FOR decades, women have been fighting to make their way out of the kitchen. Social norms and patriarchal values interplay to seal the fate and limit the potential of many women there. Yet ironically, for women who want to cook professionally, getting into the kitchen is a tough task, given how corporate cooking is a largely male-dominated space. But for Aswini Geetha Gopalakrishnan, becoming a chef was an exciting challenge. “I knew there are only few women in the culinary world and that if I put in the hard work, I’d be able to get to the top. I had very selfish motives,” says Aswini, with a little chuckle.

The opportunity to pursue her ambitions was one that was supported by her family, who encouraged her to leave Ranni, her hometown in the Pathanamthitta district of Kerala to pursue a BA honours degree in the culinary arts from Institute of Hotel Management (IHM), Aurangabad. “The interview happened in Taj Lands End, Mumbai. I went with a lot of apprehensions as everything was different — the lifestyle, the language, the city. My extended family was not very excited about this because they thought I was spending all this money to bake cookies,” says Aswini.

Staunch in her conviction that she had to see this decision through to the end, Aswini chose to rise above the doubts posed by her classmates, faculty members and family. From being a young girl who had never stepped into the kitchen, Aswini soon become one of the few qualified women in the world of culinary arts in 2010.

On her own path
Her career started off in Jaypee Green, Greater Noida, and then took her to Ista Amritsar, and on to Vivanta by Taj in Bangalore, where she became the chef de partie in 2012. For the next five years, in an effort to “emphasise her own identity”, she set down her toque to handle sales, train culinary students and set up resto-bars in Bangalore. She stepped back into the kitchen in 2018, as the sous chef at Grand Hyatt Kochi Bolgatty, because she wanted a new challenge, a different learning experience. “I’ve had the opportunity to develop different facts of myself here. You need a lot of interpersonal skills to handle so many people — as a woman, it is especially difficult to handle men working under you. No one trained me in this, but the situation gave me the chance to hone these skills. Once they realise you can be a good boss, your colleagues will do their best to support you.”

In the hotel, she currently has 11 women colleagues in a kitchen of 145, which she says is the highest in Kerala. “There were 11 girls in my IHM batch of 65 students, and I’m the only one still in the hotel business. My female classmates have either moved to different fields, or set up their own restaurants, shops or home deliveries.” The hotel business, which is more demanding, time-consuming and cut-throat, is not one where women dominate the field. On an average day, Aswini works from noon to midnight and usually when others are revelling and unwinding.

In her current position, a big part of the job involves managing her team and handling guests. “In interactions with guests, you understand their different preferences — the market now asks for gluten free, lactose free, vegan options. Specialising in those requirements is challenging because one needs to perfect catering to new palates.”

New opportunities  and new challenges
At Grand Hyatt Kochi Bolgatty is also chef Latha, who is touted to be the first female chef in Kerala. “Chef Latha would have had a tougher journey because she climbed the ladder much earlier. Generation, attitudes and opportunities have changed. Earlier women were not given academic opportunities. Job possibilities were only in 5-star hotels — now we have cookery shows, health kitchens, home cooks, restaurants, etc.”

The opportunities that have opened up for women are directly impacted by the minds that have opened up in society. Not just in the professional sphere, but also in the personal one. “Right from childhood, my elder brother and I were given equal opportunity in terms of everything.”

Aswini’s parents gave her the support and space to pursue her interests. Not just in the kitchen, but also on the road. Aswini is an avid rider and currently owns a Royal Enfield 350 CC Thunderbird X. In college, she owned a TVS Jive because her father “wanted to put limitations on my speed,” she says chuckling. While he cared for her safety, he didn’t try to curb how far his daughter would go — something that has aided her to come very far in life. So when she was 22, she rode by herself from Delhi to Amritser, covering a distance of about 700km.

“I liked bikes when I was a child and my father said I could start riding once I turned 18 — I haven’t stopped since. I would have covered about 15,000 km since 2010. My parents have never kept me from doing anything because of my gender. The freedom to explore gives me the chance to find opportunities that defy norms by understanding myself better.”

Aswini has understood herself to be one who enjoys a good challenge. From climbing the corporate culinary ladder to riding into the sunset on her thunderbird, she has made her own place in a world that has pre-defined, claustrophobic spaces reserved for women. “If someone asked me to work for 18-19 hours at a stretch, I would jump up to do it. But for a married woman with a family to care for, this becomes a challenge.”

For Aswini, everything about her chosen profession has been challenging, but that’s what makes her thrive. “As you understand one challenge and master it, ten other challenges line up and you need to be on your toes to master one after another. I’m always looking for such new opportunities.”

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