Winning the Manor

The Leela Mumbai's Pastry Chef, Rashna Elavia talks about playing by her rules in an all-male hotel kitchen

As told to Madhulika Dash

When we talk about female chefs and commercial kitchens, we often resort to the use of stereotypes- she is a rare species, she is one of the boys, she is the only woman amidst a sea of men. While those stereotypes may hold some ounce of truth, the reality of how women have worked their way towards success in the business of restaurant is far more nuanced – and demands a tell. Commercial kitchen as an all-male chef terrain is hardly a breaking news these days. It wasn't even in 2002 when I began my life as a professional chef. I was, one of the only two women serving as a chef at The Leela Mumbai. I fell in love with the art of pastry making through the course of my Management Training Programme. It opened the door to a whole new world and I was mesmerized by the techniques and innovations that I witnessed in the kitchen. Pastry making simply felt like an extension of my creativity. It was the ultimate form of self-expression as it seamlessly aligned my creative interests with my passion. Little did I realise in my excitement then was that professional kitchen is a whole different ball game. In the very demanding cosmos of the kitchen, it takes a certain type of perseverance for chefs to hold their ground.

Right off the bat, I was played like the underdog. Everything I knew was questioned. I had to work doubly hard to provemy mettle – not only to them but to my male peer as well. Along the way, I also needed to make some sacrifices, because to me, this was not just a career opportunity, it was also a lifestyle that nurtured my passion. Grit pays. And mine came in the currency of respect and a lesson: kitchen needs patience, persistence and diligence, no matter which position you are. Looking back now, I feel that I am glad my rise was baptism by fire. It honed my skill to an effect that today I can take charge of any situation with the confidence that the result will be good.

Kitchens today of course are a different story. You see more women breaking the glass ceiling and turning assumption into dust. There has been an obvious shift in attitude with some exceptionally talented and bright pastry women chefs coming to the fore. You see more female Executive Chef today. Even in The Leela Mumbai, our team of two has grown into an army of twenty, each with their own unique set of skills and an exceptional ability to run the Manor (read: kitchen) with an iron fist. What hasn’t changed are the ethos: we still work harder every day to up our game and redefine classic concepts in our own unique ways, thus effortlessly helping the food scene grow. I for one cannot wait to witness what the new things that this space holds in t