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  • Writer's pictureAzera Rahman

Biz acumen made at home

Updated: Jul 17, 2021

For The Business Line.

It’s the hectic hours preceding mealtime and Sangya Pandey, a Varanasi-based homemaker and mother-of-three, is very busy. The kitchen is the epicentre of furious activity as she chops veggies and stirs the pot of spicy curry, even while taking hot rotis off the tawa (skillet). The delicious food will soon be ready to be served… and here’s the twist… not to her family but guests at a five-star hotel.

Be it cooking ‘homely’ meals, fashioning gourmet chocolates, teaching crafts like glass painting and candle-making, or expertly designing clothes, homemakers today are extending what they enjoy doing in their everyday life into a part-time vocation. In the process, the talented women are not just gaining financial independence but also riding on a new wave of confidence and self-worth.

Sangya is among the growing tribe of homemakers-turned-chefs that the Gateway Hotels and Resorts of the Taj group has roped in for its latest addition to the menu — ghar ka khana, or home-cooked food. Even as it spells comfort — for the body and soul — to the weary traveller, this kind of five-star meal is probably the most authentic representation of local cuisine, prepared by local homemakers. “The only difference between cooking at home and cooking for hotel guests is that I have to cook slightly larger portions,” says Sangya, who is one of the two homemaker-chefs at the hotel’s Varanasi property.

She specialises in saatvik food (vegetarian cuisine devoid of garlic and onion). “I come to the hotel at around noon, after finishing my household chores, and prepare lunch in a separate kitchen. I choose what I want to make, depending on the availability of seasonal vegetables. During winter, I prepare items like gobi matar, kadi pakoda and aloo methi. During summer, the menu changes,” she says, adding that she is happy to accommodate special requests from guests, even if they are not on her menu.

According to Natarajan Kulandai, corporate chef of Gateway Hotels, as many as 19 homemaker-chefs are employed across 22 properties, whipping up 17 different cuisines — all of which have been a huge hit. Plans are afoot to hire more women from similar backgrounds and with — surprise, surprise — “preferably no hotel experience”.

While Sangya’s food is enjoyed by five-star guests, Sarika Khan’s specialities are devoured by students living in the Capital away from home. “I remember my brother, a former Delhi University student, used to call up my mother and complain about the food. He missed her home-cooked meals terribly,” says Sarika, who moved from Bhopal to Delhi after marriage. “I thought, why not start a small-scale tiffin service for out-of-station students? The idea was to give them home-like healthy and tasty food at a decent price, because students live on a tight budget.”

Happy with the response — as many as ten students use her tiffin service — she is now able to supplement the family income. Her husband earns about Rs 30,000 a month, and the family now manages to save Rs 15,000. “For a homemaker like me, such an initiative is also a confidence booster… not only am I managing things at home, I am also able to take care of some expenses and be economically independent,” she says.

For most women, while the decision to start a small business or do something creative may not always be about money, it does play a major role. However, most of them do it to feel empowered and confident. For Monica Katula, who has made a name for herself by crafting delectable chocolates, ‘work’ is a means of feeling good about herself.

While the Meerut-based mother of three always enjoyed baking, an urge to learn something new saw her enrol for a short chocolate-making course. “Since then, I have regaled my family and friends with my creations,” says the 37-year-old chocolatier. The turning point came about seven years ago, when she sent her nephew a box of homemade chocolates as a birthday gift. “He couldn’t believe it was homemade! He asked me to make more batches to distribute among his friends. That was my first official order,” she recalls.

Soon came an order during Diwali. “One of my friends asked if I could make a few boxes of chocolates. She didn’t want to go in for the usual sweets. Thereon, my work spread through word-of-mouth publicity.” Today, she also caters for weddings, anniversaries, birthdays and festivals. Her prices range from Rs 2–3 per chocolate to Rs 500 a box. “My aim was never to make money... this is not a full-fledged business. I am a housewife, and make chocolates when someone places an order. This work makes me feel good about myself. The fact that strangers call up to ask for my homemade chocolates means that I am good at it,” she reasons.

Siddhika Bahl’s decision to pursue her interest in clothes designing stemmed from a desire to give her creative energies an outlet. “I have been married for a year, and while my priority lies in being a good homemaker, I do want to pursue my other passion too. Hence, I design suits, gowns and saris. It is, of course, for a limited clientele that includes family, relatives and friends,” she says, adding that she designed her own engagement outfit, which was a big hit. The 27-year-old, who studied design at a fashion institute, is now busy working on the wedding trousseau of a friend.

Whatever the age group or economic status, the thread that binds these entrepreneurial homemakers is the need for a confidence boost. Sama Sharma, a Delhi-based homemaker teaching candle making and glass painting to teenagers in her neighbourhood, says it’s important to feel good about oneself if one is to have a positive influence at home. “I enjoy being a housewife. But everybody has some talent, and I think all homemakers should explore the opportunity to take up some professional work,” she says.

Sangya agrees, and adds, “I am not doing something very different from what I usually do, and yet I get to learn so many new things when I cook in the hotel. Plus, the appreciation that I get from strangers makes me feel good about myself. My children are proud of me… I have set an example of professionalism for them. What more can one ask?”

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