For an industry where being queer isn’t something that’s normally discussed at work, or socially for that matter, it’s been a journey of many learnings for Bakhtiani
As I walk into Ether: Atelier Chocolat, chef Prateek Bakhtiani’s labour of love — and a brand that he’s built over the last three years — there’s a pronounced sense of calmness. The minimalist, monochrome setting is almost lab-like — clinical even — with his staff moving about, meticulously pouring chocolate into slabs, whipping up confections for the day, and so on. Makes sense, I think to myself later, given his love for chemistry and interweaving that with pastry and chocolate. Sitting in his glass-enclosed office that looks out to the kitchen, fitted with Scandi-cool elements and sipping on an ice-cold coffee, the young 28-year-old greets me with an impish grin.
Pratik Bakhtiani moved back to Mumbai in 2018 at the age of 25, looking at the sensory exploration of chocolate, and innovating from there. Haven’t you made chocolate like couture? I ask him, referring to his seasonal collections and given that the Indian market has been attuned to a certain way of desserts and mass-produced chocolates for the longest time. “Atelier culture is all about being couture and small-batch,” he explains. “It’s not progressive, it’s regressive. I’m not creating something new but going back to how chocolate used to be—very artisanal,” he notes.
For an industry where being queer isn’t something that’s normally discussed at work, or socially for that matter, it’s been a journey of many learnings for Bakhtiani. “Being LGBTQ+ was actually a catalyst for Ether,” he explains, referring to an anecdote from one of his old jobs in Mumbai, where the head chef and owner were conversing. “I was in the corner, working. The owner was checking Instagram and talking about someone, and the head chef turns to him and goes, Oh, but he’s a gay.”
“I thought to myself, no matter how good I am at my job, who I sleep with is invalidating what I do for you. I’m not going to sleep with women to make sure you like my pastries. So, why am I still here? It was a bit of an ‘ouch’ moment, but pushed me to set up Ether, since no one else was really doing what I wanted to do at the time,” he says. Even now, with the pastry world in India, there isn’t a clear, defined sense of community, he laments. I ask him to elaborate. In the West, there are very clear professional boundaries. And there isn’t much discrimination when we’re hanging out after work, he says. “Here in India, those lines are very blurred, because we don’t have a pastry community in the social sense.”
He goes on to add, “At the risk of sounding dramatic, I have noticed there is an active sense of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ when you suspect someone is queer. “There is mild discomfort, but I want to go on record and say, at least from my perspective, that it is explicitly and unequivocally not homophobia. I think it’s more societal discomfort, and not in a way that is anyone’s fault,” he muses.
Does he feel there is more conversation and representation in the food world now, especially after the decriminalisation of Section 377 in India? “There is definitely more conversation, but I would say, it almost borders on cheap activism. You know what I mean?” It’s like straight people saying ‘love is love’ to commoditise and monetise on queerness as a fad. It’s easy to hashtag #loveislove. You can sell hundreds of boxes of chocolates with a rainbow on it, but did you instead collaborate with any queer chefs or artists? Have you spread awareness to help the underserved LGBTQ+ community? No, you’re using this to make a profit, and that’s kind of cringe,’ he points out.
Bakhtiani believes that where he comes from, it seems as if there are two very distinct voices that dominate the pastry and food world right now. There’s the women-led voice in pastry, or the toxic, hypermasculine style of working. For him, it can feel like being in a no-man’s land at times, almost being excluded from both voices. He adds that the food community as a whole is progressive enough to support queer folk when they do come together. “As chefs, if we speak to each other, bounce each other off more — that will only happen once we find each other. We haven’t formed that community yet.”
How does he think the industry can be more inclusive? “I don’t know if there are any specific ways,” he says, pausing, before adding that it’s important to just normalise conversations and create more comfortable spaces for queer people to come out at work. “If you’re somebody that runs a kitchen, ask if someone on your team would feel comfortable just dropping their sexuality nonchalantly in a conversation, and if they wouldn’t or don’t feel comfortable, then that’s a problem.”
Did being queer ever impact his career? I ask him. He’s quick to point out that this isn’t something that is specific to the food industry. “It’s a very busy job. You work all the time; you have very little time for building a narrative and what your love life means.” He makes an interesting observation, pointing out that almost every queer person realises early on, that their biggest struggle is that society doesn’t have a narrative for how queer-loving works. “If I have a 12-hour job and I’m straight, I know what a straight relationship looks like because of what I’ve seen in the media or films. With queer folk we don’t, and whatever few narratives we have are very damaging,” he points out.
He mentions that one of the things about being LGBTQ+ in India is largely being told what being queer is by people that tokenise queer identities to make money. “I refuse to believe that a country full of queer people wants to put rainbows on everything.”
Intrigued, I ask him about his take on queer food and its representation in India. Bakhtiani says that we haven’t yet been given the space in food here to craft our own queer food identity — like queer people in film or art have. “There is a very clear queer fashion and film movement in India, and queer food hasn’t gotten there yet, or even internationally. I don’t know if I want it to get there, I’m happy for food to be agnostic of sexuality,” he says, signing off. Till then, it’s on to building bigger and better things for Ether Atelier for the young chef.