A Pakistani boy in the kitchen: Chasing my dream with a pinch of salt
'Why don't you just be a barber then?' my grandfather asked me when I told him I was studying to be a chef.
Three years ago, roughly around this time of the year, I told my parents what I wanted to do with my future. I still remember that day. My father and I were searching for seafood at the infamous Delhi Colony market. The sun was at its peak and the heat was unforgiving.
A’Levels is a crucial time of the year; it is that time when students stress about their future. Thinking about shifting from a school to a university was considerably overwhelming at that time. If I’m not mistaken, it was a Sunday that sparked my realisation of where I wanted to take my life.
I love to cook and have been cooking since as far as I can remember. This love for food has been passed on to me by my father; it’s a genetic kind of love. He always took pride in purchasing the best ingredients from the market and showcasing the quality to us at home.
Enjoying food and picking it as your career path are two different things, I realised that much later. I did not know what to expect initially, but I decided to capitalise on my interest.
My father was the one who helped me appreciate the art, skill and knowledge of a butcher and a fishmonger. They are individuals with a strong character and possess real knowledge regarding the food on your dinner table.
During this time, I gathered the courage to tell my father that I wanted to be a cook. He smiled and told me to do whatever made me happy. My anxiety subsided momentarily.
“Pakistani boy in the kitchen”- traditionally, this doesn't seem like the most conventional path to take. I could never imagine an average Pakistani showing approval when you tell them you want to be a cook.
“You want to be a bawarchi (cook)?”
“Are you sure?”
“I hope you know Pakistan has no scope for such a thing.”
These are usual responses thrown my way. It was unexpected when I received the same responses from graduate and PhD students just a few years older than me.
Pakistanis thrive on establishments that serve good food. It’s ironic when someone tells me that I’m investing my time in nothing. The food industry is one of the few thriving industries in Pakistan, and one can see the growing potential for a high demand of such skilled cooks.
As you enter the doors of Jinnah International Airport, you can see a customs officer beside the scanner. While I was going through the airport, I encountered such an officer who championed a pot belly and a glorious moustache. His uniform was blindingly white and crisp. He asked me what I was studying. I explained my course to him in detail. He laughed and then expressed concern about my choice of education.
The best of the sceptical responses thrown my way was from my grandfather. He told me I should become a barber instead. I laughed his sarcasm off and felt even more motivated. I told him there is nothing wrong with being a barber; it’s a skill based job which requires time and effort.
Whenever my dad was asked about my studies at weddings or family functions, he would either dodge the question or was forced to say a course in management. He thought they were not ready to know yet. I felt it was my responsibility- to explain to my family that studying business, engineering and medicine are not the only options a Pakistani has anymore.
It has been two years now and things are slightly different. My friends and family have internalised my choice. This journey is making me understand that food is one of the most important factors in shaping culture and tradition. Most importantly, I have a new-found respect for food.
Ingredient knowledge, origin of the ingredient and the right method to cook it, should be an extension of your instinct.
I started to think about food differently. Global cultures are moving towards educating their youth about food so that they can learn to appreciate it. I firmly believe that knowledge about food should be shared. Our dependency on fast food is leading us to an exceedingly unhealthy lifestyle. Encouraging our young to take an interest in what they put in their body is everyone’s responsibility.
I broke away from the stigma of being a cook in Pakistan. I started exploring my domain and realised the possibilities in this field of work are endless. Pakistani cuisine is rich and the quality of food grown on our soil is remarkable. It certainly deserves our attention.
Read more by Asad here or Follow him on Twitter @asadaamir1