Pinky Lilani. Photograph from talkingstars.co.uk
Two days ago, I did a most unusual thing: I started my MBA. I still don’t feel right saying it. Not because millions of people don’t do MBAs each year. They do; it’s quite usual, in fact. But me. A food writer. A cook. Well, that’s usual.
Over the summer, we were sent instructions on how to prepare our resumés. My usual resumé is a flurry of publications and recordings (perhaps flurry is an overcompensation, but it does creep over the one page limit) in a lovely font, using all sorts of little formatting tricks that I grin over like a satisfied Cheshire Cat who just swallowed the Dormouse. And yet, here was this form from the business school, tell me in no wavering manner that Times New Roman 10 point was my only option.
I compared my CV, my curriculum vitae, or, loosely translated, the story of my life, next to this model they’d provided, what I supposed to be the average life story of my soon-to-be classmates. Work experience at the top, please: Analyst, Goldman Sachs, Consultant, McKinsey. Soon, I began to realize that the font wasn’t the only way I was supposed to conform. Okay, I breathed deeply, trying to fill out this worksheet with things like Food Columnist. I began to prioritize the wrong things, placing Penguin Intern above my BBC recordings, simply because it was done in an office, and I thought they’d find it more legitimate. By the time I had finished “Education” and “Employment,” my camel’s back was nearly broken. But instead of throwing on a straw, they threw on a ton of bricks:
“Do NOT say you’re interested in cooking!” a little colored blurb on the instruction sheet shouted up at me. “Nobody cares. It will not get you a job.”
And that was the end of this camel. I crumpled up onto the floor, and I sobbed my whole life story, my whole CV, away. What would have been an acceptable activity, one that they claimed would have gotten me the job? Tennis. In my anger I thought finishing first in my class at Le Cordon Bleu would have been just as heavy a qualification as sitting down and watching Wimbledon. “I’m not going!” I called out to no one. Why would they admit a cook if “cooking” will never get me anywhere?!
My class and chefs at Le Cordon Bleu, in Paris
But still I found myself, three days ago, lying in bed waiting to begin my first day at school. At twenty-six I felt no different than kindergarten six. I had bought new pencils (light blue and lovely), and couldn’t sleep, and wished I still had a little green uniform hung up in my closet instead of having to pick something in the morning. I stared at the ceiling in the darkness. When Mr. English called, I snapped down the phone at him and hung up before he’d finished talking. I crawled out of bed with black bags under my eyes and a chip on my shoulder. I sat through 10 hours of induction. And then, with a handful of new friends, I attended the Women in Business event, without much expectation, still not really knowing what I was doing with this latest addition to the Education section of my CV.
“Kerry,” one of my friends shook me out of my daze, “the keynote speaker is in food!”
I grabbed the paper from her hand, and I looked. Pinky Lilani OBE, a self-taught Indian home cook, who had changed the landscape of English cuisine with her books and her consulting at mega supermarkets. She got up, and as she spoke, she reminded me of something that I often forget. After all, success is success, whether it’s on the trading floor or the kitchen floor, and as much as I spurned and judged the names like Goldman Sachs and McKenzie, I too can feel like a rat in a race.
But she reminded me of the most basic thing that I’ve always loved about food: it stops people. I remember racing down the High Street in Oxford once, and Pizza Hut started giving out free slices of pizza. Everyone simply stopped, stopped whatever it was they were doing, and started eating, and chatting, and above all else, they started smiling. When Pinky walked up to her podium, you could see she was just like her food: wholesome, but spicy. She had sass, and poise; an unassuming manner, but an Everest of accomplishments. For the first time since I’d really pondered this whole MBA affair, I felt inspired.
Spicy Bombay Potatoes. Photograph from spicemagic.com.
Soon, Pinky pulled out an enormous platter of her famous spicy Bombay potatoes, and all the strung out, exhausted girls in the room gasped. And Pinky made the brave announcement, “If any of you here at school ever need a home-cooked meal, you’re always welcome at my table.” And looking around the room, at women who had come from America and India, South Africa and Scandinavia, I realized that there are ways to feed people even without food. The color had come back in the room. And though none of us had yet tasted those Spicy Bombay Potatoes, we were all somehow much fuller.
And there, in that fluorescent-lit lecture theater, among all the power brokers, I sat looking at this lovely, happy, woman who had found her way to personal success and who had helped to change the world simply because she did what she loved, and because she didn’t take no for an answer. And even among the power-brokers, seeing how they fell weak at the knees at the sight of those Spicy Bombay Potatoes, I felt for the first time like maybe I too was a force to be reckoned with. And that maybe, after all was said and done, I held the most power after all.
Pommes frites, anyone?
Pinky’s new book Coriander Makes the Difference will be released shortly…