"The feeling of being in Chefs' White is an inexplicable High"

Executive Chef of Red Rhino Craft Brewery Kshama Prabhu talks about her kitchen tales – and why she would do it all again in a heartbeat.

As told to Madhulika Dash

Twelve plus hours a day, seven days a week for 19 good years with every major occasion spent in the kitchen – and yet, at the end of it all, kitchen is where I want to be. It is what I call my space, and against all odds, it is in the din of a commercial kitchen where I can find my calling. Sounds pompous when I say it, but here is the truth – it is that way. Honest. Becoming a chef by profession and cook in the heart is the best decision I have taken, and it is all thanks to my grandfather and mother whose pursuit to better their culinary skills showed me from a very early age in life the real essence of food. Food, good food is the only language that works – and as a cook and chef, it is the only thing that really matters. I still remember my grandpa rustling up a delicious aamras at the last moment for extra guests or my mother putting together a feast with a rather confusing set of ingredients and taking pride in each of her dishes.

Those were some of the qualities that I realised are key to a chefs’ success in the kitchen, especially if you are the “woman in the kitchen.” Which brings me to a question that I am often asked – and gladly so. What is it like to be in the commercial kitchen - a space that has earned the moniker, “a male bastion”? It has been a difficult journey.

Nothing, no college, no amount of seen-it-before, or even I-told-you-so wisdom ever prepares you to the test a commercial kitchen can put you through. But I can tell you this, get through it, and you turn out to be the best version of yourself. Ask any chef, and they would concur.

Funnily though, in my case, much of the early tough work was of my choosing. I still recall when I was interviewed to start as Commis 3 in Jumeirah Beach Club, I had fought my way to be in the hot kitchen rather than the fairy world of bakery. I couldn’t have chosen better. My first job taught me a lot of things, including that it would never be easy for a woman to work in a commercial kitchen. Right off the bat I was put to test when I had to lug the same kind of weights, push trolleys or even lug heavy pots and pans from one place to other. Any sign of slack and I could be sure of being told that I was a woman.

I admit, during those days, it was the one phrase I was not ready to hear –  not then, not now and never in that context. I plodded.

It would be some years into the gruelling school that I would start looking for mentors. One such big influence was Chef Nancy Kinchella, an outstanding chef and owner Vu's. Back then, it was the only name I heard in the kitchen uttered with a lot of respect. It was only after I worked with her that I realised that extra mile we as woman chefs need to go to make our mark. It was Chef Kinchella, who taught me how to push the envelope, even made me shift to London to gain better experience. If I had misgivings about working in the Club kitchen, let me tell you this, working with the Lady Boss was doubly backbreaking.

By the time I returned to my chef base (Dubai), the culture had changed with women chefs making their presence felt in the kitchen. We had a back breaking shift of 16 hours straight. We could be called to work two shifts or even an extra on a day off.

But back then, for a woman chef it wasn’t just about being the best in her job, it was also about making a point – a mark.

It was while in Boxwood Café, a restaurant owned by celebrity Chefpreneur Gordon Ramsay, that I finally became a Chef. Yes, a Chef.

You see, when it comes to the commercial kitchen, we all are good cooks to some degree and range, we have our fortes too, but a Chef is someone who can lead a team to excellence. And that is why the title is “earned not given”. Boxwood Café became that place where I learnt and earned it. I still remember when Chef Ramsay saw me handle a major service and said, “You are the only woman with balls in this kitchen." I took it as a compliment. I moved on to India, a few years ago, with the confidence of someone who had made a dent in the “glass ceiling”.

By all measures I should have done fine. Not.

Mumbai kitchens were my baptism by horns. The kitchen here still ran on the old diktat of ego and was less welcoming to a woman in the hot kitchen. It was given that working here would mean I would sooner than later lock horns. And I did at a property I was working with a peer senior chef who refused to acknowledge me as peer. In fact, I still remember an incident where he threw the entire batch of my brown sauce and pretended that it fell in walk in and had to throw away. It was that day I realised what a cocktail of good humour, a bright smile and grandpa’s lesson of “you can rustle up a delicious dish if you want to”. That day to to-date, it is the most important skill that has helped me immensely.

Getting introduced to microbreweries however was my turning point – both as a cook and chef. My fascination of fresh beers made in house was like the turning point of my career. I joined the Bar Stock Exchange. And as they say, it has been a very fascinating and exciting journey.