Journalism took a backseat when a 17-year-old Megha Kohli got accepted into the kitchen programme at the Oberoi Group. From braving blatant sexism at work to rising towards the seat of kitchen boss, this young head chef of Lavaash by Saby, in a candid chat over generous servings of food shares how regional cuisine is here to stay, how food literally runs in her Punjabi DNA and what it is being the ‘complete chef’
Mum’s the word
In Chef Megha Kohli’s case, one can safely say ‘mum’s the word’. Literally, had her enthusiastic mother not encouraged her to try out the kitchen programme at the Oberoi Group, Megha probably would’ve been a journalist, cooking stories instead of food. “And my father, he is the proudest dad who can’t get over that his daughter is a chef,” coos Megha, an excited teen, who walked bravely into the kitchen’s hot zone, and braced herself for the real battle.
Pans & the Potboiler
“Here I was, a convent educated girl, standing in a kitchen with 30 men, abusing, peeling onions for 11 hours! Mind you, this was a short day in chef’s world for we would be standing, cutting, chopping at 18-20 hours at a stretch. I was miserable, away from home, ready to escape this heat!”
Slogging in the kitchens was one thing – braving its dirty politics was another ball game.
“At the programme, we used to have our appraisals every six months and I was the only one who got 50 out of 50. Suddenly everyone was gossiping how I was sleeping with the head chef! He was 50 and I was 17 and heartbroken. You see, if a woman is successful, she must definitely be sleeping with the boss! But if the men are successful, no one says a word,” Chef Megha gets candid, and even aggressive with those who spread such vicious rumours. Being a woman, and a boss in a man’s world is no easy task, and she confesses she faces the discrimination, the sexism everyday. “It is difficult heading a team of men…they are egoistic! If you tell them to improve a sauce, they ask you to make and display the flaw, but if a male chef would point out the same aspect, their simple answer would be ‘okay chef’.”
“That’s the difference.” It’s an uphill battle, where Megha says she has to prove herself everyday, even if she is more experienced and talented.
Behind the counter
So what keeps this spunky spirited girl going? Ambition, focus and a crazy obsession to work – no matter what the hours. Without a doubt, supportive parents and an ideal mentor. She humbly passes much of the credit to Chef Saby.
“He is my mentor, he trusted me with everything: creation of Lavaash from scratch, working on some interesting projects under chef Saby’s consultancy, Fabrica….So yes, we also have men like him who never questioned my ability and has enabled me to transform myself from a good cook to a chef.”
For someone who has grown up on her mother’s French desserts, whole baked trout and crabs, Megha loves Mediterranean food. Where her magical ingredient is paprika and coffee in desserts, her signature dish is the Lavaash fish, marinated in mustard, coconut milk and cooked in French style wrapped in Lavaash bread.
When it comes to alcohol, you will find it in desserts, and soon, on their terrace with perhaps meats fused with alcohol. “Just be sure to put the right amount so that it doesn’t overpower. I usually deglaze the pan with it,” says Megha who interestingly uses Kalhua and Cointreau for desserts and vodka and red wine for a ‘kick’ to the food.
Between the scrumptious bites of bread, she gets chatty about the research behind Lavaash.
“Did you know that Kolkata has a small population of Armenians, about 200, settled there, and even a college and their own cuisine?” she relays with a twinkle in her eyes, shining bright behind those big quirky glasses.
We love this passion, she sure is…. girl uninterrupted !