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Chef Spotlight

(Rubina Khan) My memories of childhood are not necessarily that of a regular child- I did not have time to play with other children in the neighborhood, go to parks, buy candies and toys or enjoy rides. But I do not remember being unhappy either.

I recall how in a family of eight, with a mere monthly income of $30, we would still be so content and happy. A warm caring father, a loving mother, and chirpy sisters and brother is all I remember.

I was 11, in grade 5, when I started helping my father with work: a road side food stall. He would prepare food and I would clean the dishes. I used to go to school in the morning and would work him till midnight. From one road to another, I would walk beside my father holding his hand and thinking what a wonderful life this is, where I feed people and it makes them happy. This is what I will do all my life, I used to think to myself.

I am Rubina Khan and I am from Chitral (North Pakistan), an under-privileged society where cultural restrictions do not allow women to breathe in freedom and chase their dreams.

For me, my dream was to make my father proud. People have role models; Nelson Mandela, Abdul Sattar Edhi, Mother Teresa and all these amazing people had one thing in common. It was determination, commitment. I did not have to go too far from home to get my inspiration. I saw my father as my idol. He is that foundation, the strength that drove me to explore the world, to challenge the limitations of being a girl in a society that was oppressive.

In 2004 during my high school summer break, I got the opportunity to intern at Marriott International Hotel Islamabad. At the time there were no women allowed in the kitchen; it was dominated by male chefs and their male assistants. Women were shunted into roles that typically entailed customer services, front desk, tele-sales and the like.

It is true that determination alone cannot do magic for you; I was young, struggling and I needed guidance. I found a mentor; the executive chef I used to assist pushed me to go beyond my limits. He would advise on how I could improve my competence in what I do and he would instill in me the confidence that I am no less than other chefs who happen to be men. In no time I became the first woman of my country to work as a chef. I was only 18 years old.

In 2006, I got a scholarship to study Hospitality Management at the College of Tourism and Hotel Management in Lahore. I could not have asked for more. Lahore, the hub of hospitality, food and culture. I knew this was a great learning opportunity. Alongside I started to look for jobs because I was also contributing to my family’s income back home. I got a fulltime Job at Pearl Continental Hotel also in Lahore where I continued working as a chef in the night shift. I graduated holding second position in my class, specializing in Food and Beverage Science and Management from the AH&LA (American hotel and lodging association).

I was extremely excited and for me God could not have been more kind. I was enjoying my job, delivering trainings to my peers; I was the youngest woman chef around. Meanwhile, I came across the Fulbright scholarship from USEFP advertisement and I applied. I would often think to myself that it is quite a competitive scholarship, a lot of people will apply, and they may even prefer someone with more experience or a strong reference. But all these fears did not hold me back from dreaming. In July 2007, my life changed. I got an offer, a fully funded scholarship to study Hotel and Tourism Management in Seattle, Washington. And my accomplishments did not end with that. I graduated with President Honor list. I was member of the legislative committee of my college and attended legislative academy sessions to represent my college. I was also a member of the disciplinary committee for my college until I graduated.

I made a lot of friends from all across the world and we all shared the true love and passion for making people happy with our food.

My cooking mantra was to always keep it simple. I believe in mastering the Technique. Once you know the technique, you can transform coal into diamond. I love the quote by Erin Morgenstern: “You don’t have to be a chef or even a particularly good cook to experience proper kitchen alchemy: the moment when ingredients combine to form something more delectable than the sum of their parts. Fancy ingredients or recipes not required; simple, made-up things are usually even better”.

In 2010 I returned to Pakistan with a renewed zeal. The confidence that I have and can achieve whatever I put myself faith into. I joined Marriott Hotel Islamabad as a Chef de Partie. I trained several women in the kitchen and encouraged them to take initiatives and think outside of their gender roles.

In 2011, I was interviewed by the International Labor Organization and captioned in the mainstream media by Express Tribune as “brave woman of Chitral”. This opened doors to me to help other women through development work and to advocate for the rights of women in the (professional realm) world of work.

In 2011, I competed for Unilever’s Chef of the Year, Pakistan cooking contest and I made it to the semifinals amongst 1500 other contestants who were all male.

In June 2011, I was one of the nine outstanding alumni of Pakistan to meet Deputy Secretary of the United States of America, Thomas Nides, who visited Pakistan, and I was asked to share the experience I had studying in the USA.

In August 2011, I was honored as the only student of my college to receive “Pride of COTHM” Award.

In September 2011, I returned to the States to finish my studies. After graduating, I moved to Memphis where I met my business partner and took command of a Mediterranean restaurant as an Executive Chef until I met my husband in 2014 and moved to LA.

My journey has been a real rollercoaster ride with bumps, sharp curves and steep falls. And I believe it will be like that till I make to my destination. This journey has been meaningful because I had the support and love of my parents and my siblings and my husband who became my anchor. My teachers and colleagues pushed me to unfold horizons for myself that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

I travelled Pakistan, Dubai, UK, Canada and the United States for my passion of cooking and travelling, and I tasted their food and experienced their cultures. It amazes me how food can bring all these cultures together.

My quest for learning, cooking and sharing the art of cooking is never-ending, and it has been my dream to be able to enrich peoples’ lives with something that can spread love, sweetness and warmth. And I think I can do that with Food.

As an Executive Chef at Surfas Culinary District, I am always eager to share new recipes with colleagues and friends, to teach and serve my clients food that they will remember; give them memories that will touch them and their loved ones.

I want to reach out to people to show them what an amazing, wonderful experience it is to create flavors, to understand the alchemy of food and convert that into that palatable experience that makes people rejoice and overcome worries and soothes them. I just want to say to those millions of people: men and women, girls and boys, who just like me work at a roadside stall feeding others day in and day out, to never let your passion die, to not let adversity get the better of you; to hold onto your faith and say, Tomorrow will pass too! It always does, and it is mostly better than yesterday. One should not let one’s aspirations be slave to a society’s will. And a message for girls from across the world and particularly from my country: we have an undying stamina, a drive, a push within us, and we just need to put all of that to an end that is satisfying. Only then can we be happy.

Rubina Khan: Pakistan’s First Woman Chef

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