Haya Emaan – A Pakistani girl’s journey to a 3 three Michelin star restaurant

If you saw her chopping on the board, she probably wouldn’t notice you gazing intensely at her dexterity. So lost is she in her craft. But so are you. It slips your mind how many moments have passed as you observe – enchanted, mesmerized, in awe of the precision, the concentration, the speed, the human ability to do so much with two hands. The spell is hard to break. Such is the pull of this person fully immersed in her craft.

The spell is only broken when suddenly she looks up and laughs. She is done with her chopping and realizes you have been there all along. You cave a bit into yourself, not having recognized how long you were staring. It’s time to snap back into the realm of space and time. 

As you talk to Haya Emaan, a line chef at renowned Jean-Georges, New York, you are immediately drawn into an aura of warmth. The balance of her personality is much like her balance of flavors – a hint of traditional with a refreshing heap of contemporary. Her love for food is rooted in her love for her grandma and the nostalgia of yesteryears where she spent hours in the kitchen with her. Haya recalls her grandmother explaining to her how to understand the nuances of flavor within each ingredient and cook with the senses – the touch of the spice, the sound of the gurgling broth, the aroma of the saffron rice, the colour of the curry sauce, and the taste of small spoonfuls to check for salt. It was a sensory experience like none other and one she embodied as a part of her growing yearning to be a professional chef.

If dreams come true, they do so in retrospect, when they are complete, fulfilled. If the story is told any earlier, it is easy to imagine how it may end differently, catastrophically. Such was Haya in life about 8 years ago. She had enrolled and dropped out of a business school and a law school, all within the span of a year, much to the dismay of her family and the concern of her friends. In a country where there are no culinary schools, it is unimaginable that anyone can aspire to be a professional chef. But there Haya was – resilient and persistent, stubbornly refusing to give into expectations and carving her own path.

The path was not easy to follow. To get into a good culinary school abroad involved getting some work experience in a professional kitchen. And anyone who has observed any restaurant in Pakistan knows that that space is dominated by men, only by men. Haya managed to find work in one of the top restaurants in the city and worked tirelessly day and night honing her skills. At home, she continued her grandma’s tradition of hosting large gatherings, thinking of ways to optimize cooking plans and catering. 

            After what seemed like a long year, Haya had enough experience to put in an application for the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). When her acceptance letter came, she was ecstatic. It was not just a step in the right direction for her training as a professional chef, it was a validation that her dreams were within reach, that she could forge her way to a place in which society had placed innumerable obstacles, and that she could do it alone. In that moment she became a believer: what Haya wants, Haya gets. In years to come, that would become her mantra, her source of strength, her reaffirmation in the belief that she has the talent, the passion, the resilience, the patience and most of all, the discipline, to achieve whatever goal she sets her eyes upon.

As she graduated from CIA with flying colours, Haya was unstoppable. It is no surprise that a three Michelin-starred restaurant recruited her immediately. As she continues to dream bigger dreams, her family and friends, who were once reluctant supporters, cheer her confidently on.

So what’s next for her? Sitting on the sofa, in an off-shoulder, black top, a tattoo of her dad’s name inked in Arabic across her collarbone, her hands move animatedly as she discusses what she wants to do next.

 “I would like to travel and work on recording the cuisine of Pakistan.” she says.

Being a young Muslim female from Pakistan, Haya has already defied the many odds placed against her. It is not difficult to imagine that she will continue to do the same in the future. Hers will be a story of inspiration for many who will follow her footsteps – a story of resilience and bravery steeped deep in the love for her grandma and country, and driven by her passion to succeed.

This piece has written by : SABA FATIMA MIRZA  contributed to Celebdhaba team.