No time to retire! Sarojben and Sharmistaben are 80+ and still revolutionising the Gujarati catering business

These two women pioneered the catering business in the early '80s when the professional kitchen was a male-dominated area. Over 30 years and running, they are still an inspiration.

 |  7-minute read |   06-04-2019
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She was the food consultant and caterer for the Gujarati food section in both the Ambani children’s — Esha Ambani and Akash Ambani — weddings in Mumbai. In Ahmedabad, she does all the catering for the Torrent Group, the Cadila group and many other big corporate houses and industrialists.

But if you see this frail-looking 89-year-old petite woman, you won’t believe that she is this hot-shot food consultant and caterer who pioneered the entry of women into the male-dominated catering business for marriages, functions, corporate events and various religious and cultural events.

Sarojben Chokshi started catering 38 years ago at the age of 51.

Prior to that, she was into clothes designing, making women’s clothing, dresses and baby frocks — clearly, a woman of many talents. 

The first time Sarojben started catering though was when Asarwa mill owner Babubhai asked her to cater for his daughter, Rakshaben’s wedding, who was also her friend. Sarojben’s father was in the business of buying and selling of textile machinery, which is why he was friends with many mill owners, and she catered at many of their weddings and events.

sarojben-1-inside_040219034822.jpgSarojben Chokshi started catering 38 years ago at the age of 51. It is never too late! (Source: Author)

When asked when she was planning to retire, she says, “Why retire? I want to keep working until I am gone. If I sit at home, firstly, it will slow my mind and secondly, everyone is busy, so no one has time to spend with you. And why sit at home when I can keep working?”

Sarojben is also the chief chef for the Gujarati Thali restaurant Sarbhara at Karnavati Club, where she goes twice a day for three hours each to prepare the menu and make sure all the dishes are made according to her specifications.

Apart from this, Sarojben also paints and does wall murals. In fact, a large painting of herself adorns the walls at Sarbhara Restaurant.

“I can cook meals for 200, 400, even a 1,000 people. But, I will have to sit down to calculate the number of ingredients needed for any recipe if it has to be for 4-5 people,” she says. Which is probably why she is also planning to write her own recipes for a cookery book, but she says she hasn’t found the time to do it.

Sarojben is 89 and still plans ahead — a lesson many of us can learn from her.

sarojben-2-inside_040219034840.jpgSarojben has one mantra: 'Why retire when you can keep working?' (Source: Author)

Sarojben travels to Mumbai, Udaipur and other places to cater at weddings or events. She plans the menus for these events and even gets her own ingredients from Ahmedabad if she is travelling. She said, “I like to be sure of my ingredients — so I always buy and take all that I will need with me.”

When asked if she feels intimidated at high-profile weddings where hundreds are invited, Sarojben said, “No, I am never nervous. One must plan well — then it all comes together. Of course, unforeseeable incidents happen but one has to make alternative arrangements. Like, if we run out of a food item, which might happen, we prepare it again or substitute it with something else. But I don’t panic.”

Interestingly, Sarojben still cooks at her home daily.

"I don’t keep a cook since I cook only for two persons, my son and myself, so it’s easy. Both of us like Gujarati food. My daughter-in-law takes care of cooking for my husband and herself as both like North Indian and other cuisines.” 

Now Sarojben’s only son Tapan Chokshi has joined her in the catering business but she still designs the menus and dishes, and he looks after the financial side of the business. Sarojben is media-shy and doesn’t like to be featured. She says her food is her biggest advertisement. "People should eat my food — if they like it, they are my biggest promoters," she smiles. 

inside_040319013520.jpg82-year-old Sharmista Prakash Sheth started catering in the late '80s. Today, she is a force to reckon with. (Source: Author)

Another amazing woman is 82-year-old Sharmista Prakash Sheth, who started catering in the late 1980s, all of 30 years ago, at weddings, functions and events. Sharmistaben said she started catering as she had nothing to do in the house once her only son started going to school. She said, “My mother-in-law used to take care of the house and my husband was taking care of his business, so I had a lot of time on my hands — I liked cooking, so I first started with teaching women how to cook. I did that for a decade before I started catering.” Apart from Gujarati dishes, Sharmistaben would teach women to make puddings, pies, cakes, and a lot of dishes of foreign origin which people were not so familiar with many years ago.

She is still extremely busy during the marriage season between Diwali, up to February, and sometimes even in March. She caterers at the Cricket Club of India, Mumbai. Sharmistaben takes up the catering work of a whole wedding and outsources speciality cuisines like Chinese and Italian. She only caters for vegetarian food — so if the host wants to also serve non-vegetarian food, they will have to hire another caterer and make separate cooking arrangements.

Sharmistaben says, “I was able to do all this because I had tremendous support from my home and I also had some great cooks. Gordhan Maharaj was a great cook who worked for me for several years when I started catering. Even his brothers and relatives joined him, so there was a lot of family and staff support which really helped.”

img_3515_040319013547.jpgSimple tastes, hard work and family support are vital ingredients in Sharmistaben's life. (Source: Author)

She too doesn't plan to retire from her business. Her son has an independent cheese trading business, and Sharmistaben runs her own venture. She is fit, she also does some cooking at her home and still plans ahead.

Sarojben and Sharmistaben come from affluent families, are highly educated, articulate and speak perfect English. Sarojben is a graduate in Economics from St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, and a Masters in Economics from Bombay University. She then went on to study at the JJ School of Arts, Mumbai, before moving to Ahmedabad post-marriage. So, it was not a financial need that led them to start their catering business, but just a love for food, cooking and a desire to do something on their own. 

They, along with Sushilaben Shah and Lashtiben Parikh, are the four women who pioneered catering at weddings for Gujaratis.

Speaking about their contribution to the food industry in Gujarat, well-known food critic and author of several books on food, Anil Mulchandani, said, “Being well-travelled and thanks to personal experience in hosting parties, these women brought international food and finesse to weddings in Gujarat — thanks to them, many of the traditional Brahmin cooks called maharaj in Gujarat got to learn multiple cuisines. Some of these cooks have become big caterers or restaurateurs themselves."

Both Sarojben and Sharmistaben are women whose lives show us the Gujarati entrepreneurial spirit, courage, grit and positive thought. Kudos to them. 

Also read: 9 age-old infused water remedies to drown your health concerns

Writer

Sonal Kellogg Sonal Kellogg @journolady

Independent journalist, writer, Child Sexual Abuse survivor & activist and a strong voice against sexual abuse.

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