In conversation with Sana Khan and her protégé, Mitrangda, on their shared passion for pastry arts and their sweetest achievements so far. Join them as they talk about what ittakes to be a female chef in a male-dominated industry.
Mitrangda: Thanks for joining me for our cover story. I’m really excited to dive into your experiences as a chef and know why you chose this unconventional profession.
Sana: It’s a pleasure to be here and share my journey! My life as a chef has been an exciting adventure. Though it came with its fair share of challenges, I’ve enjoyed it every step of the way. I never really saw myself in the kitchen, and the incidents that led me down this road were quite unexpected.
It all started after high school when I began learning recipes from my mother and experimenting with flavours. She was the one who sparked my initial interest, taught me the basics and introduced me to the world of food. I was fascinated by the aroma of spices and curious to see how various ingredients combined to form something delicious.
Mitrangda: What’s your favourite thing about making food?
Sana: Cooking allowed me to get creative and show my artistic side, but baking brought me peace. Making bread, whisking cream or simply kneading dough was therapeutic. But telling stories through recipes is by far my favourite.
Everyone connects food with a memory, a special moment in their lives. For me, it was ‘dodha barfi’, a classic Indian mithai that my brother adored as a child. That inspired me to create my own desserts, like the honey almond cake with its crispy topping.
Mitrangda: That’s great to hear! But once you discovered your passion, what was your next step? Was it easy to be a chef, especially in India?
Sana: As one of four children, I always hoped to do something different, something out of the ordinary. While my siblings went on to pursue conventional careers, I was determined to be a chef. But all I knew was that I loved cooking, and I must admit I entered the industry a bit naive.
“I always wanted to do something different, something out of the ordinary. While my siblings went on to pursue conventional careers, I was determined to be a chef.”
Convincing my parents was my first challenge. They never understood why I’d like to wash dishes or clean countertops for a living. After a little coaxing, I signed up for a short course on Indian cooking and joined a diploma programme soon after.
Mitrangda: When you say you entered the industry a bit naive, what do you mean?
Sana: I call myself naive because I was blind to the road ahead and never realised the issues I’d face as a chef. Finding a good programme was difficult, and I eventually settled for a small college near home where I studied for a Diploma in Hotel Management. Since hospitality got priority, pastry arts hardly got the attention it deserved. But I managed to learn all I could, graduate with good grades and move to InterContinental Dubai for my first job.
Mitrangda: Which is surprising, especially since it was only a few years ago.
Sana: Well, a lot has changed in such a short time. Back then, it was impossible for students to join culinary arts at the undergraduate level. No institute offered it as a separate course, let alone a degree programme, and certainly not like the one at ISH.
That’s why I believe our institute is second to none. We have six industry-sized kitchens,
“Back then, it was impossible for students to join culinary arts at the undergraduate level. No institute offered it as a separate course, let alone a degree programme, and certainly not like the one at ISH.”
all fitted with the latest equipment. Here students learn precise techniques and get a taste of international cuisine.
But more than the facilities, it's the atmosphere on campus that makes all the difference! It encourages them to ask questions, go beyond the textbook and practice as much as they want. It gives them an edge over others and allows them to stand out from the crowd.
Mitrangda: I couldn’t agree more! I feel that the energy in your kitchen makes students come back for more. I often stay behind after hours to train and learn from you. It doesn’t feel like work to me; but rather a preparation for the real world. The results became clear during my internship at Raffles Udaipur when I could handle stress many others couldn’t.
Sana: Working in a commercial kitchen is nothing like cooking at home. The long hours, intensity and pressure can take a toll. That’s why I try to create a professional environment in my classroom too. While it’s essential to learn skills of pastry making, it’s equally important to handle the stress and rigour of the industry.
Mitrangda: Many celebrity chefs are women, but the culinary world continues to be a man’s world. It’s pretty clear we still struggle with equal opportunities for all. I got a rude shock at my internship when I realised I was the only girl in the kitchen.
What were the problems you faced when you began your career? Do you feel the industry will change in the future?
Sana: While I faced similar challenges starting out, I do see the industry changing for the better! Inequality, bias and sexism are common in commercial kitchens.
But the transformation is visible in ISH itself. Girls make up 57% of our students, and 73% of our latest batch — the Class of 2022. They are increasingly aware, better informed and unafraid to voice their opinions. As more women join professional kitchens, I feel a massive shift is unavoidable, especially in the next five years.
Mitrangda: What do you think has been your biggest accomplishment as a chef?
Sana: Leading the Young Baker Program would certainly be my biggest achievement. It’s something Dr. Zubin and I held close to our hearts and were keen to introduce at École Ducasse India. It’s designed for those with special educational needs and covers the basics of baking and pastry making.
We had some exceptional students in this programme too! These include Jasmeher, an autistic teenager too shy to interact with others. His way of communicating, learning and listening was entirely different. One year after the course, he’s more independent, opens up to new people and can even bake a cake all by himself.
“Leading the Young Baker Program would certainly be my biggest achievement. It’s a programme for students with special needs, and its something that both Chef Zubin and I held close to our hearts.”
Mitrangda: Apart from the Young Bakers, are there other students you’re particularly proud of?
Sana: Sarfraz and Faizan would surely top the list! They enrolled under the Flourish fund and earned a 100% scholarship for the diploma programmes. Both made full use of the financial aid and went on to work at The St. Regis Doha and The Westin Gurgaon.
Watching a student put in extra hours and do justice to the programme you teach is so satisfying. It’s something that wouldn’t be possible without Flourish and I think that’s where my beliefs align with Indian School of Hospitality’s. Giving back to the community is what I’ve always held dear. I still enjoy helping those less fortunate, baking cupcakes for underprivileged children and seeing a smile on their faces when they eat them.
Mitrangda: And finally, what are your plans for the future?
Sana: I’m very happy with where I am right now. Being a facilitator allows me to teach, to share my knowledge and shape the future of the industry.
Most of my students stay away from home, spend whole days on campus and only need someone to talk to. I try to have conversations and connect with them whenever I can. Because for me, cooking is all about connecting with others through food and forming a bond that lasts forever.
Mitrangda Ranawat is a third-year Culinary Arts
student at École Ducasse ISH Gurugram
. She graduated from Mayo College and enjoys tennis and athletics in her free time. After completing her undergraduate programme, she’s keen to work as a chef and open her pâtisserie someday.