When she was seven-years-old, Latha remembers declaring to all those who would care to listen to her that one day she was going to be a chef. She had seen a photograph of her neighbour’s brother in a chef’s uniform. Latha also remembers clearly that everybody who cared to listen to her told her that it was an impossible dream. Girls can’t become chefs they said. But a chef is who she wanted to be.
Today, Latha is the Chef de Cuisine of Malabar Café, one of the restaurants at the urban luxury resort The Grand Hyatt Bolgatty, Kochi. She also has the distinction of being the first woman chef of Kerala. This petite woman with her trademark sandalwood paste on her forehead has always been swimming against the tide. Willingly and successfully.
Even as a child Latha loved to cook. Her paternal grandmother was a cook in the Samudri Kovilagam, a temple kitchen. Her maternal grandmother was an agriculturist and a lover of “organic cooking”. “I grew up watching my mother, and grandmothers cook delicious meals not just with fresh ingredients, but with love,” recalls Latha who strictly adheres to the principle, “if you are not in a good mood, don’t cook.”
FLAVOURS OF A CHILDHOOD
Latha was nine-years-old when she cooked her first meal. Her mother was cleaning fish for lunch when she suddenly felt giddy and had to rest. Latha decided to continue where her mum left off. She cleaned the fish. Ground the masala just like how she had seen her mother do it and made the tastiest fish curry possible. “I can still hear my father’s words in my ears: ‘This is so delicious, my child’. That was enough encouragement for me,” says Latha.
When she completed her tenth standard, Latha was married off to a “suitable man” as was the custom those days. But she married a man who would later become one of her biggest supporters. Latha’s family too, especially her father, was keen that she realises her dream. So, they tried to enrol her at the Food Craft Institute in Kozhikode. Her gender was a roadblock. But her family was relentless. She finally became the first female student at the institute.
As part of the one-year course, she was required to do an internship in a hotel. While her classmates, 27 boys, were able to secure an internship, she wasn’t able to. No hotel in Calicut was willing to offer her an internship. “This is not a job of women. We don’t take women,” they would say. Latha refused to give up. She went to Chennai and sought the help of a friend. Latha lived out of her suitcase and slept on her friend’s sofa for a few months and completed her internship at Royal Mirage, a three-star-hotel. Then, as the old adage goes, there was no turning back.
GOING AGAINST THE GRAIN
Latha returned to Calicut and started a catering business and a small restaurant called Kairali. It ran successfully for three years before she gave in to her desire to “learn about other cuisines.” She began working as a Chef at Saj Lucia in Trivandrum and later at Saj Earth Resort in Kochi.
It was 2005. Women in Kerala began entering the hotel industry, not as chefs but in other areas such as Housekeeping, Front Office management and sales. “I continuously scoured for women chefs wherever I went, but in vain,” recalls Latha. During this time, a group of women chefs were brought in from Thailand by the Saj group to start a Thai restaurant called Sukho Thai in Kochi. Latha trained under them for a year, and when they left, she became a Speciality Chef in Sukho Thai.
She began moving forward in leaps, learning about new cuisines along the way.
Latha worked in the Middle East for two years where she mastered Arabic cuisine from a Pakistani chef. She was also a chef for actor Mohan Lal. All along, Latha indulged in her passion of discovering traditional Kerala cuisines and interpreting them.
She spent a year in Wyanad to learn about the tribal foods and their food culture. “Unlike people in the city, the tribals eat healthily. They will eat only one large meal a day. They will eat when they are hungry. They begin their days with a herbal soup which would be cooking all through the night. They never roast anything directly on the fire, since they believe it is poisonous. They always roast or cook their food wrapped in leaves or barks of trees. They balance their meats with roots, vegetables and herbs. They always soak their kill in the flowing water in the river for more than thirty minutes before cooking it. They always eat fresh food. There’s so much we can learn from them,” she explains.
Latha’s interest in traditional food cultures continues to date. She makes it a point to read at least one page a day about cuisines and food cultures. “No matter how tired I am, I don’t skip my reading and also writing one new recipe a day,” she says. Latha has more than 3000 original recipes in her repository. She has given around 350 original recipes based on her grandmother’s recipes written on palm leaves, to The Grand Hyatt. “I love interpreting traditional recipes without losing the essence of the flavour of originality,” she says. This has resulted in dishes like the Kappadu Curry (inspired by the fisherman’s offerings to the Ocean) on the menu of Malabar Cafe.
RETAINING ONE’S IDENTITY
Being true to one’s roots, using organic ingredients and processes have been the cornerstone of Latha’s culinary life. In her kitchen, she insists on freshly ground masala powders, no additives and food colours. “The processes might be tedious. But it is healthy and authentic. And it will stand the test of time,” she says. Often, her customers ask her for dishes that are not on the menu. On this particular morning, a US-based writer who was visiting his native Kerala after a long spell had a special request at breakfast. “I feel like eating kanji and payar (boiled green-gram),” he told Latha. It was not on the five-star menu. It was a poor man’s meal. But Latha fulfilled his wish in the next 20 minutes. “I feel very happy when I can serve people something that they want. Because it makes them immensely happy,” she says.
Things have changed from the time Latha began her career. Today there are many women chefs in Kerala. “But most of them prefer continental cuisine. Preparing traditional Kerala food is not easy,” Latha adds. But that hasn’t stopped her from encouraging more women to join the workforce. Her kitchen at the Malabar Café has four women chefs earning Latha and her wards the moniker “The Spice Girls”.
“This world of professional kitchens is a tough place to be,” says Latha. “There’s much ego and backstabbing in this industry. But you also find wonderful people. I was lucky to have good mentors.”
She wants the women working under her to be as lucky as her. She recalls that there have been times when she hadn’t seen her daughter for weeks together though they are living in the same house or her husband for months because of her job and erratic work timings. “But my family has been a pillar of support,” she says with pride.
She’s been a chef for the last three decades or so. She’s full-filled her childhood dream. However, she harbours just one more dream, “I wish to die in the kitchen with my chef’s apron and the cap on,” she says.
A slightly different version of this was published in The Hindu Sunday Magazine