Chef Safia is one of the greatest names in Pakistan’s culinary industry. With having an experience of over 20 years in professional cooking, she has conquered the commercial market by making mouthwatering dishes.
Today, we bring to you an exclusive interview where she talks about success, family and the pure joy of being a chef.
We thank her for taking time out of her busy schedule and letting us know about her journey.
A.K : Have you always wanted to be a chef?
Safia: Ever since I was a little girl, I took a keen interest in the kitchen. Kids my age were not even allowed to go in the kitchen, let alone help their mother, but I always used to end up sitting on the kitchen counter to learn the art of cooking. I remember one time when I was six years old, my mother could not find the rolling pin that is used to make rotis (flatbread), and I gave her this round utensil we used for storing beans and told her to use it as a rolling pin. She laughed and it was then that she knew that the kitchen was a sacred place for me.
While I was a teenager, I started cooking proper meals. I used to follow recipes I picked from different magazines or cooking shows. My mother taught me a lot as well. I also took some cooking courses to perfect my art. As I grew up, I knew that being a chef was something that would always be a passion. Whether I would actually achieve my dream, I was not sure. But I took this passion seriously and here we are today.
A.K: How did your family take the whole professional training of becoming a chef?
Safia: Before I was married, I had the full support of my family to regularly attend the cooking courses. They never stopped me from going to the classes, no matter what other people had to say. If other women told my mother that there was no need to spend money on these cooking classes when I was going to learn this anyway, my family never focused on such comments and fully supported my passion.
However, after marriage, my in-laws did not like me attending cooking courses or wanting to professionally pursue being a chef. They appreciated my cooking and everyone loved the food I made, but they were against the idea of me leaving the house to learn or to pursue a full-time job. This was a setback, but I kept cooking at home, trying out new dishes and recipes. I regularly kept dinners at my house and invited my husband’s colleagues, my childrens’ friends, and other family and friends. The compliments I got gave me confidence, and so I did not lose hope.
Eventually, when my kids grew up, my daughters forced me to join COTHM, a school which gives a professional diploma in culinary arts. They went to the admission office and got my admission done. My husband was supportive and wanted me to continue my passion, now that the kids were grown up and independent.
A.K: When did Serena come into play?
Safia: COTHM has a proper 9-month diploma, in which the last 3 months are an internship. I got 2nd position in that diploma, and everyone was very pleased and awed with the dishes I cooked for the final practical exam. This led me to choose where I wanted to do my internship and eventually a full-time job. I went to different commercial places and restaurants. In the end, I picked Serena.
A.K : How was the experience working there?
Safia: Working in Serena was one magical experience. Cooking at home or in an institution is nothing like cooking in a commercial place. This was very new for me, but because I had prior experience, I quickly got the hang of things.
I had to wake up at 6 every morning, because we had to be in the Serena Kitchen by 7 a.m, properly dressed and ready for work. We worked 7 days a week. On the weekends, the schedule was the same as the weekdays. Initially, we could not take a day off, but after a few weeks, all the chefs and workers started making proper timetables to cover for each other if someone had to take a day off. The management was very cooperative. We were like a family and we all learned so much from each other. I also learned that working as a chef on such a large scale was not only about being a good cook, you had to be good at time management, great at team work, and a quick decision maker.
The routine was quite tough, but it was all worth it. It was truly a dream come true for me.
A.K: How do you manage the tough routine while maintaining a good family life?
Safia: I had to leave my job at Serena several months back because of some family commitments. I think this already shows how difficult it is to be working as a chef at a commercial place, while also maintaining a good family life. But thanks to my children and husband for supporting me and cooperating with me during the time I was working. My daughters managed the house very well.
I used to come back from work at around 5 p.m, and after resting for a little while, I made dinner and checked up on everything. Two of my young ones were still at school, so I had to make sure that they were studying properly, their uniforms were cleaned and ironed, and that they were doing well at school. I did my best to manage my husband’s work routine with my own.
The key to balancing both the things was to be super active and responsible. To utilize all the 24 hours of the day and to make the most out of them really helped me to cope with the work pressure and the family commitments. Another thing I would like to point here is that if you really have a passion for something and you truly want to do it, you automatically get the strength to manage everything. My family is the most important thing for me, and being a chef is the second most important thing to me. I thank God for letting me experience both in the best way possible.
A.K: What would you advise to young girls and boys who want to pursue professional cooking as their profession?
Safia: There are so many courses available now in the art of culinary. You can choose any place where you can learn from the best chefs. I just want to tell them to not wait for the right time. There will never be a right time. If you really want it, just register for a class. You will know whether you are on the right path.
Being a good chef requires practice and passion. If you lack either one of the two things, you will not reach your goal. Culinary art is a very good field and there are growing opportunities for it in the country now. It is also something that will stay with you forever. Even if you do not want to pursue cooking professionally, I would recommend young girls and boys to at least learn this art if you have the passion. Apart from making delicious foods, you get to know so much about food, the different vegetables and fruits and how they can be used in various combination with other ingredients. For example, you also gain knowledge about the foods that should not be consumed with water.
A.K: Thank you Safia, for your time and expert advice. I hope your words guided those with similar passion towards the right path.