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'Be honest... be open to learning'

March 25, 2014 14:07 IST

'Be honest... be open to learning'

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Abhishek Mande Bhot/Rediff.com

Words of advice from award-winning Chef Veena Arora on what she wants you to know.

She was born and raised in Thailand, so it's not surprising that Veena Arora is today the Chef De Cuisine at The Spice Route restaurant at New Delhi's The Imperial hotel.

Over the years India and its flavours have grown on Arora. She has lived here for 34 years and is one of India's best known chefs.

The government named her the country's 'Best Lady Chef' at the National Tourism Awards in 2012

In an interview with Rediff.com, Chef Arora tells us how she fell in love with food, what it means to be the odd woman out in a tough profession and shares her wisdom with you.

Could you tell us about your growing up years in Thailand and how they affected your worldview and appreciation of food?

I was born and raised in Phathalung, a small town in south Thailand.

My father had served in (Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose's) Indian National Army and eventually settled in Thailand.

He worked in Bangkok and shifted to Phathalung when my siblings and I were young.

We were the only Indian family in Phathalung and as with most Indian families in Thailand, we too ran a furniture and clothes shop.

We moved to Bangkok after my father passed away.

My earliest food memory is associated with the making of the curry paste and preparing of the soup at six in the morning.

Lunch would have to be eaten by noon so the preparations for it began early.

Like in India, food constitutes an integral part of Thai culture.

It isn't uncommon to start a conversation by asking if you've had your meal instead of a simple 'hello'.

Unlike Indian cuisine, Thai food isn't heavy and they eat several meals in a day.

As in most Asian countries, the best food in Thailand is served in kiosks by the roadside, which is also where I've had some amazing meals.

Most of these kiosks are run by women. Across Thailand, you will find women in the workforce.

When I finally settled in India about 34 years ago, I was surprised to see very few women working.

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Image: Starting out at a time when few lady chefs were seen in restaurant kitchens, Chef Veena Arora has been the odd woman out in a man's world.
Photographs: Courtesy The Imperial

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'I had to toughen up, become stubborn'

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Abhishek Mande Bhott/Rediff.com

Cooking is considered a woman's job, but the industry is a male dominated one. What challenges did you face in your line of work?

As the only woman in the kitchen, facing verbal and physical embarrassments like (sexist) comments, a slight push, a touch while passing... was considered very common.

When I first started, it was tough to get used to the environment.

My Hindi wasn't very great so it was all the more difficult (to fit in).

The moment people hear an (alien) accent, they know you're an outsider, and you're in the soup.

How did you get over this?

I realised I was way too soft-spoken for the business; I had to toughen up, become stubborn and speak loudly to assert myself.

I also figured that it was important to spend time with your colleagues. I made it a practice to have dinner with them, discuss and brief them about the next day and get involved.

At the same time, I made sure to not let anyone misbehave with me.

Today I have reached such a position in work and age that this would anyway not happen, especially at The Imperial.

I was well aware of how to make a place for myself and surge ahead with determination and confidence, since the beginning.

These are the very values I have instilled in my daughter.

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Image: From being a housewife, to a top chef, Veena Arora's journey has been inspirational.
Photographs: Courtesy The Imperial
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What qualities do you look for in young chefs?

  • Sincerity definitely tops the list.
  • Punctuality, quite simply because it shows one is serious about what one does.
  • Attention to detail because what we do affects someone directly. Little things, like knowing how to cut the meat or checking for bones in fish even though they are cleaned out for you, matter.
  • Hygiene is yet another thing, I am particular about with my boys. We are in the job of feeding people so it is important that we keep ourselves clean.
  • The awareness that people are paying to eat what you're making. You cannot take that lightly. The fact that they are, sometimes, paying a hefty sum for a dish, makes it even more important for one to be acutely aware of what one is cooking.

What are the five things you would like young people around you to know?

Follow your heart

  • It is easy to fall in line and do what is expected but it is important to follow what your heart tells you. So follow it!

Learn to enjoy your job

  • When you enjoy what you do, it will reflect in the quality of your work.
  • The first step in getting something right is to enjoy it.

Take ownership of what you're doing

  • It is a sign that you are responsible and are willing to face the flak if need be.
  • It shows integrity.

Be confident

  • If you've put your heart and soul into something and take ownership for your actions, there is no reason for you to worry about the outcome.
  • So, don't be afraid; be confident.
  • Don't second guess yourself and wonder about all the things that can go wrong.

Be honest

  • This is possibly the most important.
  • Whatever you're doing in life, it's crucial you remain honest to that task.
  • That is the only way you can be successful.

What are your top five favourite restaurants

  • The Spice Route at The Imperial
  • Dhaba at Claridges Hotel
  • 106, which is a casual stand-alone restaurant in Bangkok
  • Auma at the Emporio Mall
  • The China Kitchen at The Hyatt

Five cooking tips for our readers

  • Do not compromise on the quality of ingredients.
  • Always think about the palate of those you are cooking for.
  • Food presentation should appeal to the eyes
  • Cook with passion and enjoy the experience
  • Even if you feel you are the best, be open to learning.

Finally, what is the best piece of advice you've got that you'd like to share with our young readers?

'Don't be overconfident!'

Wise words from my husband! :-)


Image: Chef Arora credits much of her success to her family.
Photographs: Courtesy Chef Veena Arora

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