The culinary journey started for Aanal Kotak at the age of 12, when a caterer hired to cook for a gathering of some 50 people didn’t turn up. So big was the dream of becoming a chef for Aanal, that she ran off from her own engagement ceremony, to appear for auditions in a regional cooking show. Today she runs a chain of restaurants in Ahmedabad, Surat and Vadodara by the name of ‘The Secret Kitchen’ and ‘Akshada’, and has hosted cookery shows on Colours Gujarati. How often do you see such passion for cooking in someone? Kotak speaks to SheThePeople.TV, about her dream to make vegetarian food popular worldwide and the challenges she faces being a woman chef and entrepreneur.
Tell us about your childhood and what inspired you to become a chef?
I was born and brought up in a typical Gujarati business family in Ahmedabad and was the only daughter. Hence, right from the outset, I lived in a very conservative and highly sheltered family structure. Everyone expected me to follow the path laid down by the elders.
I used to love food and spent a lot of time in the kitchen as a child. Once when I was 12 years of age, there was a family gathering of about 50 people. Suddenly the caterer hired didn’t turn up and I took it upon myself to cook food for everyone. That was my first brush with donning the hat of a chef and that’s how the passion got sparked. I have inherited the knack for cooking and recipes from my Nani and Dadi who were truly Annapurnas. I believe whatever I have achieved today is only because of them.
What inspired you to take the plunge with entrepreneurship?
I was 19-years-old when I participated in a cooking competition and got rejected by the TV channel team just because they felt that I was too young to appear as a cooking expert on a television show. They instead offered me to become the show’s host. I declined their offer and in the following year, I again gave the competition a shot. This time I returned home with the title of Gujarat’s Youngest Cooking Expert. There was no looking back after that and subsequently, I ran off from my engagement ceremony to appear for the auditions of Rasoi Show, a regional cooking show on Colors Gujarati (back then it used to be ETV).
After my marriage, my husband saw the unrelenting passion in me, and supported me in creating Gujarat’s first ever fine dining restaurant ‘The Secret Kitchen.’
What are the challenges that you face on a daily basis and how do you tackle them?
I work in Gujarat. The market here is quite different from the rest of India. In Gujarat, the hospitality industry works in a very distinct way. It is a Herculean task to find people who match your vision. to work with you. In fact, it is even harder to find the right resources to create your team as most people are unlikely to show the same passion for your dream that you have. I am fortunate that I found the kind of team members I was looking for and they are my strength today.
I ran off from my engagement ceremony to appear for the auditions of a regional cooking show.
What is the reason behind your venture’s success, according to you?
I believe that dining is a complete experience – from ambiance to hospitality and food. Everything should create an impact when customers dine at your restaurant and I think, we have created that when compared to other restaurants. I feel this is the main reason why my venture became successful in a short span. We have received so much love from people and true success for me is when your customer leaves the restaurant satisfied, with a burp of course!
What is your long-term vision?
I have several goals to chase. However, if I must mention some of them, they would be opening 50 ‘The Secret Kitchen’ outlets globally, creating more than a couple of new brands, revolutionizing the regional cuisine market in India, promoting vegetarianism and working towards making more people adopt it, developing products that can give me access to every household across India.
How did you manage to get funding for the base operations initially?
The initial support was provided by my husband.
What are the biggest challenges to have come your way?
The biggest hurdle I faced was that my parents had no faith in me. They didn’t believe that I had the talent to make it and this lack of trust created self-doubts in me. I used to wonder whether I will be able to do justice to my passion. My next challenge came in the form of breaking the barriers to enter a male-dominated culinary world.
It is important to make women understand that they have more talent and are very strong. Supporting, encouraging and motivating them will only make our country progress better.
Do you feel that the startup ecosystem is unfriendly towards women chefs?
Yes. I feel this is so because many people still believe it to be a male-led industry. Unfortunately, gender bias is still very strong in our country, particularly in the culinary world. People think that in this industry, it is not possible for women to grow. Investing in women-led food startups is something people believe is a waste even today.
Do you believe the startup ecosystem will take a long time to become female friendly?
Until and unless people become unbiased and hypocrisy dies out, it is not possible. It is high time that people understand that women chefs are highly successful. Their success ratio is also higher compared to men. However, certain perceptions can change only when people begin understanding this and the fact that it is not man’s industry. At the end of the day, history is proof that women ruled in both personal and professional kitchens. Before the Mughal era in India, only women were involved in the royal kitchens.
How can we encourage more women to take up entrepreneurship?
It is important to make women understand that they have more talent and are very strong. Supporting, encouraging and motivating them will only make our country progress better. Several publications and research indicate that women entrepreneurs are more successful than men.
We also should not forget that women play diverse roles at home too. From daughters to wives and other multiple relations, they do justice to all of these effortlessly. We also forget that supporting women will only lead to the betterment of life, work and all industries. It is important to not push them down or degrade them. If someone has a vision or passion, we should always encourage them and let them pursue their interest.
I feel that only digital media alone cannot help in shaping anyone. It can certainly become your primary tool to stay connected to your set of audience and reach them more efficiently.
Women chefs are now empowered worldwide through social media platforms. How do you think its reach can help you grow in the business?
It can certainly help you to grow in many ways. Many women and homemakers are pursuing their passion and making their presence felt on social media. They often turn to these platforms for encouragement, and test run their business before they jump into the actual market. Social media has helped many passionate cooks to become successful food bloggers, photographers, marketer, chefs etc. Personally, it has helped me to grow to a certain level. It has helped me in reaching out to more people and the latter eventually became my followers. Their inputs in form of comments and messages help me amend certain things about my business and make it more successful.
Do you think digital media has shaped up women chefs’ passion with higher reach?
I feel it has, to a certain extent and plays a 50:50 role. However, I feel that only digital media alone cannot help in shaping anyone. It can certainly become your primary tool to stay connected to your set of audience and reach them more efficiently.
What impact did the digital boom have on you and your company?
It has helped me stay connected better with my people and fans, and reach out to more people. The reviews and comments they give help us improvise our work and offerings as well.
Tips for women entrepreneurs/ home chefs.
If you are passionate about food and cooking, can handle criticism even after giving your best; and can handle the heat, only then enter this space. Don’t get into it because it looks like a glamorous profession or if it’s just a fascination that you have for the industry. It’s very different and way more difficult an industry than one can think of!
Feature Image Credit: Aanal Kotak