Exclusive: Looking at pastry in India through chef Prateek Bakhtiani's queer eye

In a tell-all interview with India Food Network for it's June cover story, the owner of Mumbai-based chocolate atelier, Ether talks about identity, pastry and pride

Exclusive: Looking at pastry in India through chef Prateek Bakhtianis queer eye

Not everything in chocolatier Prateek Bakhtiani's life is unequivocally sweet. In a country that is a long way off from tilting the scales in favour of the marginalised, what does being a queer pastry chef mean in the Indian context—a land of opportunities in a fast-evolving foodscape or the object of sustained otherising?

Ever since Bakhtiani moved away from the field of chemical research to pursue his passion in pastry, life changed into a sensory exploration of chocolate and his own identity. After studying in Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and working at several Michelin starred restaurants abroad, the 27-year-old relocated to Mumbai in 2018. Soon after, he started his atelier, Ether, which specialises in creating offerings that highlight the origins, terroir and compositions of chocolate.

In a first, he opens up about the trauma that one carries as a queer individual, how that intersects with his profession and the pressing need for diverse and inclusive narratives in the F&B space in India.

Edited excerpts from the interview

Please tell me a little bit about your foray into baking—at what point did you realise, 'Okay! This is what I want to do'?

I don't have that classic story of my mom being a great cook or growing up in the kitchen. I was never in the kitchen and my mom is a terrible cook. I was a studious science buff who went to study Chemistry in the States. And I loved it. So, I don't even have that other classic story either, where you hate what you're doing so you switch. But at some point, I realised I needed a break, so I moved to Ireland and started learning about food. During my time there, we had to tend to the farms and grow our own food. Seeing rhubarb grow from the ground, or people waking up at 4 am to trim their crops to harvest it, washing it and milking cows, I realised that food is about the sun, sand, earth, water and the people that spend day in and day out growing it. That is the real story of food. I knew then, I was going to spend the rest of my career telling this story.

What are your thoughts on the interdisciplinary nature of food? You, for instance, have often relied on your knowledge of Chemistry, while working with desserts. Tell me more.

I think food is contextual to the people that make it and eat it. As a person, I am not two-dimensional. Pastry isn't the only thing I like. My food is representative of who I am. So, for instance, I have an interest in Chemistry, which is why my chocolates feel a little clinical. Likewise, with my love for art and design, which translates into Ether's chocolates and ethos. So, what makes food interesting is also, what makes people interesting, which is that they can access different pools of knowledge to tell a cohesive story.

What do you think is missing from the pastry scene in India today?

There has been a lot of pastry and chocolate in India, especially in the last few years. But I want you to take a minute and think about all the brands you know. Just visualise them in your head. I don't understand why all of it is so excited in this country. Why is it so bright and pop? One thing I don't personally subscribe to is this idea of selling chocolate. Because if you're going to put sea salt in dark chocolate, then there are enough people already doing it. You don't need to start another brand to simply sell chocolate. What you need to sell instead is your point of view. And I refuse to believe that everyone's point of view is always this bright and colourful. So, yes, there is a very stale, homogeneity in the Indian pastry scene. I guess it boils down to where your creative force comes from

You identify as queer. Has this, in any way, impacted your culinary journey?

Being queer has, for the most part, been like a footnote in my culinary journey, but I come from a place of privilege when I say that because every queer person that I know has had a traumatic childhood. That's not a coincidence. Our society is geared towards making sure that people that don't have this heterosexual, upper-middle class, Hindu narrative feel excluded. And they carry that trauma with them all the time. I like to compare it to a gash that you're constantly bleeding from. I have supportive parents, family and friends who come and bandage that wound everyday to stop the bleeding. And so, once in a while, I can look away from it and concentrate on my work as a chocolatier. I have that privilege because I have all these people tending to my wounds all the time. I can, for five to six hours everyday, politely ask my identity to step away and sit down while I focus on my work. But a lot of people don't have that in their life and I have to be cognisant of that.

Right. So, would you then say that the F&B industry in India today is lacking a narrative that is inclusive of different stories and identities?

Yes, it is. Pastry especially is. People are not creating from their own identity. Probably because people with diverse identities are not given the opportunity to create things that speak to their way of living. I'll tell you about a personal experience. I was working at my first job in Mumbai and I was privy to a conversation, where they were discussing something an international chef had done, when the chef turned around and said, 'Ya, but he's a gay.' And in that moment, I realised that that person's story doesn't matter because he's not like you. I ignored it because to me, it didn't matter that I am 'a gay.' I have a story to tell, and I am going to tell it. But I am privileged enough to get to remind myself that my being a gay chef does not invalidate my art. Even so, for somebody that doesn't have a support system, it could have broken them. There were probably nine other gay chefs who heard that in that room and now feel like their stories don't matter. So, we're lacking nine out of 10 stories. This is one of the reasons why the pastry scene in India is so homogenous.

Tell me something. Do you think it is important for you to identify yourself as a 'queer' chef or a woman to say they're a 'female' chef? How do you feel about this?

Representation, and acceptance specifically, is only available to people of wealth and privilege. So, people like myself—who benefit from it—have the very big responsibility of normalising it. I think, it is my duty to shout from the rooftops and say that, 'I am a gay chef and a queer person in this industry.' Because that will let people from other marginalised communities know that they don't have to necessarily camouflage this part of themselves. It's like the wound I mentioned earlier. I have people to bandage it so I can hide it. But now, I think it is my responsibility to go back and reverse it; to tell others like me, 'Hey, I also have those wounds. And I am here, telling you that it's fine. Even if you are bleeding and in pain, it doesn't make you less normal or your art less valid. If anything it makes you more unique.'

Images: Ether

Suman Mahfuz Quazi

Suman Mahfuz Quazi

Suman Quazi is a Writer, Host and the Food Editor with India Food Network and Start2Bake. She believes that while food is cultural, societal and intellectual, it is also deeply personal and is keen in contributing towards a dialogue around food in India that's meaningful. Her work has appeared in leading Indian publications like Midday, Living Foodz, Zee Zest, Deccan Chronicle, 101India and DailyO.

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