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  • Writer's pictureChomp Magazine

The Road to Bartending of The First Female Bartender in India, Basu Shatbhi

Updated: May 9

The first female bartender in India, Basu Shatbhi

India is known for being one of the best cuisines in the world, with beautiful architecture, a long history, and exotic rituals. It is also known for strict traditions and gender roles. In many cultures, especially Asian cultures, women in bars are looked down upon. So, it may be assumed that the first female bartender in India, Basu Shatbhi, faced difficulties and sexism. However, this is not the case.

Basu, whose career has spanned almost four decades, didn't want to be a bartender in the first place. She wanted to be a chef, a Chinese cuisine chef, to be exact. After her graduation, she applied for a trainee chef position in a five-star hotel.

"The Main Kitchen Chef told me I had to work in the main kitchen for six months before I could ask for a transfer. I did that, but when the six-month training in the main kitchen was over, they didn't transfer me. I was furious. I thought I wasted too much time. I could have done so much, so I quit. When I quit, I thought stand-alone Chinese restaurants would be at greater ease. I joined a Chinese restaurant where a senior colleague of mine was the manager there. He told me he couldn't promise me that he would get me to work in the kitchen because it wasn't his domain. So, I could work in the kitchen only if the chef would agree. In the meantime, the manager allowed me to work at the restaurant. However, the chef looked at me and warned me not to dare come into his kitchen. That's the end of my journey to becoming a Chinese cuisine chef. Until now, I still don't know why they didn't let me enter the kitchen."

The first female bartender in India, Basu Shatbhi

During that time, she was responsible for managing the bar, including making cocktails. However, she had never paid attention to this aspect during her time at university. Realising she needed to start from scratch, she quickly gathered all the necessary books and studied hard. Despite having no prior experience in making cocktails, limited theoretical knowledge, and impatience from her manager, she persevered and pushed herself to learn and improve. Basu noted that the more she studied, the more fascinated she became with the art of cocktail making.

When she started her bartender career, the restaurant's bar wasn't really a bar — it was just a sideboard. Alcohol was restricted, and they barely had liqueurs. Bartenders in India were forced to work with limited ingredients.

"It put a lot of pressure on me to experiment even more, to push my boundaries to see what I could use and what was available locally. Fresh fruits were heavily used because they were easy to find first. I experimented with the drinks I studied from cocktail books because they were the only source. The chance of meeting international bartenders is very slim because, in those days, international travelling took a lot of work. We only had a few people coming to the country. We started meeting international bartenders only after the market opened in the late '90s or 2000s."

The first female bartender in India, Basu Shatbhi

Through Basu's journey, she discovered that physics and chemistry play dominant roles in bartending. She learned the true meaning of mixology, which is more than just mixing drinks.

"I suddenly realised I could use physics and chemistry I studied in school and college. Like many kids, I used to wonder what I would do with these subjects in life. Through bartending, I finally got that answer because everything we do is physics and chemistry. For example, when we shake a drink, we create friction. Friction is when two elements rub against each other to create heat. That happens when a bartender adds ice to the shaker and shakes it. It creates heat. The heat breaks down the ice into water. The water dilutes the drink. That's physics.

"Solution and suspension are concepts in chemistry. When difficult ingredients are mixed together, bartenders create a suspension by shaking and emulsifying the mixture. Working as a bartender made me think, 'Atoms and molecules make sense to me now!' Applying these things in bartending makes me more intelligent about the processes behind every bottle of every spirit, from sourcing, maturing, distillation and blending, how each has its own flavour profiles, the core values of every ingredient, and how to balance drinks."

The first female bartender in India, Basu Shatbhi

After learning what she had set out to accomplish, she had a change of heart. The idea of returning to the kitchen no longer appealed to her. She found the fun of mixology and working in a space with better ventilation more suitable than the hot and cramped kitchen. Working in the kitchen meant she couldn't observe the customers and their reactions to her dishes. However, working behind the bar allowed her to see whether they liked the drinks. If they didn't, she could approach them, inquire about their preferences and make changes accordingly.

Sometimes, consumers ask her why she chose to be a bartender instead of pursuing a different career. Her response is simply, "Why not? Aren't you enjoying the drinks that I made?" They usually reply with a "Yes, we are." She then asks them if they are also enjoying the conversation they are having, to which they again reply with a "Yes." She then concludes by saying, "There you go."

"If I choose to follow a path that is right for me, then society has to evolve with me, not against me. For me, that's the only logical explanation. When bar culture started in India, there weren't many bartenders, so gender wasn't an issue. My generation of Indian bartenders, males or females, struggled with the same problem, which was to be creative and work within the limitations of India's alcohol regulations. So, it wasn't like I entered a male-dominated space. However, I understand that some bartenders in India are in trouble because they work in the bar industry. Many of my students come from conventional families or families with businesses often face difficulties. If their daughters want to work with alcohol, it's a no-go. Nowadays, many families in India still practise arranged marriages and seek suitable spouses for their children. This is not limited to girls only but also to boys. Male bartenders get hassled because the girls' parents don't want the boys to be their in-laws due to their profession. If this is the situation for boys, one can only imagine how much worse it must be for girls. I am lucky to come from an educated family that treats everyone equally, so I didn't experience that. I think education is the key, because the more people are educated, the more they're awarded that it's just another profession."

The first female bartender in India, Basu Shatbhi

Throughout her career, the first female bartender in India, Basu, has demonstrated an exceptional level of resilience and determination, which has undoubtedly contributed to her remarkable success in the industry. Despite facing numerous challenges and setbacks, she has remained steadfast in pursuing her goals and has relentlessly worked towards achieving them. Her unwavering dedication and commitment to her craft have earned her a reputation as one of the field's most hardworking and accomplished professionals. This combination of talent, perseverance, and passion has allowed Basu to thrive in the industry and achieve her level of success.


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