This happened way back in 1986, when I was around 22-23 years old, with stars in my eyes and fire in my belly, with ideas in my head of wanting to change the way people looked at food. I was working at a five star hotel as a chef and feeling fortunate to have independent charge of the kitchen. I was working towards proving myself. Then reality struck.
"I was curtly told that chefs belonged in the kitchen and shouldn't be seen in the lobby."
The hotel catered to a lot of foreign guests from all over the world. I thought it would be a good idea to interact with them and understand their culinary needs and preferences. I wanted to meet the group leaders and glean this information from them. Since check-ins happened at the reception and nowhere near the kitchen, I set forth to accomplish my task. As I was approaching the reception I was stopped by the general manager of the hotel. He wanted to know why I was in the lobby. When I explained to him my reason for being there, I was curtly told that chefs belonged in the kitchen and shouldn't be seen in the lobby, implying that the chef's uniform was not fit to be seen in public places. I was crushed, hurt and disillusioned. I couldn't fathom why he said that. According to me the world was changing, but going by what he felt, not necessarily in the hospitality industry of India. I decided then that chefs would be respected more, they would be brought out in the open and certainly not be confined to the kitchen!
Cut to 26 August, 2015. Venue: Rashtrapati Bhavan, the Ashoka Hall - the grandest room in the sprawling building. There I was, as a specially invited guest at a dinner hosted for the President of Seychelles, dining with the President of India, the Prime Minister of India, the ex-Prime Minister of India and many Cabinet and Union ministers. We were being formally introduced to the Presidents, the Prime Minister and the other dignitaries, and as each guest walked towards them, their names were being announced. Suddenly as I was walking towards them I heard my name, "Sanjeev Kapoor, eminent chef" and had a flashback. Here I was in a place which would put the grandest five star lobby to shame, here I was as on special invitation, here I was where once I was reprimanded for being seen in a hotel lobby and here I was in the hallowed precincts of the highest office of the country! Life had come full circle for me! I had worked towards ensuring respect and admiration for the profession and I felt I had achieved it. Not just me, today many chefs are respected, admired and even mobbed! I strived towards instilling a sense of pride in the profession and I can see that pride today, within the profession and in the outside world too.
However deep inside me there is a bigger pride for the women of India. Women who cook and work in their home kitchens tirelessly. My father would tell me that what I was doing for the chefs of India, I should do the same for the women of this country. The oppression of women should end, and cooking can become their liberation too. My celebration of home-style cooking, my TV shows, my books are all a step in that direction. I want to see a day where the women of India don't have to cook and be confined to the kitchen out of a sense of duty -- it shouldn't remain a domain of women. But when they do it, it should be lauded, appreciated and rewarded in a way that women who work at home are not treated as maids but princesses!