It is said in popular culture that you reap what you sow, but the truth is that the work never ends with sowing. The seed of representation is much the same, it needs sustained care to make way for a community that is truly equal to go beyond tokenism or lip service. And when it comes to LGBTQIA representation in the F&B space—an industry otherwise wrapped in colour and fervour—there's much nurturing to be done. For once you scratch the surface you realise that years of systematic discrimination and othering cannot be corrected by hiring one queer chef.
Four industry leaders, belonging to the intersection between the Indian foodscape and the queer community, tell us why the buck doesn't stop with representation, and why safety, visibility and self-affirmation are all pressing concerns in the industry.
The times, they're a-changing
For celebrity chef and restauranteur, Ritu Dalmia, as ostensibly one of the country's first out-and-proud queer chefs, life in the food space in India has been an uphill battle. Dalmia is known for the tireless work she has put in towards getting same-sex marriages legalised in India. In fact, she was one of the six petitioners who challenged the legality of section 377 in the Supreme Court. The co-owner of the popular Italian restaurant chain, Diva, stresses the dire need for a more, focused and concerted approach towards making the Indian food industry safer and more inclusive, and in a manner such that it trickles down to benefit those belonging to less fortunate segments of the society, too. "You have to understand that most of the people working in the food and beverage industry— be it waitstaff or cooks—are mostly from impoverished and conservative backgrounds. Despite the strict guidelines put in place by management, ragging and harassment prevail, and it is bad.''
Activist and executive director of The Lalit Hospitality Group, Keshav Suri—a pioneering voice from the LGBTQIA+ community and co-petitioner with Dalmia—echoes this when he says, ''You cannot expect people who are of different heights to climb the same wall, some may need a ladder and some may need a stool. So, how do you get everyone to be equal and equitable?''
Suri is known for pushing the envelope when it comes to introducing positive change. Apart from his work as a queer activist, he also founded The Keshav Suri Foundation in 2018 that seeks to highlight the issues of the highly marginalised LGBTQIA+ community in India; and The Lalit Suri Hospitality School that facilitates aspiring queer hospitality professionals with the Aditya Nanda Scholarship to queer folks every year to ensure diversity in F&B space. Despite being a vociferous voice within the industry, Suri laments, ''From a business standpoint, it is very fashionable and woke to have queer customers, because it is good for the business. But when it comes to being inclusive from the inside, it is a different scenario altogether.''
What Suri means is, as LGBTQIA issues continue to gain currency in the public discourse, many industries (F&B included) are likely to partake in what we today understand as performative allyship. But when it comes to bringing about real change, and the kind that safeguards the interests of those belonging to the lower rungs of the ladder, there's much work left to be done.
Awareness, acceptance and recognition
This would entail not only diversity hiring but also ensuring that the workspace is fulfilling and equitable for all. In an industry like F&B—which thrives on creativity—this becomes even more essential. Shedding light on the need to improve the quality of work-life for queer individuals, American-Indian chef and cookbook author, Suvir Saran shares that societies where equality thrives, are naturally happier and more fruitful. ''More productivity from people can only be achieved when they are feeling safe and respected; wanted and loved; accepted and welcomed. So, it is imperative to ensure that those who work with them, for them and around them, are at any given moment, given a safe environment in which to live and work,'' he explains.
Saran, who is queer himself, elucidates that while there is plenty of lip service, real-time action is sparse. ''Few people have happy coming out stories. We are all a little bit racist, sexist, misogynistic and hateful. We have to teach ourselves with every thought we think to be bigger and better versions of ourselves and to evolve in the direction of being more generous, accepting, and open," he adds.
In a way, Saran is reiterating Dalmia's words: ''Until every person in leadership across the hospitality industry speaks out when they see something said that is not appropriate, we are sitting on very shaky ground.''
Building a safe space for the queer
Discrimination and otherising continue to exist in our society as a matter of fact, even to this day. But they are not only encroaching on individual rights but also on one's personal being. In the fast-evolving space of food, service or cuisine is no longer limited to simply food. It is, in all effect, an extension of the people(s) behind it. As such, in the absence of a safe and equal industry, F&B is likely to be doomed as a space that not only clamps down on identity but also the creativity that naturally flows from it.
This could be a reason why the food space in India is so shockingly homogeneous today. Building on the measures that could be taken to correct this, Saran suggests that diversity and inclusion training should be made part of every business's onboarding ritual. "Plurality ought to be seen in real life. Same-sex partner benefits, healthcare that covers any and all expenses related to sexuality and identity need to be covered, counselling and therapy ought to be de-stigmatised and made available to all employees, irrespective of their gender or sexual preference. And stricter policies around discrimination and marginalisation in any form need to be implemented with effect.''
The message that rings loud and clear in every conversation around equal representation for the LGBTQIA+ community is that there is an undeniable need for a safer workspace. And education and awareness with respect to transgender, queer and gender-nonconforming individuals are all pressing needs of the hour. Elaborating on this, queer flair mixologist, Ami Shroff tells us, ''There is a lot of material present out there. People need to educate their staff about the LGBTQIA+ community, not only because they might have staff from the community, but also customers.'' Stressing on the importance of using the right pronouns, for instance, she says, ''Educate people by having everyone call out their pronouns along with their designations or titles. You could have them printed alongside their names, or on their visiting cards. Host pride events, constructive conversations and interactive activities with the staff.''
Like Suri, Shroff too believes that access to educational opportunities and sponsorships could help towards the goal of empowerment. The idea here is to set the intention to create a safer and healthier space for all kinds of people, because when you do that you are one step ahead of acceptance and then, more than half the battle is already won.
''I'm gay, I'm a lesbian. I'm a little bit of everything. I'm non-binary, I'm binary. Sometimes I don't feel like a woman, sometimes I feel a lot like a woman. I'm fluid, I'm flowing, I'm learning and I am a person of many shades and personalities. People are a lot like a cocktail,'' she rightly points out. And it's about time we raised a toast to humanity as a whole, no matter what kind of cocktail they might be like as individuals.
Equipped with a Master’s degree in Journalism, Tarini is forever questioning everything around her. Headstrong and passionate about the art of storytelling, she is up to date with all things travel, food, beauty, and innovation. When she isn’t out reviewing the newest restaurant, you can find her researching the latest skincare trend or curled up with a book and a cuppa in the farthest corner of the room.