Clubs and dress code

It is a tough call to balance the gentility of wearing appropriate attire and tradition with moving with the times. I have been thrown out of country clubs in the US and in India for wearing wrong clothes–or rather for going with a man who was wearing wrong clothes. In particular, shorts. It’s probably why I don’t have a country club membership.

India’s clubs should move with the times and embrace different traditions

Shoba Narayan

July 22, 2014 Updated: July 22, 2014 06:10 PM

When Narendra Modi became India’s prime minister a new sense of national pride swept over the country. But the colonial mindset of old still pervades certain dark corners, specifically private clubs in various cities. All these clubs have a dress code that harks back to when the British ruled the land. They don’t favour Indian attire, particularly for men. Instead, men are forced to wear long trousers and shirts. Those who don’t, aren’t allowed in.
Recently, the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association refused entry to a High Court judge because he was wearing a dhoti, a loose sarong-like garment that is perfect for tropical India.
Dhotis, also called veshtis, have largely slipped out of fashion as more and more men turn to Western outfits such as tailored trousers, which they consider more comfortable and professional. The same Indian men wear dhotis at home or for religious ceremonies.
The issue gained heat when Jayalalithaa Jayaram, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, threatened to take away the licences of clubs that denied entry to men who wear Indian outfits. She called it “sartorial despotism” and an insult to local pride. Ms Jayalalithaa has vowed to introduce a new law that will prevent clubs from enforcing their existing dress codes.
The objects of the chief minister’s ire include the Madras Boat Club, Madras Gymkhana Club and the aforementioned Tamil Nadu Cricket Association, all of whom frown upon men entering their premises wearing Indian attire. Women aren’t accorded the same level of indignity. They can sail through wearing a sari or salwar kameez.
I think it is about time that all Indian clubs get out of this colonial mindset that views Western attire as somehow more superior and elegant than Indian clothes. To disbar members who wear Indian clothes from entering club premises reeks of an inferiority complex that should have disappeared when the British left India.
Officials at these clubs have generally clung to the belief that it wasn’t so easy to incorporate Indian attire into the rules that govern their institutions. They said that they would have to bring up the issue at the club’s annual meeting, so that members could vote on the topic. Nonsense, I say. A starched white dhoti that doesn’t hug the legs makes perfect sense for Chennai’s hot climate.
Clubs are private bodies with erratic, nonsensical rules. Augusta Golf Club, for example, did not allow women to enter its premises until two years ago, when the chief sponsor of their events, IBM, was headed by a woman. As a woman who doesn’t belong to any of these establishments, I think they need to be shamed into changing their policies.
But things are changing in India. Nowadays, male CEOs often confidently wear the kurta pyjama to their offices. These clothes are sleek, elegant – and appropriate for India.
There is no reason to wear a wool suit in steamy weather, simply because it is deemed to be more professional.
And what do clothes have to do with efficiency and effectiveness anyway?
Companies in Silicon Valley are renowned for allowing employees to work in shorts and a T-shirt. India’s private clubs don’t need to go quite that far, but at least they can take pride in their country’s national outfits.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir

Focus

Today was the worst day. I walked around searching for my glasses with them on my head. That does it. I need to start a “meditation project.” Everyday. Ten minutes. At least.

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My inability to meditate properly is really stressing me out
Shoba Narayan
July 14, 2014 Updated: July 14, 2014 05:26 PM

In his book, Focus: The Hidden Ingredient of Excellence, author Daniel Goleman talks about the different kinds of attention. The most obvious kind of focus, he says, is concentration where the mind is rooted to a task until a solution is reached. This type of focus is best suited to analytical work.
Creative insights, on the other hand, occur when the mind is loose, open, and aware. There is a reason why psychologists like to put their subjects on the couch. When you are lying down and daydreaming, you reach into your psyche and touch upon aspects that are not normally on the surface. This is the site of insight and intuition.
There are a few ways to trigger the pathways that open intuition, insight and imagination.
The easiest way is to go to sleep. There is a reason why we wake up and discover that the knotty problem that we have been wrestling with has been solved overnight. Another way is to meditate. Meditating, or accepting thoughts as they come and sending them on their way, allows the mind to relax. It expands and opens the brain and primes its receptors to the sort of ideas and insights that leap across boundaries.
I am a failed meditator. I have tried sitting cross-legged and attempted to “watch my thoughts,” as it were. Sadly, they were all over the place. They did not make sense and worst of all they were mundane, tacking the kind of trivia that is traditionally the realm of children and old women: “Should I have acted differently at the party? Did I pay the right amount for those dozen apples or did I overpay?” my mind wandered. “Did I forget to turn the gas off before ducking out of the door?” The idle mind, they say, is a devil’s workshop. My idle mind was a fool’s paradise, focusing on personal issues and unresolved business of the most idiotic nature. Sometimes, I daydreamed of holidays. Mostly, I fell asleep sitting up. Meditation wasn’t helping me with focus. It was helping me combat insomnia.
Meditation is among the hardest things to do, particularly in this world that values action over stillness and doing over being.
I have tried meditating for years and I have failed. I find sitting still terrifying. I feel guilty for not doing anything. It seems like such a waste of time to just sit there.
The problem with such practices is that their benefits are not immediately obvious. You can read the literature. You can fully buy into the Dalai Lama’s assurance that meditation is the path to rewiring your brain. You can listen to Steve jobs talk about opening the channels of intuition and imagination. You can take online courses on mindfulness and focusing attention, all of which are essential for leaders. It still doesn’t make the actual task easy.
I have tried novel approaches. I have pretended to be a Tibetan monk while sitting cross legged and trying to control my thoughts. It made me feel good. It put me in a good mood and gave me a beatific smile. But as for controlling my impulses, the chocolate cravings only grew stronger.
Then I decided that sitting still was not for me. I would do walking meditation – like Steve Jobs who walked while holding meetings because nature triggers positive neural impulses.
The only problem was that nobody wanted to walk with me. I told my husband that I was going to be Joan of Arc and meditate on a horse. His gaze didn’t alter.
In desperation, I have come to you, dear reader.
Here is a challenge: both for you and for me. Let us meditate for 20 minutes every day. Announcing something like this helps sustain action, according to social psychology. So this in a sense, is my last ditch effort to get on the path to mental nirvana. I will keep you posted as to whether it works.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir

The Confidence Conundrum

still love the line: “confidence is turning thoughts into action.”

The confidence conundrum and what we can do about it
Shoba Narayan

June 17, 2014 Updated: June 17, 2014 18:12:00

One of the things I announce in a public forum, often just for effect, is that my lifelong dream is to be a standup comic. It produces the desired effect. Everybody laughs. If you saw me, you would know why. I don’t look funny, I don’t talk funny. In fact, I am pretty much galactically unfunny. It feels pathetic to admit this, but announcing this desire to be a comic is my funniest line. I am no closer to achieving this dream than I was the first time I actually said those words. I keep telling the world that I want to be a standup comic but I don’t do anything about it.
This paradox has been addressed in a number of recent essays about female self-confidence. One essay in The Atlantic, titled, “The Confidence Gap,” describes research based on social psychology that shows how women consistently undervalue and underrate themselves. Men and boys, on the other hand, consistently think that they are better than they actually are. “Sometimes I feel like a fraud,” is a thought that has crossed the minds of the most powerful and seemingly confident women. What’s with this confidence conundrum, and what can women do about it?
Although, inevitably, studies deal in sweeping generalizations, they often show that many women are more perfectionist than men. They would rather do something perfectly or not do anything at all. Men on the other hand, are willing to blunder through tasks, blithely making mistakes and learning from it. They plunge into activities that are far above their abilities, get criticized for it, get used to the criticism and improve. The criticism makes them resilient: witness the sight of young boys in the playground, calling each other “morons” but improving their game in the process.
Playing sports, it turns out, is a great confidence-builder. Rough-housing and trading insults on the sports field is great preparation for the testosterone filled aggression of Silicon Valley. By dropping out of sports, girls are denying themselves the chance to grow in these areas.
Some psychologists say that focusing on competence rather than self-esteem is a good way to increase confidence. Self-esteem is a nebulous concept, they say. Simply telling a child that she is wonderful will not make her feel good about herself.
Instead, focusing on the tasks that she has accomplished; the effort that she has expended in achieving measurable results is often a better way to bolster teenager self-esteem. The next time you tell your child, “Honey, you are so smart,” stop yourself. Instead, put out a 10,000-piece puzzle, ask them to finish it and then say, “Wow! You worked hard at it and solved it.”
My favourite line comes from Prof Richard Petty, of Ohio State University, who has studied confidence building for decades. “Confidence,” he says, “is the stuff that turns thoughts into actions.”
I think it is a terrific line because it tells me what to do. There is no point in my labouring the point that I want to be a stand-up comic if I don’t do a thing about it.
The trick is to silence the voices in my head – the ones that say that I don’t have a funny bone in my body and will therefore fall flat at this exercise.
The trick is to actually get out and engage; to act; to rush “rashly” into the goal at hand instead of thinking once, then twice, and then succumbing to inertia.
Near my home is a club that offers stand up opportunities for amateurs every Thursday. I think that I need to get out there and attempt comedy. Next week, I aim to do just that. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir.

Chairs, Sugar, Phone

Thank you, Manish, for this idea.

Modern addictions are holding us all back, but can we live without them?
Shoba Narayan

June 11, 2014 Updated: June 11, 2014 18:40:00

Recently, a friend asked me an interesting question: “Which would be the hardest addiction for humankind to shrug off? Sugar, chairs or mobile devices?”

My instinctive answer was mobile devices, but that may just describe my addiction. As the recently released documentary Fed Up, points out, very few things can rival sugar as a “weapon of mass destruction”, as one review says. The documentary, which has garnered good press, takes a hard-hitting look at how sugar and processed foods have permeated diets globally.

As countries get richer, sugar intake doubles, People eat more processed food and the odds of getting type 2 diabetes increase. Even exercising is not enough to stave this off, according to the documentary. What really needs to happen is a return to the way of eating as practised by our parents and grandparents. To paraphrase author Michael Pollan, we should eat whole foods, mostly vegetables, in small quantities.

Perhaps you eat well already and therefore sugar is not so much part of your doomsday scenario.

But what about where you work? How do you work? If you are like many of the readers of this newspaper, you probably spend long hours in front of a computer. I do. It didn’t occur to me that the chair I was sitting on was the source of my back problems. It took several visits to an orthopaedic surgeon and an acupuncturist for me to realise that I had to change my work patterns; hence my proclamation that the second villain of the modern age is the simple chair.

Anthropologists say that the human body is made for standing and walking, not sitting. We sit far too much and for far too long. So, how do we incorporate standing and walking into our lives?

Some Silicon Valley executives work using an “air desk,” which is a stand that allows you to type on your laptop while walking or running on a treadmill. Others use standing desks and still others walk while talking on the phone. The late Apple chief executive, Steve Jobs, was famous for his walking meetings, where he would discuss business issues with co­workers while taking a walk.

I have switched to sitting on a large pink ball, and this forces me to stand up every now and then. Your solution might be to get or borrow an uncomfortable chair at your workplace so that you are forced to get up.

The third enemy that I want to target is mobile devices. In this, too, some of us are better than others. I know someone who returns from work, puts his mobile phone in his office briefcase and doesn’t touch it until he gets to work the next morning.

I find that I cannot go 10 minutes without checking my smart phone. I have numerous apps on it, which make me all the more attached to it. Recently, I downloaded an app that tracks the number of steps I take. The problem is that I have to wear the phone on my body in order for it to do that. I’ve ended up wearing a messenger bag all day and placing my phone into that, so that it can track my steps. The target is 10,000 steps a day. I usually get to about 4,000.

While most people talk about being addicted to surfing the web or checking their Twitter feed, I find that I can get off social media networks with relative ease. I usually ask my daughter to change my Facebook password and not tell me the new one. This prevents me from entering the site without having to deactivate my account.

Surprisingly, I’ve found that I don’t miss Facebook – but my mobile phone is a different animal altogether. I check email, messages and news items, read downloaded books and listen to music on it. Cutting that umbilical cord is going to be much harder. Does anybody have any suggestions?

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: A Memoir

Bangkok Tuk-tuks

My Dad talks about this incident to this day.

Tuk-tuk tricks and Bangkok bartering
Shoba Narayan

May 29, 2014 Updated: May 29, 2014 11:47:00

It begins innocently enough. We’re in Bangkok and my 12-year-old wants to ride on a tuk-tuk. After days of visiting Buddhist temples, she wants something more adventurous. My 80-year-old father, who’s travelling with us, is having none of it.

“Tuk-tuks are dangerous,” he says. “Why take chances in a new country? And that too, on the day of our flight?”

I’m caught between two generations. My instinct is to dismiss my father’s warnings, as I usually do. He’s the worrying kind and goes into overdrive in a new country. What could go wrong with a simple ride in a tuk-tuk?

We hire one right outside our hotel and tell the tuk-tuk driver to show us the sights. The hotel concierge asks the driver to drop us back at the hotel in half an hour. We all get in: my parents, my two daughters and I.

The tuk-tuk takes us deeper and deeper into the narrow by-lanes that surround the Sukhumvit area of Bangkok, where we’re staying. Soon, we’re in a neighbourhood with a dirty canal on one side and automobile-spare-part shops on the other. Touristy, it’s not.

I ask, then order and, finally, entreat our driver to turn back. He acts as if he can’t hear. As we bounce along into the impending darkness, I glance at my father, who has an “I told you so” expression on his worried face.

Finally, the driver pulls into what is obviously a tourist trap. A seedy shop sells Buddha statues, Thai silk jackets, imitation pearls and knick-knacks. The owner stands outside, ostensibly welcoming us. “Please tell your friend to take us back to your hotel?” I say, without preamble.

“Only if you buy something from us, madam,” says the owner. “Otherwise, he no take you back.”

The shop sells poor-quality, overpriced souvenirs. I have exactly four Thai bahts in my purse; and I don’t want to use my credit card at such an obviously seedy place.

My father tries to explain to the owner that we have a plane to catch in a few hours. The tuk-tuk driver pulls into a narrow lane about 100 yards away and parks there, puffing a cigarette. I stand outside the shop, and try to find another taxi or tuk-tuk to take us back, but nothing is in sight.

It was my teenage daughter, Ranju, who comes up with the solution – which had been staring at us in the face. She takes the pink Disney pouch that my 12-year-old, Malu, is wearing around her neck and offers it to the shopkeeper. “For your daughter,” she says with a winsome smile.

The shopkeeper examines the pouch and nods. “What you want in exchange?”

I was just about to say “a ride back to the hotel”, when Ranju interrupts me. She points at an orange scarf in what appears to be Thai silk. The shopkeeper laughs. “Too expensive.” He offers a tiny, embroidered pouch, which my daughter takes with a smile. “Tuk-tuk?” she asks.

The man nods and hails his friend. We ride back to the hotel in fearful silence.

My teenager uses the pouch to carry coins. It’s a testament, she says, to the power of negotiation. I say that it’s a testament to the fact that you should listen to your parents. My father merely says: “I told you so.”

Travelling with kids.

Travelling with kids: History is more fun with new friends
Shoba Narayan

May 22, 2014 Updated: May 22, 2014 15:57:00

My husband asks as we disembark the plane: “Did you know that the Nizam didn’t want to join the Indian Union after India gained ­independence?”

“Yes, and did you know that Hyderabad is called the City of Pearls?” I chime in. “Even though the Nizam used diamonds – not pearls – as paperweights.”

We’re in Hyderabad for a long weekend to attend a friend’s wedding and also to give our children a glimpse of south Indian history.

Hyderabad epitomises many of the strains that make India unique and interesting: pluralistic, welcoming, layered culture and great food. The city is 40 per cent Muslim; both Telugu and Urdu are spoken; and it’s known for its jewellery, textiles, music and ­opulence.

We stay at the Taj Falaknuma, mostly because it was the Nizam’s palace and close to the old city. From the moment that we check in, my husband and I begin feeding the children titbits of interesting history; or so we thought. The girls mostly want to bounce on the beds and jump into the pool.

Our break comes the next morning, when we run into a British family, whose daughters are about the same age as ours. All of a sudden, things change.

The palace historian takes us on a tour and shows us the huge dining room with acoustics so good that the Nizam could hear whispers from across the room. The girls test it by whispering and giggling. We pirouette across the giant ballroom, with its crystal chandeliers, and examine the billiard table, which had a twin in Buckingham Palace. Along the way, the historian talks about the largesse of the Nizams; the way they lived and the grandeur that they were used to. My 12-year-old begins playing “rock, paper, scissors” with the 11-year-old Helen, from ­Wimbledon.

We spend the next day in the Old City, with our new English friends. Our teenager befriends Nora, who, at 16, is a year younger.

They duck in and out of shops, buying sparkly bangles made of lac, crystals, glass and metal. They go into a henna parlour and get “tattoos”, or “mehndi” as Indians call it, on their hands, choosing designs that look like paisley and flowers; swans and peacocks. They chat about school and summer holidays and how parents try to stuff history lessons down their throats while on ­holiday.

We discover that spending time with another family is a great way to get everyone to behave.

When I announce over breakfast that I have reservations for a guided tour at the Salar Jung Museum, my daughters don’t roll their eyes and groan theatrically, as is their wont. Instead, they invite their English friends along, who – to their parents’ surprise – accept with alacrity.

My husband and I want to take the girls to see the tombs of Delhi next. They are suffused with ­history. Only one thing is missing from the history-filled itinerary that I’ve chalked out for us: a family who have children about the age of our own.

weekend@thenational.ae

Summer holidays

As someone who loves swanky hotels, that last bit is going to be hard to follow. Maybe later on that one.

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When did travelling overseas stop being an adventure?
Shoba Narayan

March 25, 2014 Updated: March 25, 2014 18:45:00

The holiday season is approaching in India. Many of my friends are making travel plans for trips to all corners of the globe. It is incredible how easy it now is to book tickets, rooms, cars and plays on the other side of the world. It is a far cry from times gone by when arranging travel was a far more difficult operation.

When I was young, one of the things that used to amuse and irritate me was the amount of preparation that my grandparents did before embarking on a trip. This had nothing to do with packing or planning. It happened much before that. They would look at omens, good days and bad, and what seemed like an increasingly complicated set of superstitious reasons before even getting to the stage of buying tickets. For example, Hindu custom dictates that it is not good to embark on a journey on the eighth and ninth days of the waxing moon. It suggests that you cannot travel south on certain days of the calendar. My grandfather took all these into consideration when planning a trip. It was a nightmare for those of us entrusted with buying his tickets. We would have to sit at the ticket counter and go back-and-forth many times until he got the flight timing, time of day and direction of the flight, completely correct.

Travel is something that most of us now take for granted. It is something that we do as a matter of course – a functional, utilitarian activity that is part of modern life. Even travelling with children is made easy through websites populated with photographs of the sites you will see and the sounds you will hear.

This is quite different from how it used to be for our grandparents and their peers. Even 50 years ago, travel was viewed as an adventure. It was fraught with uncertainty and you did what you could to minimise the chances of an accident. When viewed through this prism, my grandfather’s elaborate machinations to control the date and time of departure can be seen as his attempt at taking precautions – an older version of procuring travel insurance, if you will.

I think of this as I plan a family holiday. I want to give my children the sense of anticipation that gripped my cousins and I before we went on holiday. Trip-planning websites have made it easy for travellers but they have also robbed the trip of its glamour. When we land in Muscat (as I recently did) or Valencia (where I plan to go), it is almost as if I am revisiting the place, given that I have researched the sights and seen their photographs even before getting out of the airport. How then to return to the time when travel was full of possibilities? The only way I can think of is to change your perspective, given that you cannot change the situation.

Travel is not merely a way to go to Barcelona or Bombay for 10 days and tick off a list of sights and sounds. It is not only about traversing physical distances to discover new landscapes or flora and fauna. It is also about discovering a different part of yourself, one that is chiselled away in a new place amid foreign people. Although business trips make mockery of this notion, travel in its original capacity is an adventure that takes us to distant lands.

Ancient culture embraced this adventure with the respect it deserved. They looked for good omens before undertaking journeys. They prepared – mentally and physically – for the journey. They sent letters to friends in advance, announcing their arrival. These days, we stay in impersonal hotels when we go to new towns. We go in and out of cities with no time to connect with old friends or new friends of friends. Thankfully, these things can be changed and I am attempting that on my summer holiday.

I will connect with friends of friends. I will try to meet them and get a local’s perspective. I will travel by boat if possible, even for a short distance. I will walk rather than drive; stay in the heart of old cities rather than swanky hotels at the edge of town. I will, above all, seek adventure.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir

Gratitude

An attempt at being funny. I had the hardest thing trying to come up with a quote. I know that someone made a quote, which went something like….”dah dah dah…about” Was it grateful about? Happy about? Complain about? Trying searching for that. I googled Bernard Shaw, always reliably curmudgeon. Unsuccessful. Anyway, here it is.

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I must try harder to be grateful for what I do not have
Shoba Narayan

May 6, 2014 Updated: May 6, 2014 17:57:00

You know what the problem with you is?” said my therapist in his all-knowing voice. “You are not grateful enough.”

Now, I’ve always thought of myself as a grateful sort of girl. The thing is that I don’t have very much to be grateful about.

Consider the main influences in my life: my family. I didn’t choose my parents or the location of my birth. I didn’t choose to be born in a hot, steamy city called Chennai where everyone knew each other’s business and if they didn’t, it was because the person was either dead, injured or worst of all, boring. I didn’t choose to be born with a sibling whose only answer when I discussed job issues, partner problems or even how my intestines seem to be expanding with every passing day was the single line reply: “Shoba, please. Meditate, I beg you.”

Now, my shrink was joining the party by suggesting that I wasn’t grateful enough.

It seemed like a vast conspiracy theory invented by those who are supposedly near and dear to me. It seemed like dodgy ideology, if you asked me – and nobody was. That was the galling part. Here I was, simmering with unspoken anxieties and frustrations and the best that my paid and unpaid loved ones could come up with was that I meditate and be grateful?

When I studied psychology in college, the focus of the field was on mental disease: schizophrenia and depression, mania and paranoia. These were massive, real psychological problems that required hours of therapy and going deep into the psyche. It required the study of Freud, dreams, infantile fantasies and compulsive dysfunctional behaviours. It was a proper science with no proper answers.

How the world has changed. Today, a burgeoning field called positive psychology has become the focus of the field, both among experts and laypeople.

Scholars are studying grit and character and how these will improve grades in school. They are writing books with punchy titles such as Will Power and Flourish. All of them focus on going from good to great. The demons of psychology past, which were held under the umbrella, “abnormal psychology”, are not for practitioners of this field. No, they want to analyse and discover ways of being happier.

They want to figure out how the mind connects to the body and how the two connect to the soul, if possible. They talk about prayer as a way to improve the self, something that was considered heretical by my psychology professors of yore. It is in this context that my therapist brought up gratitude: feeling thankful; counting your blessings. As it turned out, all those pithy proverbs that your grandmother said were true. Gratitude is a powerful tool for well-being, according to recent research on positive psychology.

My homework was simple. Every day, at the end of the day, before retiring to bed, I was to list three things that I was grateful for; three things that happened that day if possible. Then, I was to figure out why I was grateful for them.

“I am glad I didn’t eat potato chips today,” I began. As for why I was grateful, I said, “Because they weren’t in the pantry.”

This made me feel a little silly. I felt obliged to be grateful about more substantive things.

“I am grateful that I don’t have a life-threatening disease,” I said. As for why, I said: “At least I think I don’t have a dreaded disease. Who knows what my body is harbouring.”

My therapist shook his head. “Don’t mix up your latent pessimism with this exercise,” he said. “This is all about feeling good.”

But I didn’t feel good. I was – much like Jerome K Jerome who believed that he had every disease except housemaid’s knee – worried about what I had.

“Let’s try again tomorrow,” said my therapist. “And this time, try really hard to be grateful.”

I walked out of his office. Boy, was I grateful that my session was over.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir

Carme Ruscellada

I was thrilled to meet this chef. She is casual and confident but underneath you can sense her resolve. It appeared in Quartz here.

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Carme Ruscellada i Serra looks like the seven-star Michelin chef that she is. I met her recently at her restaurant in Barcelona, Moments, to discuss Catalan cuisine, the Mediterranean diet, and why there are so few women chefs as successful as she.
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Like many of them, she downplays the role of gender in the high-temperature, high-testosterone world of restaurant kitchens. Running a 70-staff kitchen, according to Ruscellada, is not about screaming and swearing. It has to do with body language, posture and tone of voice. “My staff can look at my eyes and tell if I am angry about something they have done,” says Ruscellada, a celebrated chef in Catalunya, the corner of Spain that has now become the mecca for culinary travelers. Numerous Catalan chefs, beginning with Ferran Adria have taken center stage. Only two are women: Ruscellada and Elena Arzak.
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Carme Ruscellada i Serra Photo/Shoba Narayan

Every now and again, and particularly during awards season, the topic of women chefs comes up. The 50 best restaurants in the world were unveiled yesterday in London. This year, Helena Rizzo, chef and co-owner of Mani restaurant in Sao Paolo takes home the award for top female chef in the world: the only one with a gender tag. The other eight categories include “highest climber,” and “one to watch,” most of which allude to restaurants. There is no “best male chef” award. Instead, the chef of the top restaurant is deemed the top chef in the world. The top female chef category could be viewed as patronizing. The problem—for female chefs—is that there are so few contenders.
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In the US, for example, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women make up a majority of the labor force in the food business but just a handful occupy its upper echelons. There are fewer women chefs than there are investment bankers, and CEOs. This is particularly galling when celebrity chefs list women—their mothers, aunts grandmothers—as inspiration. Women who cook, it seems, serve as muses and mentors. But not colleagues.
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Recently, Time magazine created a furor by putting three male chefs on the cover, prompting renewed accusations and handwringing about the state of women in the world’s kitchens. The reality is that putting a woman chef on Time’s cover would have been tokenism, given the small proportion of top jobs that they occupy. According to Bloomberg News, women occupy just 10 of the top 160 jobs in American restaurants. On the other hand, not acknowledging the slowly rising numbers of female chefs is part of the vicious cycle that causes rising female stars to drop out. I ask Ruscellada why she didn’t. “Because of my husband,” she says. Whenever there was the urge to opt out of the hard life of running a restaurant, she says through an interpreter, her husband would intervene and push her to continue.
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We get talking about female chefs and she grows more animated, switching to rapid Spanish from halting English. “Today, with the ease of kitchen equipment, a woman doesn’t need the superior strength or any special skills to work in a restaurant kitchen,” she says. “What you need is a good husband who will stand by you in this tough profession.”

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Ruscellada doesn’t seem to have heard of Sheryl Sandberg and when I mention the concept of “leaning in,” she nods politely. “The call and the pleasure of a family is hard to ignore for a woman chef,” she continues. “I too was very happy to withdraw and do some small cooking, but Toni, my husband, put my photo in front of our restaurant and said that I had to go for it.” Today, the entrance of the Mandarin Oriental has a fairly large photo of Ruscellada in chef’s whites, beaming at the hotel’s patrons and passersby on the street.
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Women can find it hard to compete and survive in the “ball-busting” atmosphere of a restaurant kitchen. Others describe the difficulties of achieving work-life balance in a profession that demands being away from children on most evenings. But very few chefs, if any—male or female—point to the choice of spouse as the main reason why women aren’t heading kitchens. Husbands matter when you want to become a female chef—perhaps more so than if you want to join Wall Street or head to Silicon Valley, something that the Bureau of Labor Statistics substantiates in its publications on women workers.
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What’s the way forward? How do you help female chefs deal with the brutal working hours of a restaurant kitchen? Chefs come in at noon and often leave at 1 a.m. on most nights, including weekends. Male chefs rely on wives to take care of their families. Ruscellada’s path was different. A farmer’s daughter, she married young and began her first restaurant with her husband, somewhat like the current number one female chef, Helena Rizzo, is doing with her Spanish husband.

Carme Ruscellada

Ruscellada’s husband, Toni Balam, manages the front of her three-starred restaurant, Sant Pau, just outside Barcelona. Her son, Raul Balam is the chef at Moments (two stars). They have an outpost in Tokyo. While Ruscellada’s photo adorns the entrance of the Mandarin Oriental, it is her husband who is the power behind the chef’s hat.

Ruscellada hasn’t won an award yet, but the number one chef in the world, Joan Roca i Fontané, feels that it is time she did. Perhaps soon, her restaurant will also become one of the top 50 restaurants in the world. It is about time.
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Follow Shoba on Twitter @ShobaNarayan. We welcome your comments at deas@qz.com.

Nagging

The best way to make advice stick? Nag incessantly
Shoba Narayan

April 22, 2014 Updated: April 22, 2014 18:18:00

One of the perks of being a parent is that you get to offer advice to your children. One of the problems of being a parent is that you forget how little advice you took from your own parents. This inherent paradox is being played out in countless living rooms and dens in this, one of the peak seasons for parenting advice.

In many parts of the world, students are applying to go to colleges abroad. The prospect of losing their children to the world produces a great deal of anxiety amongst parents. This is certainly true of me. To paraphrase Jack Nicholson, my children make me want to be a better human being. Even better, they lull me into thinking that I am one.

When I nag my children to study hard, stay focused and stop fooling around with the iPad, I can almost believe that I did not indulge in any distractions at their age. Children are great that way. Give them an old-fashioned scolding and you are guaranteed to feel good.

My time is running out though. In a few weeks, my kids will be in the full throes of summer holidays. They will be swimming, cycling and practically teleporting themselves to friends’ homes. I, meanwhile, will chase after them with important life lessons running on auto-loop. Seize the day, I scream. Opportunities are abundant, I extort. Don’t miss the wood for the trees. None of these pithy dictums are particularly relevant, but they make me feel useful.

The self-help section of any library is full of books by people who have figured things out. Why they call it self-help when it is usually other people trying to help you is beyond me. Shouldn’t self-help books be written by the self? A diary or a journal in other words? Instead, we have websites like Lifehacker and 99U devoted entirely to self-improvement. Recently, I read a book called, What I wish I knew when I was 20, written by Tina Seelig, a Stanford University professor. In it, the author lists out insights that would benefit any 20-year-old. Things like “don’t burn your bridges,” and “ask the right questions.” The only problem is that such insights have to be realised after painful failure in order for them to stick.

How do you give advice to your children, and how do you make it stick? It is a dilemma that has been faced by generations of parents, made somehow more poignant by memories of childhoods past; or rather the realisation that you don’t have memories of parental advice given in childhoods past. Except those all-inclusive ones like “Eat your vegetables,” and “Dot your i’s and cross your t’s.” Beyond that, it is probably one happy blur, both for you and for me.

My method of making advice stick is to nag – to keep repeating the same phrase over and over again. This has a rather unfortunate side effect. They stop hearing me after a while. However there is one method that works: self-flagellation. When they see me fail and fall down, my children learn the lessons inherent in that failure. It is like me getting the halo effect when I chastise them.

Last week, I discovered a tear in my coat just as I was rushing out to an important meeting. As I ran around the house, muttering and stitching the tear with a needle and thread, as best as I could, my two daughters who were silently witnessing the scene chorused the girl scout motto that I had been trying to drill into them all summer: “Ma, don’t you know: be prepared.”

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir