Chef K Latha: Cooking is my passion and I have come up the hard way

Latha embarked on her culinary journey 37 years ago. Photo: Manorama

What comes to your mind when you think of a chef? A person with a beaming smile in pure whites wearing a toque blanche, isn’t it? But people involved in the art of cooking professionally were not well received close to four decades ago in Kerala and that precarious situation is reflected in the words of K Latha, chef de cuisine of Grand Hyatt in Kochi.

“People never came to invite us for the marriage of their dear ones for the simple reason that I was working in a hotel. They had nothing but scorn for my profession then,” says Latha who embarked on her culinary journey 37 years ago. The celebrated chef who made a mark in male bastion talks about her eventful career in a freewheeling chat with ‘She Talks’.

You took up the profession of cooking in 1988. Interestingly, you were born and raised in an interior hamlet in Kozhikode and had only basic education but your sights were set on becoming a cook. Those days, a sophisticated word like chef was not in vogue to describe people associated with the world of cooking. Moreover, it was a field dominated by men. How did you kick-start your culinary odyssey?
Every child has thoughts about becoming a doctor or teacher or taking up some other profession. As my family had many members, a number of people used to come to our house to prepare food. My mother’s family was into farming. I was not studious and attending classes in school was not my cup of tea. I always wanted to help my mother with household chores and loved cooking.

My father who was a voracious reader used to subscribe to the ‘Soviet Union’ magazine. In those days, everyone bought the colourful ‘Soviet Union’ to use the magazine papers to cover school textbooks and notebooks. And once I saw a photo of a chef donning a hat in the magazine.

I had a great passion for cooking since childhood and dreamt of becoming a chef. I always thought of realizing my dream. In those days, there were no hotel management schools in Kerala. The nine-year-old girl wanted to become a chef who sported a toque blanche and not an ordinary cook. The ‘Soviet Union’ magazine carried recipes for continental dishes and they also made a mark on me. My ambition to become a chef never changed as I grew up. But ‘what next’ was the big question after I passed the Class X exams. Later, I got married and my husband was the pillar who did everything to turn my dreams into reality.

Did you think about pursuing further studies during the break after clearing Class X examinations?
After Class X, I searched for an appropriate course in hotel management. An institution in Kozhikode started a hotel management course in Kozhikode in 1988 and I enrolled for that programme. I applied for jobs in hotels after completing the course in hotel management.

I belong to a traditional Nair family and my family members were against girls working in hotels as the hotel jobs were not favourably regarded.

I approached many organizations in Kozhikode City for a job but in vain. Moreover, I was an object of ridicule as many asked what kind of work a girl can do in a hotel. Later, I proved the potential of girl power and showed what a girl could achieve in the field of hotel management. Now women have proved beyond doubt that they can do anything in life. Women can soar to great heights if they shun the negative attitude and are capable of creating a difference.

An institution in Kozhikode started a hotel management course in Kozhikode in 1988 and Latha enrolled for that programme. Photo: Manorama

How long you had to wait to get a job?
I started a catering company by the name of ‘Kairiali’ as I couldn’t pocket a job even two years after completing the hotel management course. I went to Chennai before starting the catering firm but my stay there was brief for just 28 days. I was employed by a huge family in Chennai to cook for them but the family members saw treated just like any other housemaid or servant. But the level of motivation I got from the job was phenomenal.

That experience moulded me and made me what I am today. We should always try to see positivity when there is negativity all around. The bright light of positivity should guide you and don’t ever ponder over negative things.

I decided to don the hat of an entrepreneur after returning from Chennai. I started to run small restaurants and canteens on lease. I was also part of the Saj Group for a short period of time and also worked in small hotels. But I had a feeling that this is not the real world of hotels. Hotel management is not about preparing ‘sambar’ and fish curry. A catering service in Kerala revolves around dishing out fish curry, chicken curry, parotta and ‘appam’, that’s it. I am an avid reader and used to read about Continental and Chinese dishes.

Chef Latha says she always wanted to help her mother in household chores and loved cooking. Photo: Manorama

I wanted to learn more about those cuisines and made an earnest effort to master the art of cooking such dishes. The Saj Group gave me the post of ‘Master Speciality Chef’ and I learnt the nuances of Thai cooking during my 2.6 years tenure with the group.

I imbibed the art of cooking through experience and not through books. I travel to various places to master the cooking style of those regions. I stayed with the tribal people of Wayanad to know more about their food culture. My thirst for more knowledge was unquenchable and I decided to shift my focus to the Gulf countries. I went to West Asia and worked in many restaurants for six years.

What was it like working in the Gulf region? Did you get a head start as a woman?
I got not only preference but also more respect. To be frank, I started to get respect in Kerala only a few years ago. My chef Michael Komes, who is no more, was instrumental in my making a mark in the field of cooking.

Michael, who hailed from Chennai, told me that I will reach a position that would be the envy of others. But lack of higher studies was an obstacle that I faced in my career. Undoubtedly, I could have reached a much better position in my profession if I had pursued higher studies. The language was also a barrier for me.

Many women consider cooking as their passion but never think of making it their profession. What were your working hours in the initial phase of your career?
I sometimes slogged it out for 24 hours at a stretch and also worked for 18 hours a day. I had worked without getting proper sleep and that’s the hotel industry for you. The present-day cooks are in a comfort zone as they have the luxury of modern kitchen equipment. I have prepared ‘dosa’ standing next to a hot traditional earthen stove.

Now the kitchens are fully air-conditioned and the cooks don’t have to sweat it out. Life is quite easy for the chefs of the present generation. You will respect a profession only if you climb up the ladder the hard way.

Your struggling stage started after marriage. How did you maintain a work-life balance?
My mother was with us and took great care of my children. I was with my family when I was running the catering service in Kozhikode. I moved to Kochi in the year 2000. My children, mother and husband threw their weight behind me and backed me to the hilt.

Everyone says that I solely scripted my success story but the fact of the matter is that our success hinges on what we do and that success can be complete only with the support of people around you. We should always have desires and aspirations to take us on the path to success. I too had my share of ambitions and always wanted to own a hotel. I am still learning novel ways and means to prepare lip-smacking dishes to appease the guests.

How long have you been in Gulf countries?
I was in West Asia for nine years and the company that I worked for gave me a lot of privileges. I could visit Kerala every three or six months but I toiled hard in the Gulf. Employment in the Gulf provided the much-needed financial security for me.

The Gulf job gave you financial stability. But was there a change in society’s perception?
Not exactly. The people around me don’t know the nature of my job. People of Kozhikode don’t know me even though my hometown is Kozhikode. A chef like me doesn’t exist for many in Kerala. When I touch down in Dubai there are many people who come to receive me and the same is the case when I travel to other countries. But I haven’t received that kind of acceptance in Kerala and I don’t know the reason for that.

Have you ever got the feeling that society was kind of ostracizing you as you were working in hotels?
When people come to our neighbourhood to invite us for the marriage of their dear ones, they would purposely skip our house on the grounds that we were involved in some unacceptable job.

A woman working in a hotel is doing the same chores as in her home kitchen. The only difference is that the quantum of work is more. Importantly, women are an inevitable part of kitchens in houses. Then what’s wrong with women working in hotels? Why more women are not coming forward to take up jobs in hotels?

Unfortunately, our society decides the jobs ideal for women. If I return from London after my studies, people will look up to me and say that she is London-educated. But I am shown in poor light as I am working at hotels in Kerala. The underlying fact is that the society hasn’t changed much.

Why women are not getting acceptance in the hotel industry?
Women are getting acceptance but the problem is that more women are not entering this field. Let me share my experience. I had introduced many women, who didn’t have much education or training in hotel management, to the hotel industry as Hyatt gave permission to recruit such candidates. Unfortunately, they were reluctant to work hard and put in long hours. But the attitude of women in foreign countries is different as they are ready to put their noses to the grindstone.

Are women here afraid of society?
Society may be staring at them or their husbands may not be happy with long duty hours. I like to categorically state that the hotel industry is one sector where our women could excel. Anyone can boast of being a big chef and do TV shows but it takes a lot of doing to work in a hotel and cook for the guests.

When 1,000 people come to the hotel, your task is cut out as you have to satisfy 1,000 different palates. It won’t be an understatement to say that a chef is a magician as a professional cook has to dish out delectable food to different people that should satisfy them. It is indeed important that they should love our delicacies.

Kerala is unique when it comes to cuisine as the recipes change as you move from one place to another. The Kozhikode ‘sambar’ is different from the Kollam ‘sambar’ or the Alappuzha ‘sambar’. The diversity in cuisine is a challenge for the chefs and that’s where they have to weave a magic to impress the gastronomes. The success of a hotel hinges on how well you satisfy the food lovers’ hankering for a mouth-watering spread. Otherwise, you will have to address 100 complaints from as many customers. The magic is to align the palates of 100 customers, who probably come from as many different backgrounds to our flavour and taste. We have to be prepared for this humongous task.

While working in the kitchens of our houses, we will be lazy to prepare lunch after making breakfast. But when you don the hat of a professional cook, you have to work relentlessly without a break. The loop of breakfast, lunch and dinner continues day in, day out.

Can mood swings affect cooking?
I can make out whether my subordinates are in the best spirits as and when they join duty for the day. I will advise them not to cook if they have a disturbed mind. I will assign them chopping or some other task. A fresh and energetic mind is vital for the cooking process to be effective and worthwhile.

It should be said that math, chemistry and biology should be in the right proportion for the food to be toothsome and appealing. You might have noted that whatever our moms cook the food is extra special and very tasty. They haven’t been to any institute to master the art of cooking. It is noteworthy that each cooking style has a method attached to it and if you follow that method meticulously, the food can only be appetizing. You don’t have to add any artificial colour or preservative to the dishes.

Many famous chefs have claimed that they could say whether a dish is salty or not just from its aroma. What’s your take on it?
The aroma is quite unique when salt is added to a dish while cooking. A raw smell emanates from the food you are preparing in the initial stages of cooking. A different smell wafts through the air when the ingredients get boiled. All these aromas get ingrained in our brains through years of experience. If you give me a dish without salt, even without tasting the food I can say that salt has not been added.

When we go to a restaurant to have food, we criticize the cooking style and the taste of the food at the drop of a hat. But many people never think about the hard work that goes behind preparing each and every dish.

The guests get fresh and hot food in one minute. It is worth noting that nowadays dishes are prepared as and when demand arises. In olden times, food was made earlier and served when the guests arrive at the restaurants.

Now people love to repeat the fish fry or stew that they had the previous days and questions will arise if the taste is not consistent. The crux of the matter is that the taste of food should not vary and it should be consistent. It should be noted that cooking is not a walk in the park.

Our food culture is connected with the times associated with every art form or season. There is a time to have ‘kanji’ (gruel) or ‘kappa puzhukku’ and those food items were part of our basic diet. But now things have changed a lot. Presently, we are eating food without taking into consideration the weather conditions. Is our body attuned to such a food culture?
No. We can get a clear-cut answer if we could closely observe nature. Fruits, vegetables and tubers have a season of their own. It is important to align our food culture with the rhythm of nature. If that’s the case then we won’t need these many hospitals. The rainy season arrives with many ailments. In order to increase immunity and prevent diseases, our ancestors have prescribed a diet plan that says what to eat and when. There is a specific time to have each food.

Latha started a catering company by the name of ‘Kairiali’ as she couldn’t pocket a job even two years after completing the hotel management course. Photo: Manorama

The present era is marked by food experimentation in hotels and homes. YouTube is loaded with many videos showcasing recipes with ingredients that supposedly don’t gel together. One of the favourite starters nowadays is ‘Honey Chicken’, which is a yummy delicacy. But there was always a caveat that honey should not be heated under any circumstance. Now we are experimenting with many ingredients that don’t complement each other. Will this trend affect our bodies adversely?
As a matter of fact, there isn’t any food that doesn’t complement each other. But certain food when paired with other food items may not go down well for some people. We don’t know who are not receptive to those set of foods and that’s the reason why it is said that certain food pairings should be avoided. It is advised not to have curd at night. The reason is that we usually have sour curd with rice that can be heavy for the stomach. While sleeping, our internal system will be taking rest and the digestion process will be pretty tough. The chances of falling sick are pretty high if digestion doesn’t happen properly. It has been proved that coconut milk is the next big thing to breast milk as it is full of nutrients. But it will be difficult to digest coconut milk if it is mixed with cream sourced from cow milk. I have heard some people complaining of having upset stomachs after eating prawn-based dishes. Prawn can be cooked in five to six minutes but the fiber content in prawn gets hardened if you cook it for 25 minutes. So obviously, digestion will be a problem if you eat overcooked prawns. And if we drink lime juice or lime tea after having overcooked prawn, it can only get harder as the sourness can also harden the fibre content in prawns.

Nowadays many people desist from having food from hotels and restaurants following reports of people dying after eating food from such outlets. This is really a sad state of affairs. Why is this happening?
The municipalities of foreign countries are very strict when it comes to food. But in Kerala everything is lax and that might be the reason why such tragic incidents are happening. All ingredients used by our hotel are fresh.

Is stale food the main culprit?
Stale food can also be the reason. It should be noted that contamination can happen when cooked food and raw food items are stored in one refrigerator. Bacteria such as E.coli can make their presence felt through water. We wear gloves while working in the kitchen but if you are not wearing gloves the injuries in the hands can get infected. This infection can spread to the food being prepared and can ultimately enter the body. Like this, food gets poisoned due to various reasons. For example, you brought vegetables, fish and meat together and prepared a dish or a salad with vegetables without washing them properly. That’s a classic case of how food gets contaminated. Make it a point to not preserve cooked food for more than three hours.

So does it mean that storing food in refrigerators is also bad?
It is not good to eat cooked food stored in fridges. The threat of food poisoning is present not only in hotels but also in houses. Top-notch hotels such as five-star ones follow a hygiene protocol. We have different cold spaces to store non-vegetarian food items, dairy products and cooked food items meaning that food poisoning doesn’t happen in our hotels. Things can awry if red meat, dairy products and cooked food are stored in one refrigerator. The five-star hotels sterilize everything including plates, knives and cutting boards. Many people don’t wash cutting trays or boards used in houses and this practice can create health hazards. Another important thing is that only properly washed or sanitized pieces of cloth should be used in the kitchens.

You earlier said that you got acceptance into the hotel industry only recently. What was it like working with men? Any bitter experience?
I can’t categorically say no as it is our society. I know how to stand up for myself. The advice that I give to girls who are new to this profession is that if there is clarity in thoughts and mind no one will trouble you. You should know where to draw the line. I had my own share of bitter experiences but I was able to overcome them and become stronger. I have raised my voice against any kind of injustice and I have lost jobs too for speaking my mind. But I was steadfast and moved forward with grit and determination.

Is there that kind of attitude towards girls working in the hospitality industry? A wind of change is blowing, isn’t it?
Yes, now the general outlook has changed for the better. Now the boys are friendly and they try to protect the interests of their female colleagues. In my days, things were different as men colleagues were jealous of me. Now women are working as hard as men in the hotels. I have worked in an era when men had an attitude that cooking was their domain and women can’t step into that field.

Your bold attitude forced others to change their perception towards you. You got a tag that you are someone who is dedicated to your profession. How did you start your journey of becoming a celebrity chef, which you are today?
I got the recognition of being Kerala’s first female chef in 2003 and that news was splashed in one of the English dailies. Later, other newspapers including ‘Manorama’ picked up the news. When I returned to Kerala, I got full respect from the people of my home state. My MD Yusuff Ali sir was very fond of me and used to inquire about my family members whenever I met him. Ravi Pillai sir also gave ample respect to me.

Have you now realized your dream of owning a restaurant?
I am not solely running the eating outlet in the UAE as my brother and others are actively involved in it. The hotel in Mussafah follows my recipes and has a heavy footfall. The employees are all women and only two or three staff has studied hotel management. Housewives are picked for employment after I taste three or four times the food prepared by them at their houses. The food items include traditional snacks too. There are some who make only ‘payasam’. I thought that these homemakers with humble backgrounds won’t reach anywhere in life but I was proved wrong. The restaurant has a 45-year-old head chef who is a housewife.

The project was worth Rs 3 crore and was executed with the help of my former boss, an Arab, and my brother. I didn’t invest any money in the project. As women from poor backgrounds are recruited, many families are uplifted through employment at the restaurant. My restaurant is a training ground for them and after two years or so they would get better opportunities in other hotels.

This is your second life after surviving a major accident. How did that happen?
I had returned to Kerala from the Gulf. A hotel group approached me to conduct an ‘Adivasi’ Festival and all arrangements were made for the event. One day I met with an accident while riding a scooter and fractured my skull and sustained injuries in my eyes and legs. I had also inked an agreement and taken an advance amount to conduct a festival in Dubai. I regained consciousness following the accident after 15 days but temporarily lost my sense of smell and taste. My doctor gave me confidence and told me that I was a person with a strong will. Interestingly, I conducted the festival and got the best chef award without my sense of smell and taste. That day I came to know that I am cooking food with my heart.

You are a chef known for interacting with guests and taking feedback from them. Usually, it is a rare quality among the top chefs.
I had been doing that for many years and old habits die hard. It should be said that the support from the chefs and managers is exemplary. The managers won’t allow me to cook as the cooking is done by other chefs. I cook only when Yusuff Ali sir comes to the hotel. I rarely cook nowadays but make it a point to taste all food.

You have tasted success in life. You have also written a book. What next?
Presently, I am writing two more books. The first book is titled ‘Latha Pachakam’ and talks about cooking techniques. The second book is ‘History of Hotel Life’, which traces the link between modern cooking and the cooking style of the past.

Only a voracious reader can speak and write beautifully like this, isn’t it?
I have studied only up to Class X and after that did a diploma in hotel management. I tried to complete a degree course quite late in life at the age of 40.

People working in the hotel industry should be health conscious as they taste all kinds of food every day as part of their profession. What steps should be taken to maintain health, especially for women?
Both men and women working in this field should be careful about their health. There will be all kinds of food items including oily ones. Our health will be in deep trouble if we are careless in discharging our duties. We may develop varicose veins as we stand for close to 12 hours while working. We don’t get time to sit down for a while.

It is quite interesting that even at your age you are healthy and don’t have any health issues such as cholesterol, hypertension or diabetes. Do you follow any diet plan?
I am 55 years old. Besides following a diet plan, I also avoid oily food. I drink coffee once a day that too black coffee. I am not into having sugar and rice for a while. I don’t skip breakfast and lunch but avoid dinner.

Society sees you as a very successful person. Many love to search for you on YouTube and follow your recipes. Many women aspire to enter this field and make a mark. What’s your advice for them?
We are living in an era that is hi-tech to the core. Both husband and wife should work in order to meet the spiralling living expenses. Every woman needs the support of the society and her family members. A woman’s income comes to the family but a man’s income can get diverted for various other things.

We should always try to see positivity when there is negativity all-around, says Chef Latha. Photo: Manorama

The advice I have to give to women who want to enter the hotel industry is that they can definitely succeed in this field. You won’t regret working in the hospitality industry for the simple reason that the world cannot survive without food. The number of hotels is only increasing and robots can’t cook food. The hotel industry is one the best sectors for women to work in. People may say anything but we should do what’s right. And ultimately you will succeed in life.

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