Chef manager at the popular SodaBottleOpenerwala restaurant in Delhi, Anahita Dhondy, who is a Parsi herself, and brings in the trademark flavours of Parsi cuisine at the restaurant, reveals how keeping a positive attitude can be key to getting more and more women into the professional kitchen.
Among the very few female chefs at the helm of affairs in a commercial kitchen, Chef Manager of the highly popular SodaBottleOpenerwala, Anahita N Dhondy’s days are always choc-a-bloc—her day begins as early as 9 am when she steps in to the kitchen to check the day’s produce and continues well into midnight on most days, post dinner service at the restaurant.
A noted celebrity chef today, Dhondy, a graduate of IHM, Aurangabad, who had Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, as her mentor, before she went to London to pursue her masters in culinary, reveals, how cooking with her mother as a child who has been a home chef for the last 25 years set the tone for what she would grow up to be. “My mother was very experimental in the kitchen. She wasn’t making run-of-the-mill dal chawal at home; rather, she would be making a sizzler one day, sometimes a soufflé and the likes. I would be hanging around the kitchen, and would keep tasting whatever she would be cooking. When I was around 10, I helped her ice a cake for the first time and it turned out fabulously. That is also the time when my mother perhaps realized that I wanted to take up cooking professionally.”
Post her education in London, Dhondy came back to join the Olive Group, which was just conceptualising SodaBottleOpenerWala, as the head chef of the restaurant at the age of 23, an uncommon feature in the industry where chefs usually take about 10-15 years before being at the top. “I won’t deny that the first months were difficult as I didn’t have as much experience as the guys working under me. Then, I started bringing in some of my mom and grandmom’s recipes of various Parsi cuisines, essentially, recipes that I had grown up with. And that worked like magic in earning my respect in the kitchen, when all my other methods of bullying and screaming had failed,” she reveals. Talking about the challenges she was faced with, Anahita reveals that training the staff, some of whom are not very literate, and enabling them to understand how exactly you want the dish to turn out can be a big challenge.
Be prepared to work very hard, and choose this profession, only if you are very passionate about food. At the same time, keeping a positive attitude can get more and more women into the kitchen. I hope to be that changemaker.
-Chef Anahita Dhondy
Anahita wears her achievements proudly, but is quick to mention that the onus now is on people like her to get more women to the kitchen. “The kitchen has always been a male-dominated area because of the amount of physical labour involved in it. Women also came in very late because it wasn’t cool to be a bawarchi at that point, as it is now. But with a positive attitude we can sure get more women in this space. It might be difficult, but I hope to be a change-maker. Kitchens are becoming more-friendly. So things are moving, all you have to do is wait,” she says.
On a parting note, Anahita reveals, that India is the middle of a food revolution, and being a successful chef involves very hard work with almost zero work-life balance, something you have to be willing to make peace with. “It is when you are training to be a chef, and doing your internships that you realise how hard it really is. When I was interning with the Taj, I would be up on my feet for 10-12 hours straight, while my friends would be partying… However, what keeps you sane is when you create something or learn a skill perfectly, and receive good feedback.”
Vegetable Dum Biryani
- ½ cup Basmati rice
- 2 cups sliced red onions
- ½ cup cauliflower florets
- ½ cup chopped carrots
- ¼ cup green peas
- 2 green chillies
- 1 tsp grated ginger
- 1 tsp grated garlic
- 3 tbsp chopped coriander leaves
- 2 tbsp chopped mint leaves
- ½ cup yoghurt
- 2 green cardamoms
- 1 black cardamom
- 1 star anise
- 3 cloves
- 2 half inch pieces cinnamon
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 tsp garam masala or 1 tsp MDH Shahi Paneer powder)
- 1 to 1½ tbsp fresh coriander powder
- ¼ tsp turmeric
- ½ tsp red chillli powder (optional)
- Few strands of saffron strands soaked in 3 tbsp of milk/water
- Salt to taste
- ¼ cup cooking oil plus more if needed
- 2 to 3 tbsp ghee/clarified butter
- Few cashewnuts and raisins for garnishing
- Wash Basmati rice well till the water runs clear and drain; soak in plenty of fresh water for about 30 minutes.
- In a large deep saucepan, bring lots of water to a boil, add one black cardamom, one star anise and salt. Stir in drained Basmati rice and stir again. Once it comes to a boil again, reduce the heat and simmer until the rice is parboiled or about 75 percent cooked.
- Drain and keep aside.
- In a deep saucepan, fry about 1 ½ cups of sliced onions in batches (do not overcrowd) until crisp and brown. Drain well on paper towel.
- Again, heat oil in a heavy flat bottomed pan and add cloves, cinnamom, green cardamoms and bay leaf; sauté for a few seconds till it starts to crackle.
- Stir in half a cup of sliced onions and fry again for a few minutes till they turn soft, about 1 to 2 minutes.
- Add green chillies, ginger and garlic and fry again for a few minutes until the raw smell of ginger and garlic reduces; about 1 to 2 minutes.
- Add all the spice powders and the vegetables. Saute again for a few seconds. Once the vegetables are slightly roasted, reduce the heat to medium low and add well-beaten smooth yoghurt along with salt to taste; mix well and cook the vegetables (cover with a lid) until almost cooked; about 5 to 6 minutes.
- After they are almost cooked, remove half of the prepared vegetables and keep aside in a bowl.
- Over the remaining vegetables in the pan, layer half of the cooked rice evenly.
- Sprinkle half of the fried onions, coriander leaves and mint leaves. Add 1 tsp ghee on top.
- Cover the bowl with a tight lid or if you prefer, with aluminum foil. Now, cook the dum biryani on low heat for about 10 to 12 minutes or until done. After it is done, remove the foil and lid and garnish with fresh coriander leaves.