One of the most challenging aspects I faced in my hospitality career revolved around the idea of acceptance. Early in my career, I questioned whether my peers would take a young, female chef seriously? This was a good dilemma in many ways, as the quest for inclusion forced me to set my own leadership ideals around the idea of inclusivity. How inclusive would I be towards other people and their ideas?
In 1992, I was a budding caterer attempting to build my business in one of the most food-forward cities in the world – Hong Kong. I had developed a strong base of clientele, but longed to stretch my wings. I purposely set my attention to larger events and venues. To my delight, I received the opportunity of a lifetime when the Head Chef of the Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Center accepted my proposal to develop a Middle Eastern themed event.
I wrote about this event in a chapter of my new book, Seva: The Art of Hospitality. An incredible experience in my early career that helped to shape the idea of inclusiveness in me. Where acceptance is based not on our “alike-ness”; rather, acceptance begins when we welcome our differences.
The Kitchen is My Home
A kitchen is a place to learn and to influence. It is also an arena where “iron sharpens iron.” Each contributor has their own idea of food and how they want to interpret their dishes. The kitchen is my space, my home; the place where I am most confident.
But as I walked into the massive bright, white-walled kitchen located deep in the belly of the massive Hong Kong Convention Center, I had to pause and just soak it in. Professional kitchens always had this effect on me. And this one was readied, as though we were conceiving a symphonic arrangement.
As confident as I was in a kitchen, I was skeptical of being accepted into this one. I was a self-trained chef, never employed in a professional kitchen, and most notably, a female. Oh, and I wasn’t Chinese. All the attributes of someone who is least likely to be included. It should come as no surprise that kitchens were predominantly the domain of male chefs, particularly in Hong Kong. (Although things have changed dramatically since the 1990s.)
However, things played out much more differently than I could have imagined. I anticipated pushback, but got none. Chef had prepared his staff and encouraged them to expand their thinking. (An earlier version of “diversity and inclusion” training I suppose).
I also realized that inclusiveness was a two-way street. I had to bring something to the table and did. Middle Eastern was a new type of cuisine to be introduced by someone outside their “circle”. On my part, I needed the kitchen team and took every opportunity to show them how much I valued them. For their part, they got to experience something totally foreign to them and would become even better at their skills for the experience.
Acceptance Starts with a Smile
There were over fifteen kitchen staff in the space on any given shift: Executive, Sous, Chef de Partie, Garde Manger, Saucier, Pastry, Grill, Commis, Prep Cooks, Roundsman and Porters. I determined to engage with each of them personally. As I entered the kitchen each morning, walking from station to station, I would greet every team member in Cantonese, “Jo-san, Jo-san” (“good morning!”). Acceptance starts with an engaging smile.
I determined not to hold back my knowledge, but was insistent on sharing it. As we unwrapped all the pungent colorful spices, letting the aroma permeate through the kitchen, I bantered away in Cantonese with hand gestures, sharing stories of each recipe, ingredient, and its cultural background. I offered my take about the diversity of the many regions this cuisine had evolved from, and slowly articulated unfamiliar names of the ethnic recipes for their benefit. I brought in books with pictures for visual support. Anything that would elevate them and their work.
The staff were young and attentive. I sensed their passion for food and an obvious desire to excel in their profession. They were particularly eager to be well versed in Middle Eastern cuisine. The convention center public relations department had scheduled a media opportunity, so the kitchen team was more motivated to be able to verbalize each item they were working on for the event. Their showmanship left an enormous impression on me, encouraging me to stay on my game.
An Amazing Honor
On the day of the event opening, we all stood back admiring our creations. It was obvious we were a team. The fact that they welcomed and trusted me, and that they openly expressed their desire to learn from me, reassured me of my calling to lead through selfless service.
Later that morning, chef took me down to housekeeping. He bestowed on me one of the greatest honors I have ever received – my own chef toque (the quintessential chef’s hat that is brimless and white in color) and chef coat. I recalled tracing my fingers through the embroidery of my name. Then focusing in on the accompanying title: “Chef.”
Most significantly, the color of the embroidered name and title was identical to the Executive Chef’s coat. In other words, this young, Indian, female caterer was being included as one of their own. Tears welled up as I took in this gesture of honor. It was the greatest compliment.
At the time I wasn’t aware how much I longed to be accepted into the rarified world of chefs. I thought of myself as a chef in my own right, and never felt the need to label myself as such. But when you are granted with such an honor…when you are accepted where you aren’t sure you belong, it satisfies that inner craving we all possess to be valued for who we are and for what we do.
Inclusivity is more than an idea – it’s a powerful tool for change.