Institute of Tourism & Hotel Management (PITHM) and College of Tourism and Hotel Management (COTHM), but Maha has her reservations about their level of academia, "their quality of education and training is not the best." she says.
"I see a lot of talented young chefs who come through my kitchen or go through culinary school but I feel due to lack of exposure in Pakistan they don't get appreciated and that needs to change," adds Arooj.
The good news is that there is a lot of room for growth in Pakistan's culinary scene. We have restaurants opening up on every corner in the city, but there is a severe lack of imagination when it comes to food.
"I feel that the knowledge and lack thereof in Pakistani commercial kitchens is unbelievable," says Maha. "It's the same 20 chefs who do the rounds of the cities and they all pretty much make the same food. There are very few restaurant owners who care about serving their customers something different."
That largely explains the repetitive menus, the identical taste and the same prices at most restaurants, minus the niche restaurants, mind you.
Restaurants are a money-making business so they cash in on popular dishes which appeal to the general population. But then this problem lies with restaurateurs and how they're running the show.
Arooj believes, "You will not see a culinary explosion in the country until and unless you have more chef-run kitchens. Right now, restaurants are predominantly owned by people with the financial means to open one."
"They don't have the culinary skill set that comes with it, they are passionate about what they're doing, but they don't know how to cook."
However, it's easier said than done. Maha explains that as a chef it was not an easy task to open her restaurant even after almost eight years in the business. "When I started Fatso's it was a small home-based catering service. I'd get one order a week. Then suddenly I baked a red velvet cake and asked Espresso to display it, and from a sale of Rs5,000 in four days, I was making lakhs."
"If I look back at where I started from, it happened because I showed up everyday, even on days when the conditions weren't the best. I'm grateful I went through the grind and put in the hours and hard work."
Mother to a 9-year-old and a graduate of Dante Alighieri and Cordon Bleu, Arooj echoes the above sentiments, "I've paid my dues, I am now able to pick and choose what I do. My aim is to encourage more women in the kitchen, encourage young talented chefs to experiment and learn and grow."
While Maha and Arooj are seniors and have long been in the industry, Niha still has to make her mark. "It is a male dominated industry and male head chefs don't consider you equal... but that's what makes it fun and challenging, to prove them wrong," she says with a smile.