Dipalie Mehta, former advertising executive and currently chef at a fine dining restaurant in Delhi, meets me for coffee after her shift. She’s reading a book when I reach the venue. “Chefs are usually socially awkward. They do not like meeting strangers and would much rather relax at home, among familiar faces. Perhaps it is due to the isolated nature of our work that we become like this,” she says.
Mehta has been a chef at Masala Library since its inception 10 months ago.
Unable to cope with the pressure, she quit her job as an advertising executive. “I needn’t be in office managing a client’s Twitter feed at 4 in the morning, but the thing with advertising is that you will never clock out. It is always on your mind, and it led to my blood pressure crashing. So I quit to pursue something I like.”
Mehta’s current job is what she would call her vocation: “Advertising was just something I was moderately good at, never something I was passionate about.” She uses the word “happy” to describe how she feels being a mid-level chef, but recognises that stress levels have remained the same. “Being a chef is as stressful as working a corporate gig. To begin with, your sleep cycle will always be messed up, because shifts are irregular. For instance, I would work the night shift before this, and just when I had got used to sleeping at 3 am and going to work at 12, I have the morning shift again. But my body clock is still used to sleeping at 3 am. Sometimes, I may do a night shift and get back at two or three in the morning, and be back at work at nine in the morning. This isn’t a profession where you can go to work sleep-deprived and hungover, since you are on your feet at all times.”
Then there is the inevitable high-pressure time during service every day. “Chefs tend to scream at their team if the food is not ready on time,” says Mehta. “So do I, if I’m on the pass. The chef at the range has probably piled up four orders, and cannot send the food untasted, or uncooked, so he’s under pressure.”
Her typical day at the restaurant is nine hours long, with breaks in between for lunch and tea. She begins by checking ingredients at the store, confirming that nothing is past its expiry date, then collecting her lagans and kadais at her designated area. Preparation takes the next two hours, as she chops kilos of vegetables for the day. Over and above her regular chores, Mehta also takes care of her team, making breakfast, lunch and dinner for them, and chai twice a day.
According to her, “You end up doing a lot of grunt work in the kitchen. You must learn to work as fast as you can, otherwise you won’t learn anything. In a team, you are assigned a set of tasks, which you have to do every day. If I want to learn something new, like a new curry on the menu, I won’t have the time to stand with the chef and just observe.”
Learning to be as fast as one can affects one’s learning curve as well, and fibbing your way through is not an option in the kitchen, where results are in front of everybody. “If you haven’t given your 100 per cent into a product in advertising, you can still fib and win the pitch, but you can’t do that in the kitchen. Your food is either good, or it is bad. You can’t manipulate a lot of those things. Proving your mettle is an unsaid thing in the kitchen industry. No one will come to you and say you’re useless, but if they think you are, they may not give you the opportunity for finer work — the complicated stuff,” says Mehta.
And then there’s physical and emotional stress, along with performance pressure that you can’t really talk about, because chefs are supposed to be very tough. For instance, cuts and burns are a real threat.
Being ‘tough’ preoccupies Mehta. “A lot of the stress comes from the fact that you can’t show your emotions, and it can get frustrating.” She admits that it doesn’t help your stress levels if you’re a woman in this profession. There is the very tangible stress of being as physically strong as men. In a 1,500-strong organisation, Mehta has only six female colleagues. Gender ratio-wise, hospitality remains an extremely skewed industry.
“While chefs are very supportive in my organisation, I can imagine what happens to someone who doesn’t fit the definition of ‘tough,” Mehta says. She even finds similarities between her previous job and the hospitality industry when it comes to the pressure exerted on employees to be ‘tough’. “I’m physically very strong, so I manage, but if someone isn’t physically strong and wants to become a chef, she/he should be able to do that and not think that they’ll be trampled. If someone can’t pick up a machine, it is okay to ask for help.” Safety can be a concern too. Kitchens involve a lot of physical proximity, so chances of molestation are high. “So you must stand your ground and say ‘Boss!’ in such situations”, concludes Mehta.
Women feel the pressure to outperform colleagues, while for men, it is the pressure to get comfortable working with women, for which sometimes they need to fight their own hesitation. Mehta gets put off by misogynist lunch-time gossip, because she feels that it ultimately affects one’s performance and group dynamics. She also feels that this is something that is common for women, irrespective of the industry they’re working in.
Then there are coping mechanisms people in the industry fall back upon, which may affect their lifestyle. “There is always a situation by the end of your shift where you feel like you need a drink, and this ‘I need a drink’ feeling may snowball without you realising that it has. There are so many chefs who have an alcohol- or smoking-related health issue, or eating disorders. It is particularly difficult for stress eaters to have a balanced diet, since food is readily available at all times in the kitchen.”
Would Mehta consider a change of profession yet again, to keep stress levels down? No, comes a firm answer from the chef. She’s here to fight to the end.