#RoleModelReading: An interview with Ankit Chopra

The #RoleModelReading series is designed to showcase people whose lives and work deserve to be considered “role model” worthy, but who for whatever reason fall outside what mainstream media tends to promote as a role model for men. Here we hope to offer a more complicated, compelling idea of what a man might aspire to be.

I remember seeing Ankit Chopra, pictured above with his mother and father in a photo by Saskia Wilson,  for the first time at a session at Junkee’s un-conference, Junket, in late 2015. He, like me, was sat in a large circle of people in a corner of an upstairs conference room at the QT Hotel in Canberra, met for an hour to discuss refugees and asylum seekers. He was serious and engaged, tending to sit forwards and look directly at whoever was speaking. I got the impression that he cared, even if he didn’t speak. He had an authentic, disarming warmth and approachability. I was anxious and detached that weekend so I didn’t seek to prolong conversations with anyone, meaning it wasn’t until later that I found out what he does and why he was there.

Ankit is the founder of Eat Me Chutneys, a for-profit, for-purpose he runs with his mother and father that recycles unwanted or unused fruit and veg into delicious chutneys, made using his mother’s recipes. It’s not a natural result of his background. Ankit spent time working for Deloitte, and as a chef in a three Michelin star restaurant, before deciding he didn’t feel like he was working enough to his own values. And Eat Me Chutneys is more than a full-time job. When Ankit and I get a chance to chat on a Monday morning in July, it’s after a prior interview date was missed because Ankit ‘completely messed it up’ because he was ‘cooking and stuff’, which is more charming than it sounds. In fact, with his throwaway uses of ‘man’, ‘y’know?’ and ‘right?’, my entire conversation with Ankit became an oddly pleasurable marathon of transcription.

And here is that marathon: a chat with the charismatic, reluctant role model that is Ankit Chopra, about parents, careers, social enterprises and appreciating the people who just get on with making the world a better place.

Who was your first role model? Do you remember why?

Photo by Alana Dimou.
Photo by Alana Dimou.

Oh dear lord. Okay, so I’m kind of used to, like, the chutney-type questions, so I’ll have to have a bit of a think about this one.

Okay.

Uhm. Who was my first role model? Ahm. I’d say Dad, actually.

Why did he stand out?

As we were growing up as kids, I think he was a bit of an entrepreneur-type guy, and he was always doing his own stuff, like a bit of a DIY guy. Y’know, growing all the vegetables in the backyard and migrating us to New Zealand. Even prior to that he just stands out—y’know, because everyone was buying houses, he decided to build his own house, according to his own, sort of his wishes, I suppose. So yeah, he’s a bit of an out-there guy for us, he’s always been a role model.

You wrote to me that your Mum and Dad, Jaya and Bhupinder, have always looked at life ‘slightly differently’. How was your family environment and your upbringing different from what you saw around you?

Aw, dude, how many hours do you have? It’s fascinating because I’m just trying to, like, switch off my head from the chutney world, just taking a step back.

We, we’re obviously originally from India, right? So, if you can imagine, the Indian mindset isn’t exactly all about entrepreneurial sort of things, it’s more sort of set standards and set ways of living. So even though they themselves got arranged, in terms of getting married and stuff, just the things that they’ve done themselves have kind of set them apart. Y’know, they were the first folks who decided to get out of India and come over to New Zealand, right?

I was thinking of an example and the first thing that comes to mind was, when we first got to New Zealand years ago, Mum’s a teacher, primary school teacher, right? And the two or three people that she did know, they were kind of like no, you shouldn’t try and get into Catholic schools. And Mum was like no, this is rubbish, y’know, I was in India and I got taught by nuns and I’ve taught for so many years, so she just rocked up to all these Catholic schools locally and they just embraced her. The societal view in India, even though I’m not very qualified to speak on that, the societal view in India is very much, sort of stay within your box, and you don’t really challenge the norms. I’ve seen them do these things and so that’s why I’ve been like sweet, let’s just go do our own thing as well.

Between India and New Zealand, and perhaps between your parents and society generally, what sort of behaviours do you remember being encouraged to aspire to in order to become or be a man?

Ooh, very interesting, huh? Mate, your questions are getting quite deep for this early in the morning. So what sort of behaviours, and—just take me through that question again?

Well, I’m asking all my interviewees, what do you remember being taught, even at a young age, or throughout your teens, what do you remember being taught it meant to be a man, and I’m guessing you got quite a few mixed messages between India and New Zealand, and between the way it sounds like your family operated and the way society generally was teaching people to behave.

Yeah, totally. Mum and Dad, it’s just the two boys that they have, right, so my brother and I. As we were growing up, the way they were kind of treating, or maybe just interacting with the society was quite at odds with maybe what some of the uncles were saying, right?

For example, Mum and Dad, they’ve always been massive philanthropists, right, and when they were moving out of India, they essentially decided to, instead of selling their belongings, they actually donated a whole lot of things to the local schools over there, to the point where—it’s interesting, you ask me these questions and all these random memories are popping by. I remember Dad undid the ceiling fans that he had and he went to the local school that did not have any and he installed it for them. Maybe that’s why I, at a personal level, I’m kind of giving the way I am with Eat Me Chutneys, right. We donate a lot of jars and we donate a lot of time and effort to local schools and classes, and Mum’s still going out and doing chutney classes in schools as well, in addition to her normal teaching.

Photo by Alana Dimou.
Photo by Alana Dimou.

And I think probably the more important one, which is probably why my brother and I are quite vocal and we’ve kind of gone down a path, is just the way women were treated in the society. Because we’ve seen our own cousin, in India, the way she got treated. She was getting married, and it was interesting—I think it’s a societal thing, where the father of a girl is kind of a step down from the father of a guy. Mum and Dad would always encourage us, in terms of like, look, it’s the person that you need to respect, and so maybe some of those things, if you just weave them all together, has allowed us the space to just express ourselves.

I think that self-expression thing is probably not very existent in the Indian society. But Mum and Dad, it’s all about respect. One of our cousins, she came over to study here, right, and Mum’s like yeah, we’ll sponsor you, we’ll pay for everything to come over and study, so she came, she lived with us for three years. During that time, just the way they treated her, it wasn’t any different, it wasn’t like the guys are going out but you can’t go out and have a beer or whatever.

At times I’m sure Mum and Dad, they speak to their friends in India, and everyone’s talking about their kids getting married and their two sons are going out and running social enterprises, and then having to explain what social enterprise is to their friends is challenge enough anyway. I dunno, d’you know what I mean? Everyone’s kind of living those societal boundaries, I suppose.

Have you noticed or experienced societal boundaries unique to the West in your personal experience of being a man? I mean, have you found Western notions of what it means to be a man difficult to navigate, personally?

That’s a fun question. By the way, just when I read through the stuff that you’re doing, I think it’s pretty amazing. It’s interesting, because just to put it in the Indian context, I was talking to this mate of mine the other day and we were chatting and he was like, it’s almost like just about every guy that you see up at Bondi Beach or whatever, everyone’s got six-packs and everyone’s working out and everyone’s getting in their protein shakes. And sometimes it does get tricky when you navigate through some of these things.

It’s fascinating. Every society has its own view of what a liberal way of living is, and sometimes—I’m sure I’ve been through the phase as well—it’s like, how do you kind of find a balance for yourself, where it’s okay to be as open as society is here, but then where do you kind of draw a line for yourself? Maybe you just kind of back yourself, back how you’ve been brought up and just make your decisions that way.

Yeah. That’s a hard slog, but it is kind of an ideal, I guess.

Yeah, exactly, and I think maybe it comes down to a bit of self-respect, where you’re like no, this is not for me, and you walk away. But yeah, how you try and fit into society, especially when you’ve migrated into a country, because you’re trying to blend in with the locals, it’s very tricky. But then through travel, and I think everyone’s kind of travelling, we’re all kind of finding a balance anyway.

What have your relationships with men been like over the years, compared to those with women?

… Man, I should have had my coffee. I’ll do a bit of comparison, I suppose. So from about twenty to thirty, maybe twenty to twenty-eight or so, I’ve been in the corporate world and in the IT world, right. It’s mainly guys. Females have maybe been like ten per cent of the population, so to speak, in the corporate sector that I worked in. And as a comparison to that, in the last, what, maybe five or six years, as I’ve been shifting away from the corporate world into the cooking and running Eat Me Chutneys, the number of females I meet in the social enterprise sector is phenomenal. In fact, it’s like guys there are a bit of a minority. Guys aren’t running social enterprises. Where are we?

So how have the interactions been … You kind of see that male-dominated thing where it’s all about guys drinking beers in that IT sector. It’s very macho, almost. But then you find these really strong women that are running these social enterprises, like extremely strong-headed. Maybe it’s just the way the corporate world has evolved, I dunno. But in my own personal interactions, maybe because I’ve never been driven to be like, yeah, I wanna be the next CEO of the corporate world or whatever, I’ve never had those kind of tensions. But it does get interesting when guys are competing and it’s even females competing.

So in Eat Me Chutneys’ business practices, you rely on fair trade, you promote sustainability, you’re hiring female disadvantaged jobseekers – how would you describe your motives for prioritising these ideals and practices? Why are they important to you?

Firstly, if you can suggest something better, you should, because I don’t actually like the phrase ‘female disadvantaged jobseekers’ and I haven’t been able to come up with something more appropriate and fair. If you think there’s something better let me know. [I didn’t suggest anything to Ankit but you can email him at hello@eatmechutneys.com.au if you’ve got something.] But just the other day, me and Mum were chatting, we were going through a bit of a phase where we were doing some business planning, and we were reflecting on why we went out and said, let’s hire women that are not getting jobs, as opposed to just trained chefs. Maybe it’s just the fact that we’ve seen all these interesting things happening around us, centred around females, that we decided that in our own way, although I don’t like the word empowering, because it’s too big and too broad and too deep, we could just give them a financial opportunity, I suppose.

Eat Me Chutneys is a bit of a fun one, because whatever pissed us off, we’ve kind of said okay, we’ve gotta fix it, but in our own tiny little way. Even in our mission statement we’ve said that we stand for the little people, and that’s all the small-scale farmers that are part of a cooperative, part of the fair trade movement, the lady that’s just come in from Pakistan or whatever, she’s not finding a job, maybe because of the accent or whatever, maybe because she’s Muslim, we’ve kind of said—something you don’t like in the society, do you want to do something about it?

alanadimou-eatmechutneys-hires-036
Photo by Alana Dimou.

What’s been really interesting is so many people come up to us and say it must be really weird slash interesting slash funky, working with your mum, right? I’m like, isn’t it amazing that I’m working with someone who’s got so much more experience in the way of cooking or life? So many people say co-founders, go find a co-founder that’s about your age.

You’ve worked for Deloitte, you’ve worked in a three Michelin star restaurant – I’m guessing these are very different working environments with very different priorities to the ones you have at Eat Me Chutneys. Was it difficult for you, coming around to these ways of working, prioritising these ideas in your life? Was this a process of slow realisation, that this is what you needed to be doing?

Yeah, man. It was bloody hard. Especially because, y’know, there was a time when I was doing my corporate job and everything was pretty sweet as, and I was dating a girl at the time and, y’know, from the whole tick-box side of things would have been pretty ideal, especially for that Indian family side. Y’know, you get married, you have kids, you settle down, buy a house, an apartment, it’ll be great, but yeah, I was in London and I fell in love with cooking and I came back to Sydney and was like, hey, Dad, I just want to quit my job and go to France and train up as a chef there. That was a pretty challenging thing for him, right? Traditionally, y’know, no one really goes and trains as a chef in India. People train as doctors, engineers, IT consultants, things like that, they’re very much the professional type jobs. That mindset thing figures in too. But there was also validation. I got into a pretty nice restaurant to train up. But yeah, it was pretty hard.

Do you have any regrets?

Ah, no, no way, man. I’m totally excited with where I am, just because I think what’s happened is—look, at Eat Me Chutneys, even Eat Me Chutneys was a pretty tricky one. Do you remember there was this—a rape case that happened in India a few years ago where this one girl was raped on a moving bus by like six or seven guys?

Yeah. [The gang rape and fatal assault of Jyoti Singh in Delhi in 2012.]

That shook everyone. That absolutely shook everyone in India because it was so horrific, and the way it all happened—that was a point in time where I just sat down for a month or so and I wrote a lot of stuff. I wrote this massive Word document and sent it to Mum and Dad. People were extremely vocal on Facebook and Twitter and everything, people were like, this is shit and we should do something about it, but then it kind of fizzles away until the next thing comes up, and I saw my friends saying all these things and just thought this is rubbish.

My brother and I, we were literally sitting in a pub and we were like, we’ve got to do something about the way things happen in society. We were like fine, we’ll start an enterprise, we’ll call it the Umbrella Company and we’ll just run our passion projects under it, and the common thread needs to be to empower women. But as we were thinking, we realised that empowering women is a pretty big, broad statement, so we said we’d just give them jobs in our own way, right? My brother right now is in London, he’s got a social enterprise and he employs refugee ladies over there, and for me over here at Eat Me Chutneys, we’ve got our own little thing.

How would you feel to be thought of as a role model for men?

Oof. Yeah, shit, I don’t think I would, man. Dude, that’s a massive phrase, y’know? Role model. Everyone’s got their own definition of role model. Some look at it like success, how financially successful someone’s been. Maybe a takeaway for some people would be like, you’ve got to follow your intuition, because I don’t know about the role model side of things.

It’s a very, very interesting and noble topic you’re dealing with here, man, because just the role that we play as guys in this society is very interesting. I see all these people around me trying to run social enterprises, and I wonder at times whether people are running social enterprises because of their true, pure nature or because it’s just the next exciting thing to do. When I hear some the comments that the guys make, versus the comments the females make, the females are a bit more charged, a bit closer, maybe, to the truer sense.

I’ll take the compliments. The positive reinforcement is really helpful for me right now. But I don’t expect pretty much anyone I’m interviewing to say ‘I’d feel great about that’ because it’s a really awkward, heavy position, but at the same time, if young men aren’t supposed to look up to someone like you – who’s running a social enterprise, who’s left behind lucrative careers to do something that helps people – then, y’know, who do they look up to?

alanadimou-eatmechutneys-lores-079
Photo by Alana Dimou.

Hm. True that. It’s very a valid and fair point. I’m sure I must have done that as I was growing up and doing things. I mean, there’s no one or two people that I look up to as role models, but maybe it’s the people that are doing the grassroots level work, that are not going out and giving TED talks, that are not too worried about the awards that they get, that are just busy doing the work. For me, these guys have been the role models, because to me those kinds of behaviours are far more sustainable in the long run, because especially in the social enterprise sector, you’re in it for the next fifty years. Things don’t change or you don’t solve issues in five years and move on, right? That’s probably why I looked up to my dad when I was a kid, because he was very much about growing his own stuff, and he’s still doing it. So the people that are involved at the grassroot level, they’re the ones that really inspire me because they don’t give a shit about going out and giving a TED talk.

I really appreciate you talking to me. Thanks, Ankit.

No worries, man, no worries. How’s this all going, by the way? What’s the idea behind it?

It’s sort of, I’m scratching a personal itch that sort of emerged for me about two or three years ago, where I realised that the values and physical ideas of what it means to be a man, as well as professional ideas of what it means to be a man, had been deeply unhelpful, like quite damaging for me personally, and had led me to behave very stupidly—and terribly, especially, towards women on several occasions. And the process of having to realise that for myself made me question the role models that had been available to me, and the dialogues that are happening or rather not happening around masculinity, and I just sort of thought I’d like to start those conversations, perhaps for someone else who is still young and impressionable and yet to make silly choices based on bankrupt ideas of what it means to be a man.

Ha, nice one, I like how you put that. That’s awesome.

Yeah, and so far it’s going really well. I’m having some great interviews with people like yourself and I’m getting some really interesting content submitted to the site, as well, so yeah, really good.

That’s awesome, man, that’s awesome. Look, if you ever need a hand, whatever man, I’m happy to help, because it’s especially needed. Especially in the bigger cities like Sydney, there’s this real macho image that you need to live up to, sort of thing, and being a guy, how it affects the way you treat women around you, it’s really fascinating. And with so many migrants coming in, it’s such a massive melting pot, right? It’s like how can you—yeah, you see all these weird-ass things happening on trains and stuff. I’m no expert on this, but it’s kind of weird and fascinating at the same time.

You can find out more about Ankit’s delicious chutneys at eatmechutneys.com.au and follow them online on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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