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     Volume 5 Issue 110 | September 1, 2006 |

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Cover Story

The Road to Chefdom

Kajalie Shehreen Islam and Elita Karim

Mushrooms and onions, tomatoes and capsicum, diced chicken and sprinklings of spices all go into a line of sizzling pans. Triangle-shaped parathas are frying on the stoves beside them. The phirni is in line . . .
On the first floor of a building on Khilji Road, a group of men in white aprons and hats are creating quite a stir.
From formal institutions that award certificates to informal neighbourhood classes, culinary art has become big business today. And to please taste buds, Dhaka is cooking up its next generation of chefs for not only in and outside the home, but to serve food connoisseurs around the world.

Habib, from Bikrampur, is training at Tommy Miah’s Institute of Hospitality Management in Mohammadpur. He has learnt a variety of dishes in the two months that he has been doing the course. These include chicken mughlai, korma and tandoori, Mexican dishes, breads, sauces and even how to make cheese. After getting a certificate from here, Habib hopes to join his brother in Italy and work there as a chef. Beside him, Abu Bakr, busy stirring the chicken jhal freizi, says he also wants to go abroad. Ali Azam from Sylhet, however, says he is at the institute to just learn to cook better for himself.

There are currently 280 students training at Tommy Miah’s, 20 in each group. Most of them are men, says Rubina H. Farouq, Head of the Institute, but women are increasingly beginning to join. “There are actually four couples taking the course together now,” she says. The minimum educational requirement is SSC, “but we have many graduates and now even a couple of MBA students coming in,” says Farouq.

Classes take place in morning and afternoon shifts. The duration of the three types of courses is two months, six months and a year, of which industrial attachment, or apprenticeship, is a compulsory part. Costs range from Tk 3,500 to Tk 37,000 and is paid in instalments. Besides the practical aspect of cooking, there is also a lot of theory, says Rubina, with particular emphasis on nutrition, hygiene, food safety and safety at work. An orientation in information technology (IT) and English is also compulsory. A short meditation session before each class is also held, says Rubina, who stresses on positive thinking of all the students.

Some parents send their children to the institute just to keep busy and stay out of trouble, but the institute’s head stresses that students have to be 150 percent serious to succeed in the course, not to mention out in the real world. “We train them to be prepared for all kinds of situations,” she says, “which is why we make them use everything from a thistle to a blender. Kitchen organisation is also taught, so that students learn to clean up and put away things in an organised manner after cooking. Once a month, everyone engages in cleaning the premises of the institute, and everyone from the head to the students to the staff takes turns to mop and wipe everything clean.”

“Because students come from various backgrounds, we give them the most basic training,” says Rubina. Maintaining basic and personal hygiene is of the utmost importance, from covering their heads, to keeping their nails short, reporting any wounds, not wearing jewellery, etc.”

“As far as cuisine is concerned,” she says, “they learn everything from Indian and South Indian to English and Chinese. We also, when the opportunity arises, have workshops on French and Italian cuisine.”

The faculty at Tommy Miah’s is mostly local, some Indian, all with backgrounds in hospitality. Tommy Miah, the institute’s brand manager, himself comes every other month and takes classes. Also at the institute is a service room, where students practise serving food as well, taking turns role-playing as waiter and guest. There is also a bakery section, a computer lab and classrooms where theory classes are held.

In the lobby of the institute is a bulletin board with pictures and short details of students with placements. About 100 students, after completing the course, have gone abroad to work at restaurants, especially in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Two students have gone abroad for higher studies in food and beverage production in Australia, while one has found a placement at the Palm Hotel in Dubai. A certificate from the institute, which is affiliated with the City and Guilds in England, helps in securing placements abroad. Some former students work at local hotels like the Pan Pacific Sonargaon, Sheraton and Radisson and restaurants like Heritage, Samarkand and Pizza Hut.

“Our students do very well,” says Rubina Farouq, “earning between Tk 5,000 and 50,000 per month. They develop enough self-confidence to set up their own businesses, with some going into catering as well. And of course they are all able to help out in their own homes.”

Tommy Miah, an international name in the art of cooking

In 2005, the institute took part in the International Indian Chef of the Year Competition in Edinburgh. The chef sponsored by Tommy Miah’s, Mohiuddin Howladar, stood fourth in the competition. “He received five job offers in the UK at the time,” says Rubina. “But he came back home and finalised the best deal, and is now working at a restaurant in London.”

Monira Sultana, a remarkable entrepreneur, set up her training institute Apon Ghor in October 1987. Starting with just three to four students per class at Zakir Hossain Road in Mohammadpur, she now owns this cooking school in Dhanmondi Road 27, with over 20 students per class.

Running successfully for almost 19 years, Monira’s institution is famous amongst the inhabitants in the Dhanmondi area and elsewhere as well. An institution enhancing the art of cooking, the courses have been divided into 17 items. “We have divided our courses accordingly and hold classes three times a day,” explains Monira. Starting from lessons in confectionery cooking, Chinese and Mughal cuisine to desserts, Monira also has special classes on microwave cooking. The microwave requires knowledge about temperature and heat, which not many cooks are aware of. “It is a very different process as compared to the conventional style of cooking,” she adds. Apon Ghor, an all women’s school, is registered with the Social Welfare Department. It is a recognised institution where many students come to get a certificate. “Most of my students come here to be self-reliant,” Monira explains. “They happen to be the ones who will be living abroad to study, work or

Rubina Farouq, Head of the Institute,Tommy Miah's Institute of Hospitality Management

to accompany their husbands,” Monira explains. “All of them look for certification so that they can make use of it abroad and earn their own living.” At Tk 1,200 per course, the students get certificates after they complete the six-week course, according to Monira. Being the only teacher at the institution along with her assistants, Monira has been trained from Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA). “I have always wanted to stand on my own feet,” she says. “And since cooking was something that I always liked to experiment with, I decided to impart this bit of knowledge to those around me.”

EPIQUE Institute is another school for women which specialises in cooking as well as beauty training. Owned and run by Rahima Sultana, the school, established in 2003, has around 10-15 students per class, with two classes held every day. The courses, ranging from Tk 500 to Tk 3,000, have been divided according to the learning level of the student and the type of cooking that each student would want to learn. Starting from six-day courses, where students learn everything from cooking, baking, food packaging, marketing and so on, the school also provides three-day, two-day and even one-day courses at least once or twice every month. “Unlike many other schools in Dhaka, the Epique Institute also holds theory classes,” says Rahima. “We have classes for low-fat cooking, healthy cooking and also the basic concepts of cooking and packaging.”

According to the Course Coordinator, Azizunnahar Ruby, there are teachers and trainers who come from some of the most famous hotels and restaurants to teach the students. “We have teachers from Hotel Sheraton, Chillis, PM Lounge, even all the way from Dubai Sheraton who come here to train the students,” she says. Rahima Sultana, herself trained from Parjatan in Bangladesh and various other schools in Thailand and France, teaches the professional courses including microwave cooking and training and holds most of the theory classes. The Epique Institute also has special full training courses for students, for instance the 35-item Italian cooking course and the Continental cooking course. “Most students who come here, join the institute to be self-reliant,” says Ruby. “They come with the urge to learn the art and also to gain the knowledge with which they can support themselves in the future.”

Monira Sultana, taking a class at Apon Ghor

Rahima Sultana has also been involved in various cooking shows on television on BTV and ATN.

Greeher Shukhon, another cooking school, was started by Rima Zulfiquer back in January of 1990 in Agrabad, Chittagong. Due to her husband’s constant transfers around the country, she had to keep up with the moving as well. Nevertheless, she trained herself with the help of many teachers to develop her love for cooking. “I always viewed it as a form of art and never stopped myself from experimenting with it,” says Rima. Hiring chefs and trainers from Parjatan and other hotels to teach her at home, she finally started Greeher Shukhon with 12 students with the basic equipment and a single dining table of her house in Chittagong.

She then shifted to Khulna where for four years at a stretch, she taught a number of students before moving to Dhaka at the end of 1995. “To date, at least 50,000 students have been trained and given certification from this institute,” she smiles. “And we have a structured database to prove it as well.”

With nine classes a day, Rima runs this school located on Green Square Road. “We have around a 100 subjects which have been divided into seven sections,” she explains. “These sections include baking, Mughal, Chinese, confectionary, microwave cooking, desserts, drinks and beverages and many more, with fees ranging from Tk 1,000 - Tk 1,500.” The school also specialises in creating artefacts and beauty training for women.

“Everyone needs to learn how to cook,” she smiles. “At least for mere survival.” According to her, most of her students are now running successful businesses of their own in parts of Khulna, Chittagong, Old Dhaka and even USA, France, Germany and Italy. “Many of the students have gone there to study or to accompany their husbands after their marriage,” she says. “Because they hold the technical experience and also a certificate, it was easy for them to get a job and earn a living.” In western countries, where getting a decent job is difficult, one of her students made a fortune just cooking and selling iftar during the Ramadan season after she moved to the USA, followed by a training session at Greeher Shukhon.

The teachers at this institution happen to be the students themselves. “I personally trained each of them here when I selected a few students and asked them to stay on to teach,” she explains. “For special courses, I hired chefs from famous hotels in Dhaka and also sent them to Parjatan, Delhi, Kolkata and many other places for further training.”

Rima not only teaches the women to cook, but also helps them further by selling their homemade food at the Food Corner set up in front of the school. “I also have a showroom where they can display and sell their products to those who visit the school,” she says.

Bangladesh Parjatan Corporation’s National Hotel and Tourism Training Institute was established in 1974,” informs its Acting Principal, ABM Ashraful Haque. Among various other subjects, the institute offers courses in Food and Beverage Production (F&B P), Bakery and Pastry (B&P) and a Special Chef Course. “Not all the courses that are offered today were offered then,” he says, “and they weren’t as regular, but we’ve always had the F&B P course.”

The first two courses, for students aged 25 and below, are under the National Certificate Course and last 18 weeks and cost Tk 18,000 and Tk 13,000 respectively. There are currently 80 students enrolled in the Food and Beverage Production course, 40 in a batch. Six of them are women. The Special Chef Course, which costs Tk 65,000, is one year long. There are currently 26 students enrolled, with only one woman. The age limit is 30. All courses teach mixed cuisine, including hors d’ oeuvre, soups, sauces, fish and shell fish, meat, vegetable and dairy products. Industrial attachment is compulsory for all the courses except for the Special Chef course. Educational qualifications for all three are SSC. Advertisements are placed in local and national newspapers after which prospective students are to collect admission forms, and, if called, to sit for written as well as oral examinations.

“English language, computer literacy and basic first aid are compulsory components of

Many students who train at Parjatan's National Hotel and Tourism Training Institute, pursue higher degrees abroad

every course,” Ruby Afroze, Manager, Hotel and Tourism Training Institute points out. “And there is a special course on food hygiene.”

Besides these, shorter courses in cookery and bakery for women are also offered. These run from two to four weeks. These are specially designed for housewives or women who set up their own catering businesses, supplying homemade food to local outlets. There is no age bar for these courses. “Some women work at local hotels and restaurants,” says Ashraful Haque. “Others start their own catering businesses.”

“Many women who take the course,” adds Afroze, “do it to be able to work abroad when they join their husbands who already live there or are planning to go.”

The institute is staffed by a faculty of local teachers with industrial experience, many of whom have received ILO/UNDP fellowships abroad. It is also under the guidance of ILO/UNDP consultants that the course manuals, including recipes, etc. are designed. The institute is currently affiliated with the Cyprus College of Tourism and Hotel Management, and there is hope that the list of international affiliations will soon grow.

Rima Zulfiquer, demonstrating to her students at Greeher Shukhon

The courses offered open up job opportunities such as those of assistant professional cook, assistant baker/patissier and professional cook. “Many students go abroad,” says Ajit Gomes, Head of the Department and Senior Training Officer (F&B P), who has been at the institute for 16 years. “Some work full-time at restaurants. Others who go to pursue their higher studies in other fields work part-time and our certificate helps them find work. Others go into local hotels and restaurants.”

Chopping vegetables on a cutting board, both Habibur Rahman and Nazmul Arif, the latter from Bikrampur, say they want to go abroad to work as chefs. Arshaduzzaman, who has done his MA from Titumir College, wants to go abroad for a higher degree in the subject, but ultimately wants to come home and set up his own business here. Shujon Odhikari also wants to pursue a higher degree abroad, but then wants to join his uncle in Italy and work for McDonald’s, while Shawkat Hossain, after getting a foreign degree, would like to work as a chef either abroad or at home.

Nandita Pal, one of the few female students in the course, also wants to pursue a two-year diploma in Australia. “The knowledge I gain from this course and the certificate that comes with it will hopefully help me to get in,” she says.

Nazmunnahar is a graduate of Lalmatia College. “After completing the course, I hope to open up my own training centre,” she says.

ABM Ashraful Haque, Acting Principal of at Parjatan's National Hotel and Tourism Training Institute

Shima Latif’s brothers who live abroad advised her to take the course so that if she herself ever goes abroad, she can work there. Latif says it’s a great course and that after the industrial attachment, she hopes to become a more expert cook. She wants to work at local hotels, if and when she can go abroad.

All three women are lucky in that they have husbands and families who are supportive of what they are doing. “Many people, though,” says Rubina Farouq of Tommy Miah’s Institute of Hospitality Management, “do not like the idea of women working in the back kitchen of hotels and restaurants. Even some of the male students don’t tell their families or friends that they have enrolled in a cooking course,” she says. Thus her institute provides counselling to its students and their families in order to make them more positive and focused. This includes counselling husbands of women enrolled in the course. “We encourage men and women to develop their individual identities while at the same time respecting each other,” says Farouq.

Two things are needed in order for the hospitality business to succeed in Bangladesh, says Rubina. The government must take an interest in the field and help it to flourish. One way is to make industrial attachment easier, for which access is granted by government ministries. Hospitality as a field must be recognised, she says, especially if we are to promote tourism in our country. Abroad, there are plenty of institutions providing education in hospitality, but in Bangladesh there are very few formal ones. The subject, Farouq believes, should be introduced at the college and university levels here.

The other very important thing, says Farouq, is a dramatic change in attitude towards this profession.

Farouq always encourages her students to be proud of what they are doing. “The word ‘chef’ sounds quite grand in English,” she says, “but its Bangla equivalent ‘baburchi’ isn’t seen as positively. We have to be proud of who we are and what we do. My students have to love their work and themselves, and take pride in both.”

The Art of Cooking

Siddika Kabir is a household name that is automatically related to scrumptious food and healthy cooking. She has been involved with cooking shows on television since 1965. "Cooking is more like an art," says Siddika who has been experimenting with this art form ever since she was a young girl.

Siddika Kabir and Sharmin Lucky on “Siddika Kabir's Recipe”

An MA degree holder in Food and Nutrition and Food Administrations from Oklahoma State University, she was also the principal of Home Economics College in Dhaka. Currently, she is also a freelance culinary consultant for Nestle Bangladesh Limited. She is, however, more popular for her famous book Ranna Khaddya Pushti and Bangladesh Curry Cookbook. “I had written Ranna Khadya Pushti keeping in mind that the normal housewife or the cook at home would need to know about healthy cooking,” she explains. “The level of nutrition requirement is also an integral part of cooking.” She remarks that back in her younger days, there were not many good schools or institutions for cooking. However, the women in her family happened to be expert cooks of their own times. “My maternal grandmother was known to be a wonderful cook in Kolkata,” she says. According to her, cooking was more of an home-based activity back then. Today, however, people want to know how to cook for very different reasons. It is not only women, but also quite a number of men who are interested to know about cooking. “People now take up cooking to survive and earn a living,” she says. “There are a number of institutions in Dhaka, which are running pretty well.”

Siddika Kabir uses her own recipes on the show. “All of them can be found in my cook-books of course,” she says. “I am an avid reader of English and the European cookbooks as well, and try to experiment with their food ideas and recipes. However, I prefer to keep them the way they are, and avoid the mixing of our eastern ingredients in them.”

Siddika Kabir wants to build her own institution where cooking would be taught academically. “Staying healthy has always been significant in our lives,” she emphasises. “There are a lot of young people who have an urge to learn to cook healthy dishes as well as delicious ones and only a professional academy can provide such knowledge,” she says. “However, I still have not found the right environment to carry on with this plan.”

Students attending the desserts course at the Mishuk Academy

The Epique Institute: Most women take up cooking classes to be self-reliant

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