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Five-star careers, one-star salaries
July 25, 2006
A rewarding career in hospitality and culinary arts' reads the headline of an ad for a hotel management institute. This is one of many hundreds of such ads that have sprung up all over India.
You would think, yes, there is a huge demand for hotel management professionals. And chefs in particular, looking at the rise of speciality restaurants and their exotic offerings. At truly exotic prices!
I recently met a girl who came to Mumbai all the way from Assam because she had always wanted to be in the hotel industry. She joined the 'Craft Course in Baking and Confectionary' at Mumbai's Sophia Polytech Institute. This is a one year, full-time course, open to anyone who has completed HSC with 45% marks. But many, like this girl, choose to take it up after graduation.
During that one year, you'll learn everything from the science of yeast to the eight golden rules of recipe balancing. You become well versed with cookies, international desserts, shape cakes and Christmas cakes.
It's little wonder that those who have done this course are highly regarded in the industry and land internships with prestigious five-star hotels. Here, they slog from 6 am to 7 pm, training under experienced chefs to create new and varied sweet temptations. "We prepare nine varieities of desserts a day and don't repeat them for a whole week!" says the girl I was speaking to.
It's back breaking, physical work, although it happens in pleasant and aromatic surroundings. During the trainee period, you get paid a stipend of Rs 500 that does not even cover your to and fro travel cost. If you do well, you may be offered a job -- at Rs 45,000 per annum or Rs 4,000 per month!
Well, maybe, this is the price you pay to learn the tricks of the trade. The intern sighs and says, "Someone who's worked here for two years gets Rs 6,000..." And this is for a 12 hour shift which could be morning, afternoon or late evening.
This girl plans to pack up her bags, go back home and set up her own cake making business. But the question that bothers me is... why? Why should the hotel industry be so exploitative?
The 'market' has spoken
A single pastry at the hotel cake shop sells for Rs 80; desserts sell for Rs 200 upwards. Surely if trainees and junior bakers are paid a little more, it won't hurt them. Or are they simply not bothered about attrition?
The hotel industry is booming in India, but hotel management graduates are rather unhappy with their prospects. On the non-culinary side, many are joining BPOs and other 'service industries'. Those on the cooking side of things aren't as mobile, but are veering towards foreign cruise liners or starting their own catering business.
No doubt, if you stick on with a big hotel and make it through the struggle, you will eventually be rewarded. But are young people willing to wait that long today?
On the other hand, we have the MBA. Forget final job placements. A student from a prestigious MBA institute would get Rs 12-15,000 per month as a summer trainee. And he/ she would spend the two months fooling around with excel worksheets doing an 'industry analysis'.
This girl, who can make the most luscious cakes and desserts (I've had some and can vouch for it!) can't dream of getting Rs 12,000-15,000 even after three years of slog in a five-star hotel.
Now, one may argue, these are the economics of the hotel industry. If people are willing to work for such salaries, good for them. Agreed, market forces are in operation -- and the day hotels don't get anyone to employ, they will probably mend their ways.
But it still creeps me out that the value of producing a tangible high quality product is so low. It seems to me that, at a fundamental level, we place a far greater premium on 'brain' work than anything that involves physical labour.
Manual vs mental work
American comic book fan and writer Henry Jenkins recently observed that the Indian superhero, Krrish, was very different from the American Superman. And no, he wasn't commenting about Hrithik Roshan not sporting underwear over his clothes.
Much like the Western Superman who has been read as an embodiment of national myths and ideals, there is much which speaks to the specifically Indian origins of this particular story.
For one thing, the early signs that young Krishna may have superpowers come when he turns out to be a protege at sketching and then confounds the teachers at his local school with a spectacular performance on his IQ exam.
The American counterpart would have led off with his strength, his speed, or maybe even his X-ray vision but having a superior intellect has rarely been a prerequisite for becoming a superpower in the Western sense of the term.
Throughout the film, in fact, the other characters consistently cite his 'talents' but rarely his 'powers' as if he were destined to become an extremely gifted knowledge worker (and indeed, it turns out that the ethics of knowledge work for hire are at the centre of this epic saga.)
I found this point rather interesting. In sync with the national ideal of India as a knowledge economy, we have created a 'thinking' superhero.
This is not to say that superior intellect is not valued in other countries. Certain professions pay more -- everywhere. It's the disparity between the pay you get for the two kinds of work that is startling in this country.
A blue collar profession like 'cooking' pays so little at entry level that the question is one of basic survival. Rs 4,500 per month is an amount that won't even get you a half-decent paying guest accomodation in Mumbai these days. And this is a salary offered to graduates of the top catering institutes by the top employers!
In contrast, the average starting salary for graduates of the highly regarded Culinary Institute of America (CIA) is $27,500. Not too hot, considering that Accounting and Engineering pay between $40,000-45,000 to fresh graduates.
But not so low that you'd have to ask mom and dad to wire you money to pay the rent.
What can you do?
Remember how Marie Antoinette once sparked off a revolution with her 'Let them eat cake...' statement? Will we see 'cake labour' rise up and declare, "Let them eat excel sheets!"
Unlikely. Perhaps with a number of new entrants making a foray into hospitality, the demand-supply equation might change and, with it, the salaries offered. But don't count on it.
Now that you've completed the course, there are two options. Either you bail out... or you roll with it. The first option is easier, but the second could work for you. Treat the next two to three years as an extension of your course, except that you aren't paying a fee. Maybe you are being exploited but, once you stop feeling like a victim, you can exploit the situation as well.
Learn as much as you can. From everyone and everything. If there is a master chef in the kitchen, observe everything he does carefully. Try to become valuable to this person without annoying them. There is nothing worse than a trainee who thinks he knows everything there is to know already�
Chef Hemant Oberoi of the Taj fondly recalls Master Chef Mascarenhas, whom he trained under. Every star chef today has a similar story.
Incidentally, many of today's most highly regarded Indian chefs got there by accident. Sanjeev Kapoor originally wanted to be a engineer while Hemant Oberoi aspired to do medicine. Both landed up at the PUSA Institute in New Delhi, instead and did not live to regret it.
You won't either -- if you take a long term view of your career. After all, there may be a day when outsourcing goes out of fashion, but fine dining never will.
~ Rashmi's earlier columns: