‘In our society, cooking has always been considered a woman’s job’Chef Suresh Chandra Basnet talks about his culinary journey, the gender imbalance in his profession, and why he decided to author a book.
Known widely in Nepal’s culinary circle as Nepali Food Guru, Suresh Chandra Basnet has spent more than three decades working as a culinary professional. Basnet, who grew up in Tanahun district’s Damauli, developed a passion for cooking by watching his mother cook. But the person who inspired him to take up the culinary profession was his maternal uncle.
“My uncle was a reputed chef in the country, and he later went on to work abroad,” says Basnet. “His inspirational professional journey and my love for cooking were what led me to choose this profession.”
Apart from cooking, Basnet has also spent years researching indigenous Nepali cuisines and has travelled to more than 40 districts to learn more about local dishes. This Saturday, Basnet is launching his book ‘Nepali Gastronomy Book’. The book, says Basnet, will cover the many ups and downs he has seen in his decades of experience working as a professional chef, the importance of focusing on Nepal’s indigenous cuisines, and his years of experience researching on the subject.
Basnet spoke with the Post’s Pinki Sris Rana and shared his thoughts on how Nepal’s gastronomy landscape is changing, the gender imbalance in his profession, and why he decided to write a book. Excerpts:
What is your earliest memory of cooking?
Growing up in a village, my four siblings and I were all assigned chores we needed to complete before school. Since I was very interested in cooking, most of my chores were related to kitchen work. I still remember the first time I cooked rice. I was in grade 6 and had never cooked rice before. I put in excess water while cooking the rice, and it turned out very mushy. Everyone in my family made fun of me for not even knowing how to cook rice properly. The episode further strengthened my desire to learn cooking and get better at it.
But it was only when I was 20 that I decided to get a formal education on cooking by enrolling in a year-long cooking training program at a culinary institute. I then went on to take a course on cooking from the renowned Nepal Academy of Tourism and Hotel Management (NATHM).
In those days, culinary professionals were looked down upon, wasn’t it?
Yes, that’s true. People thought those who study culinary only end up working at roadside hotels or washing dishes at big hotels in the city. This misconception was prevalent because the majority of people weren’t exposed to the operations of high-end hotels where trained culinary professionals worked. For many, hotels meant highway restaurants and other substandard hospitality establishments. Over the years, the situation has changed, and people understand more about the profession than ever before. But it has taken many years for this change to happen.
In the last few years, Nepal’s gastronomy scene has evolved to give importance to local cuisines and dishes. What do you think are the reasons for this change?
Until the 1970s, the majority of the restaurants in the country were owned by foreigners, and they mainly catered to foreign tourists visiting the country at the time. But things started changing after the civil war broke out in the country in 1996. As the number of tourists visiting the country reduced drastically, hospitality businesses, to survive, had to shift their focus and cater to the domestic tourism market and started offering dishes Nepalis found palatable. But I think the real change began only after Nepal Tourism Year 2011, when the concept of homestay was introduced to the country. This led people to start focusing on their own cultures, traditions, arts, foods, etc.
Another factor that has contributed to the promotion of local cuisines is the eating out culture, which has become hugely popular in the cities. To offer something new to diners, restaurants and chefs are exploring and experimenting with local dishes.
What do you think of the role culinary schools are playing to popularise Nepali cuisines?
Given the country's economic reality, many in the country have no option but to go abroad to work for better opportunities. Hotel management school students invest hundreds of thousands of rupees to get the proper education. So it’s natural for these students to opt to go and work where they’d get the quickest return on the investment. Recent hotel management graduates working in the Middle East earn at least three times more salary than their counterparts in Nepal. This is why so many hotel management graduates go and work in the Middle East and other South East Asian countries.
And the schools are aware of this, and they prioritise teaching students on continental cuisines to make students internationally skilled. Schools hardly dedicate three to five classes on indigenous food. Given the demand of the students, schools have no option but to do what they are doing.
Even our government doesn’t seem to be placing as much emphasis as it should be in promoting Nepali cuisines and creating an environment conducive to our indigenous cuisines going mainstream. Whatever little promotion and advocacy of Nepali cuisines we see today are led and done by individual chefs. A few chefs have also made use of the pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns to explore local cuisines and promote them. One of them is my friend Mahesh Shah who has helped promote Mithila cuisine on a national scale.
As someone who served as the general secretary of the Chefs Association of Nepal from 2011-2015, you are well aware of the huge gender gap in the culinary profession. Why do you think Nepal has so few women culinary professionals?
In our society, cooking has always been considered a woman’s job. In the majority of the households in the country, it’s the women who do the cooking. But when it comes to professional cooking, the industry is very male-dominated. This is the case in many South Asian countries. I think the main reason for the gender imbalance in the profession is the nature of the job. In this line of work, the hours are very long—from 10 to 12 hours a day. And in a conservative society like ours, where professional women are expected to balance both work and professional obligations, it, unfortunately, becomes very challenging for women to balance home and work life.
When you look at the ratio of female students enrolling in hotel management schools, the number of females is equal to that of males. But, sadly, very few of the female students go on to specialise in cooking, and the majority of them choose the front desk, housekeeping, and the service section of the food and beverage department.
Your book ‘Nepali Gastronomy Book’ is coming out tomorrow. What made you decide to write the book?
Having spent more than three decades in this line of work, I think I have seen my share of professional ups and downs. I have also travelled extensively to learn about Nepal’s indigenous cuisines. I have shared all of it in my book, hoping that the younger culinary professionals would find something valuable from my experiences. This book definitely won’t be my last, and I intend to write more.