Neatly lined hardcover books with titles from international publications on food, culture and business looked down at me, ready to launch their missiles, and I was prepared to bolt out at the first chance I got. The walls too were closing in on me, but none of this had any effect on the lady sitting next to me nor on my Vice President. Their element of confidence was at ease in the sterile setting of contemporary lounge chairs and the executive teak table deliberately softened at the edges. And there I was, squirming in my seat, watching my cargo pants and clogs lose miserably to her flawless long legs and stilettos.
“Anika, you’d already know that the leadership would support any decision you’d take. You’re one of the best that we have!” even his deep baritone doesn’t help me like my VP. My chef doesn’t like him for reasons unknown to me, I followed suit nevertheless.
“Dear, you needn’t rush to a decision. Your chance to become the Racheal Ray of Indian cuisine with our network would wait for you”, she was patronizing me with her innocuous smile. She exuded her rank of Deputy Editor of SDTV, but I believe everyone except her were acutely aware that she owed all her fame to her husband, the network’s Editor in Chief.
Racheal Ray is a celebrity cook and am a senior chef aspiring to be an executive chef and to be famous in my own terms. There is a gulf of difference between our agendas and it hurts to see that people aren’t able to distinguish them.
“Mam, thanks much, am indeed honored by your network’s offer! But I doubt I’ll have to rethink this any further. I intend to pursue my aspirations to be an Executive chef”, I stood up deftly ironing out the creases on my coat.
The look on their faces implied that I’d take this moment to my grave as my biggest regret. I fervently hoped that it wouldn’t turn out to be so and respectfully walked out of the room. I flashed them my congenial smile and closed the door behind me. I let the chips fall where they may, knowing I’ll soon be short shrifted by the media.
“I didn’t take it”, I said to him. Bewildered eyes stared at me from all angles, amidst the clatter of dishes and sizzling fire. I wasn’t sure if it was disappointment or relief that I saw in his eyes, but he sounded ominous when he replied, “We need to talk, cold room”. He walked swiftly hurling instructions to his sous chef and I tagged along. “The guests didn’t like the new paneer anti-pasta, did they?” I sounded impervious to the feedback though it was a huge blow, for I had just walked out of a primetime television show offer.
“We aren’t here to discuss that”, he stood with hands to his hips. He must have heard the jokes too, I wished I could just freeze to death. There is no telling how sick people could be to confuse a professional mentor-protégé relationship to a clandestine affair. They apparently imagine that he rebuffs my new dishes as a foreplay to our sexual overtures. “I had nothing to do with those rumors. I am appalled by them just as you are.” I stood firm as well.
“What are you talking about?!” he looked genuinely incredulous.
“That you and I are having an affair?” I mumbled.
“Oh, that! Simply ignore them”, he waved his hand as if to defy the rumors.
“So what were you planning to talk about in here?” it was my turn to be confused.
“I think you need to work independently. This place isn’t right for you”, he sounded earnest.
“What?! You firing me now? Am not good enough to even be a senior chef at a five star restaurant?” I work twice as hard as any other man in this kitchen, rake my brain even in the middle of my nightmares to come up with innovative recipes, but his feedback has always been underwhelming. Does it mean that he thought I was capable of doing better, or did he belittle me as a one-time wonder who’d fade away in the paparazzi?
As I stood there clueless he said “I am not firing you Anika, am freeing you from the confines of this farce, this so called success”.
“I don’t understand”, I honestly didn’t.
“You are too committed to nature that you aren’t ready to compromise with your ingredients or your style. You do not conform to this industry, you do not stifle your dishes to be bland so that guests from abroad, the ones who could afford such fine dining could tolerate it. You want to be true to the food you create. Any more time in here and it will only break you”, he said.
“Do you think am capable of living this truth?” I needed to hear it from him.
“I know for sure you have it in you. Though I don’t how time will favor you, I honestly don’t want you to do the same mistake I did. In the path that you intend to take, you’ll fail more often than succeed, but there will be pride in those scars”, he extended his hand.
“I understand, thanks. I hope I don’t fail you”, I returned the handshake. And I walked out of the room, my eyes sharp and head held high, though the blood within me was gushing diffidently.
I mixed the heavy cream with the rich fat yoghurt as my mom closely watched me from the dining table where she sat peeling cucumbers. I scooped the mixture with a half sphere 5 ml measure spoon and poured it into the alginate bath, carefully so that the yoghurt spheres don’t stick together. My dad was helplessly leafing through the morning’s Hindu, though he had finished reading them page to page hours ago. I was being medicated by their silent treatment.
“These skills and beauty, all for what? Doesn’t look like I’ll live to see my daughter happily settled in life”, I’ve become immune to her snide remarks, but they do hurt sometimes. Like as if he was waiting for mom to break the ice, my dad walked to the kitchen and stood next to me. I didn’t lift my eyes to meet his, while I stood there counting the minutes before I took the spheres out of the bath.
“Anika, we are trying to do all this in your best interest beta”, he said.
“I know Pa” I meant it.
“Then why don’t you consider this rishta? The boy is in your line of work, he has a Masters in Hospitality management and his family owns a catering business. You’d together make a great couple”, he said.
“Pa, I appreciate your thoughtfulness. And am definitely not trying to offend you or mom when I say that this rishta wouldn’t work out the way you hope it would”, three minutes done and I gently scooped out the spheres with a slotted spoon and rinsed them gently in water.
“Can you ask her to kindly enlighten us?” my mom speaks to me through my dad.
“Pa, a commercial kitchen is already a masochistic arena, not to mention males have been dominating this space forever. Even Google couldn’t find many famous women chefs in the whole of India. Can you imagine?! And I want a space for myself there. That wouldn’t be possible with this family that you are trying to get me married to”, I said.
I sprinkled some masala on three spoons and placed them on a tray.
“Beta, we very well know your aspirations. But I still don’t understand why you think this family wouldn’t be best for you”, he pleaded.
“Pa, I’d only be a supporting character in their family business. For my aspirations I need the space to be the alpha and the time to prove myself. Am not against marriage Pa, it’s just that I would want to do it when I feel it right. Please understand Pa”, I slid the yoghurt spheres on the spoons and sprinkled some lemon zest over them.
I then placed the tray on the dining table and requested them to taste it. The delightful surprise in their eyes was all what I was striving for.
It took me twelve more years, two failed restaurants and one bankruptcy, to sit in front of the camera to do an exclusive show on Chef’s Table with Amazon India Prime channel. My restaurant, my dishes and my guests, am now famed as a revolution in the Indian cuisine history. And am grateful for that moment when I let go a lifetime opportunity to host a cooking show. I proved them wrong!