The first thing notice you notice about Chef Pooja Dhingra is her ebullience. The second is her grit. And the third is her acuity.
Every question tossed her way is answered with a verve that has been her calling card since she started Le15 Patisserie as a macaron store in Mumbai a little over a decade ago. For sure, she has her moments of doubt and insecurity. But despite those, she has built a brand that spans patisseries, social media, cookbooks and podcasting.
Dhingra’s litany of achievements is admirable. She has been called the ‘macaron queen of India’, featured on Forbes India’s list of 30 under 30 achievers, written an award-winning cookbook, and received numerous awards.
“People tell you don’t be afraid, but that’s not normal. If you do anything new, fear is going to be there,” she said. “I still get afraid before every new launch, I still have knots in my stomach before a meeting.”
Her way of dealing with the anxiety is with vulnerability. After her beloved cafe in Colaba, Mumbai, shut down during the coronavirus pandemic, she wrote an earnest article on the wrenching experience. “Everyone talks of a ‘new normal’. Pivot, adapt, change: words I hear over and over again...,” she wrote. “I’m certain I’ll figure out what needs to be done, eventually. But I don’t know what 2.0 will look for us yet.”
That fog of uncertainty, worsened by the unpredictability of the pandemic, dispelled soon enough. Dhingra has, in the last few months, started a YouTube channel and launched a line of packaged products that includes cookies, and chocolate and cake mixes. There are more plans in the pipeline, she says – all of which will no doubt take forward her philosophy of “joy through simplicity”.
Edited excerpts from an interview with Dhingra, Scroll Food’s Chef of the Month for November:
You started baking when you were six. What was it specifically that drew you to it and is it the same attraction that makes you enter the kitchen every day?
I credit my bua, my dad’s sister, for introducing me to the magical world of baking. As a child, I was someone who would get bored easily. On weekends, when I would stay at her house, it fell upon her to keep me occupied and teach me new things. The first thing she made me bake was a tray of brownies. I still remember the excitement of taking extremely simple ingredients and transforming them into something different and beautiful. I still remember the joy I got at seeing the tray come out of the oven. Is it the same attraction today? I think 80% of the time, yes. Because once you start doing this professionally, it changes things a little bit. But the process of creation, of working on a new recipe, or trying something new and seeing that transform into something wonderful, is definitely the same. And that keeps me going back.
You studied at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. What is the one thing you learned there that has been a constant through your journey?
More than the recipes, the ingredients or any of those things, what I learned was discipline in the kitchen. It was my first time out there – I had been baking in my home kitchen and I had baked for my mother, but this was a professional setup. Seeing how disciplined one must be in a professional kitchen, the discipline instilled by French culinary training, was the biggest learning.
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Did you work in Paris?
I did. I did a three-month internship in a chocolate shop under the famous chocolatier Jean Charles Rochoux, and it was incredible. I love chocolate, I’m obsessed with it, and I was surrounded there by the best chocolate in the world. For every chocolate given to a customer, I must have eaten one (laughs). I often joke that I only put on six kilos in three months, but every gram was worth it. It was a great experience.
Honestly, more than what I learned on that job, I got a peek into the entrepreneurial side of things because I worked under a chef who had started his own business. He was always the first person in – he would be there at 5.30 every morning to open the kitchen – and he was the last person out. He worked 6 or 7 days a week – we had days off but he was there at the shop. And since the kitchen was attached to the store, he was juggling both. He was always in the kitchen but he was also the face of the brand and the store. I think I picked up a lot of what I wanted to do, what I saw myself doing, and I got a peek into that journey from him.
On your return, you could have worked with a reputed hotel or restaurant as a pastry chef. What made you turn an entrepreneur at such a young age? And how did you land on opening a macaron store when nobody before had done it?
When I moved back 11 or 12 years ago, I did wonder if I should work in a hotel or a restaurant. But the F&B landscape, especially for pastry, was different from what it is today. There weren’t many opportunities or, for that matter, many standalone pastry shops. Theobroma was the only major standalone pastry shop. Most other pastry shops were in five-star hotels, and most of them would hire students from their own schools.
For a couple of months, I was in limbo. What should I do? Should I get a job? But my worldview of what pastries could be had completely changed in Paris. Before Paris, I only knew American desserts. I knew what brownie, cheesecake or donuts were, but I didn’t know what a macaron was, nor a Choux pastry nor a madeleine. Living in Paris and seeing how pastry is viewed there changed my perspective. You walk into a pastry shop and it’s almost like walking into a gallery – a chef is like an artist, there are beautiful glass displays, it’s all so beautiful. I didn’t find that in India back then.
I loved the macaron ever since I had my first one. I was obsessed with it, and I knew my family loved it, and if they liked it, I was sure most people would enjoy it. I started wondering if I should risk trying to do my own thing. I began asking myself questions: Why is the macaron not available in India? Is it because nobody’s tried it or is it because it’s difficult to make? Are the ingredients tough to find? In the end, I figured the only way to find out the answers to these questions is to actually do it. I started experimenting, making macarons in my home kitchen. Many failed recipes later, when I finally got it, I saw merit in launching my own shop.
That moment must have been something else…
People always have great success stories. Their line usually is, “I tasted the macaron in Paris and I wanted to take it back to India.” But, no, there was a lot of crying over recipes that didn’t work. There were ingredients you couldn’t find 10 years ago, and equipment… A lot of challenges had to be faced before it finally happened. So, yes, it was good to see that final macaron come out of the oven, looking the way it should look.
For women entrepreneurs in India, the going is tougher. What obstacles did you face when starting out?
I was about 22 or 23 when I started. In the early years, I thought I was doubted because I was young. People would say, “She’s very young. We’re not going take her seriously. What is she going to do?” It’s only today when I look back that I realise, oh, maybe it was because I was a girl. The hardest part was when people wanted to know who called the shots, to know where my husband or father were. I had a tough time dealing with that. Still, early on, I decided that instead of challenges, I was going to focus on creation, and that’s the only way I see progress. So, if somebody wanted to meet my father, I would let them. I love working with my father. He’s always there to support me. I think the landlords got some comfort seeing a man involved because that’s what they needed. That’s fine. I wasn’t going to fight the system. I was just going to do my own job and eventually hope that my work makes a difference.
Most of the challenges were in finding the right suppliers, landlords, buying expensive equipment, signing contracts. That was when gender would become an issue. Our customers, in contrast, have been super supportive, and excited to see a young woman try something. That has been the most encouraging part of the story.
You have had quite a journey, from borrowing Rs 10 lakh from your father to making crores in revenue to raising funds from investors. What did this reveal to you about yourself?
I felt constantly – and I think most women face this – that I was never enough. I wasn’t doing enough. For some reason, there was an imposter syndrome at play. It’s only in the past six months, when I faced the Covid-19 crisis with almost no-one but myself to depend on, that I grew confident in myself. I think as women entrepreneurs, we always second-guess ourselves, wondering if our effort amounts to anything. It’s true across the board – I’ve heard it on so many panels with female entrepreneurs, from my entrepreneur friends, and in books I’ve read. The confidence that a man has, I wish I had it when I started working. That said, what the journey has revealed to me is that I can count on myself more than anything else. That feeling of self-reliance: I can figure it out.
Every chef has a food philosophy, an experience they want to craft on a plate. What is yours? And how has it evolved?
Initially, the main intention behind starting Le15 was to bring a piece of Paris to the plate. But as a chef, it’s always been about simplicity. I like to keep things simple, to focus on one or two flavours in everything I work with, while playing with textures. Joy through simplicity is my philosophy.
The coronavirus pandemic has really hurt the restaurant industry. You had to make the excruciating decision of shutting down Le15 Cafe in Colaba, Mumbai. What will you miss the most?
I read an interview with David Chang in The New York Times in which he likened the situation to aliens descending from the sky, pointing at the F&B industry and declaring, “We’re going to take you out”, and you had no reaction. There was no way anybody could have prepared for this. It was unprecedented. I still remember when we closed the cafe during the first lockdown in March. It was such a strange feeling because for 10 years, it was always ‘go go go’ with no stops, and now suddenly, we were forced to stop. That was difficult to deal with. It was clear soon that, given what the next six months boded for the hospitality and F&B sectors in India, a cafe or anything in retail with high overhead costs would bleed money.
Those were two extremely dark weeks of my life. Closing the cafe was a tough call to take. But I couldn’t see any other way out. Every entrepreneur is extremely passionate about their project. But for me, the Colaba cafe had an emotional attachment because it was a childhood dream realised. It was something I built with my hands. Every detail, every aspect of it – the menu, the interiors – was determined by how I wanted people to feel when they walked in. Even now, because we’re still in some form of quarantine and I haven’t ventured to Colaba yet, I feel it hasn’t struck me that it’s no longer there. I will just miss walking in and feeling at home, meeting my team there, sitting by the window and having a coffee and croissant.
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You are someone who likes having long-term plans, but with the pandemic, you have adapted. You have launched a line of packaged products and a YouTube channel. What was the thought process that drove you?
The great thing about the last six months was that they taught me to live in the moment and realise that plans change all the time. How can you move and adapt and not depend on one future? I realised it was time to go back to the drawing board.
Simon Sinek talks about starting with why: most companies think what their why is, and while we would ask ourselves the question regularly, this really was a time to consider it. Why do we this as a brand? What is it that we do? For me, Le15 has always been about bringing joy to people’s lives and helping them feel better, whether they bite into a macaron or walk into a café. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that I didn’t really need a physical space to make that happen. I could do it with an e-book: people could make one of our recipes in their own home kitchen and get joy. Or they could buy a premix and make their own cake and I’d feel as accomplished and happy with that. In other words, we could translate the same notion into a different experience. Keeping that in mind, we’ve come up with some plans.
But what you see now is actually two or three years of work. I had been working on some of these things two years. It has just kind of been bulldozed and moved ahead: the timelines have changed because of the situation that we are in. This was planned for a long time, but it somehow fell into place. When we had to, everyone just pulled up their socks and said, “Ok, we’re going to make this happen now.” And it took the entire team to come together to make this all happen.
We have an exciting bunch of products planned. I’m personally working on a YouTube channel, we have a few more cookbooks planned, we’re going to start the second season of my podcast NoSugarCoat soon, and a lot of exciting things. The podcast talks about real issues, and I guess the last six months have given everyone a lot to talk about.
You are someone who has harnessed the power of social media very effectively. What makes it such an important tool to connect with your audience?
When I started, I took especially to Instagram, and it felt like my phone was an extension of my hand. Most of my friends struggle with what to post every day. To me, they say, stop posting, because it’s a bit much. It’s been great to see the community we’ve built over the last couple of years. I like to share, sometimes overshare, everything I’m feeling and going through. People connect with that. To me, it’s a storytelling format that can let you get your most authentic story out to people. That’s what I use it for. There’s not much planning about what will get more views or likes. It’s mostly, what am I feeling today that I’d like to share with the community that I’ve built?
I started with Instagram about nine years ago because it’s so important, especially for food photography. I still use Instagram a lot. I am also on Twitter quite a bit… Nine years ago, Twitter in India was different and I have many friends whom I met on Twitter. I’m quite excited about the new YouTube channel as well because it’s a completely different audience. Each platform has a different form of communication, and it’s quite interesting to build each one out.
Anything else you would like to share?
One of the things that has helped me in the last six months – it’s a mindset – is to try and find an opportunity in a crisis. And considering that our crisis is nowhere near over, even though people might think it is, opportunities will open up as society moves along and things will change. The F&B landscape is changing completely. So how do you adapt and build for what’s next? I think that’s the exciting part. If you can figure that out, this will bring more businesses change for the good.
Any final advice for a young girl trying to follow your path?
People tell you don’t be afraid, but that’s not normal. If you do anything new, fear is going to be there. I still get afraid before every new launch, I still have knots in my stomach before a meeting. But how do you deal with that? How do you overcome that? A creative thing I’ve learned is that honesty and vulnerability take you farther than fear, which is what I did when the café was shut down. I said, I want to tell my story the way I felt it, and so I wrote a piece about it. If I hadn’t written the piece, I would have never known the love that people had for the café. It was just an outpouring of love. So be vulnerable, don’t suppress your emotions. People will tell you emotions are bad, they will ask you to not be afraid – I recommend not buying into that.