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How Pooja Dhingra is baking her way to success

Last updated on: August 08, 2013 11:03 IST

How Pooja Dhingra is baking her way to success

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Abhishek Mande Bhot

Pooja Dhingra started Le15 Patisserie when she was 23. Since then, her business has grown 200 per cent. This is her story.

Long before Pooja Dhingra took Mumbai by storm with her trademark macarons she she'd wanted to be a lawyer. Or at least that's what she thought. A week into the course at Mumbai's Rizvi College and looking at the thick pile of books before her, Dhingra realised this wasn't her cup of tea.

So she sought her parents' permission to quit and re-think her career options. Luckily, her parents seemed to understand AND let her study hospitality and business management at Cesar-Ritz Hospitality Management School in Switzerland where she and her brother were classmates.

If that wasn't cool enough, they even heeded her request to study baking. Which is how she landed at Le Cordon Bleu, Paris -- one of the finest culinary and hospitality schools in the world.

When she returned, Dhingra put her education to good use. She started out small -- from her mother's kitchen in fact, trying out recipes she'd learnt in France, making changes to the recipes to suit the Indian weather conditions.

Eventually, she set up a central kitchen from which the small revolution began. Following the tried and tested way -- by putting up stalls at every single sales exhibition and sending out samples -- Pooja Dhingra built her business from the scratch. In three years, she says it has grown 200 per cent.

Currently, Le15 has three outlets in Mumbai -- two in the commercial district of Lower Parel and one in the tony suburb of Bandra.

In a freewheeling chat, Dhingra, who turned 27 on August 5, talks about setting up her business, her future plans and the difficulty of losing weight in a pastry shop.

Please click NEXT to continue reading Pooja Dhingra's story


Image: Pooja Dhingra runs the successful Le15 Patisserie in Mumbai.
Photographs: Courtesy Pooja Dhingra

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'When I saw my law books, my heart sank'

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She studied law for a whole w-e-e-k and thought it was easier to stand in the kitchen for 12 hours every day than become a lawyer.

Quite honestly, I have no idea why I did that! But I do remember hating it right from the very beginning. When I saw my law books, my heart sank. I knew I wouldn't last very long. So I told my parents that I'd like to do hospitality, which was one of my choices anyway. Mercifully, they agreed and even sent me off to Switzerland to study…

…And there were no strings attached!

There was never a question asked. When I returned from Switzerland, I requested my father to let me study baking and before I knew it, I was in Le Cordon Bleu. In fact the seed capital for Le15 came from my father. I've worked on it from there, but the initial investment was his. I've been lucky that way.

What he did though was to ensure I never set the bar too low. The one piece of advice he's given me that I'll always live by is to be sure all the time, never to have doubt and to go into anything new thinking you will succeed and work towards it.

Business runs in the family

My father (Jaikishan) runs a customs clearance business but over the years, he's invested in restaurants. He was the silent partner of one of Mumbai's earliest Mexican restaurants called Sheriff (in Bandra) and in a Bhagat Tarachand outlet along the Mumbai-Nashik highway.

Varun, my brother, studied hospitality and international business management with me in Switzerland (at Cesar-Ritz Hospitality Management School). He runs Oye Punjabi, a large restaurant along the same highway today.

My mother (Seema) used to run a small baking business when we were younger out of home. Some of my early food memories are of my brother and me helping her pack chocolates and cakes for her clients.

In retrospect I realise my career choice was quite obvious.


Image: Le15 Patisserie in Mumbai is the go-to place for macarons.
Photographs: Courtesy Pooja Dhingra

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'Luxury comes from paying attention to details'

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What the Swiss and Germans taught me

In Switzerland I did two separate internships. During my first year, I interned at a small family-run hotel (Villa Toscane). I was 18, had never been away from home alone and was doing the amount of work that usually six or seven people would typically do in India. Every morning, I would serve breakfast to dozens of people, wash up and start over again. I didn't know a word of French and my boss knew no English. It was a nightmare.

But by the time I was interning at a five-star hotel (Trois Couronne) in the final year, I had grown a lot more confident. I opted for housekeeping and my job involved changing some 60 beds and cleaning toilets. At some point, they recognised what I was doing and towards the end of my internship, I was going for meetings with my general manager and instructing people much senior to me. In French!

In Paris, I interned with a pastry chef who was such a stickler for perfection that he'd discard anything that had even the slightest fault.

My years in Switzerland and Paris taught me one really important thing -- that luxury comes from paying attention to details. Be it a pillow that must be kept at a 90-degree angle or a pastry that must not be baked even half a centigrade more or less. Little things go a long way. All of that was put into practice when we set up Le15 -- be it the design of the boxes or stickers on boxes, a lot of attention went into little things.


Image: After cracking its recipe, Pooja Dhingra made macaron the focus of her kitchen. It continues to remain her trademark dish.
Photographs: Courtesy Pooja Dhingra

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'It's an amazing feeling to know you're good at something'

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Why studying abroad matters

Studying in a foreign country changes you in ways you can never imagine. You're alone in an alien country where you don't know anyone and you're pretty much on your own.

Personally, I discovered my calling at Cesar-Ritz. I'd always been an average student all through school. But in Switzerland I excelled in everything; it's an amazing feeling -- to know that you're good at something.

Paris was a different experience altogether. As part of the course, we were to run a cafe on the campus. The days were long and I had to do things like mop floors, clean toilets, thing I wasn't used to doing otherwise. My day would begin at six in the morning and end at eight in the night. Sometimes I wondered what on earth I was doing.

The years I spent in Switzerland and France introduced me to people from several countries and cultures. Today I can travel to any of them and know that there will always be a couch I can crash on.

Working from my mother's kitchen

When I returned from Paris and started trying out recipes from home, I realised I couldn't replicate them because of a variety of reasons -- I was working with local Indian ingredients and I was baking in a city that far more humidity than Paris. So kept trying, baking all sorts of things for my family and friends for months. After some 50 failed attempts I managed to get recipes for the macarons right.

By now I'd been working for a few months and had figured out from my friends and family what flavours would work and what wouldn't. But more importantly, I relied on my instinct. And that told me macarons would work.

I decided to revolve our business around it; macaron became our star and to this day, that's what we are known for.

We started with some four or six flavours. Today we have about ten, which also keep changing from festival to festival.


Image: Pooja Dhingra with her parents Jaikishan and Seema and her brother Varun on the day of their graduation from Cesar-Ritz, Switzerland.
Photographs: Courtesy Pooja Dhingra

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'Watching weight becomes difficult when you're a pastry chef'

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Getting the word about Le15 out

We really went the traditional route in many ways. We started by participating in every single women entrepreneur exhibition there was and got our contacts, tied up with companies for corporate gifting, sent out goodies to friends and family. So in any case, our products were reaching people even without any store.

The kitchen of course got us a good deal of exposure because the participants there came from all walks of life -- lawyers, journalists, PRs. That helped us further.

Then there came a time when we felt there was a need for a point of sale and we started our first outlet at the Good Earth store in Lower Parel (South Mumbai).

Someone from Good Earth had tasted our macarons and when they were undergoing renovation, they asked approached us. The time was right so we started out.

The weighing scale isn't a pastry chef's best friend

When I started out, I was paying no attention to my weight, which shows. 14-16 hour workdays were normal. There was one Diwali when I was here from 7am to 2am. That was when I realised I needed to step back and take care of myself.

But the attempt to start working on it came about eight months ago when I consciously began going to the gym or joined dance classes. But then again, watching weight becomes difficult when you're a pastry chef.

Every time you taste something you're working on, it translates to an extra ten minutes on the treadmill. It's difficult, but I'm working on it. It's important that I step out for an hour or two every day if I want to continue working.


Image: A cup cake from Le15
Photographs: Courtesy Pooja Dhingra

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'We've grown about 200 per cent since we started out'

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Le15 as it stands today…

Le15 started with baking classes that took off very well. So, we are planning to return to that part of our business in a big way. Even though we currently do have a kitchen space where we conduct these classes, we've recently rented out a (larger) space next door which will serve as the new venue for the classes as well as a dedicated learning place of all things food related.

It will be called Studio15 and we plan to conduct classes on food writing, food photography, start a book club and even give out the space on rent to corporate houses and private groups who can host lunches and parties, cook their own food (or cater from our kitchens).

Most importantly, the venue will also serve as an ingredient store. When I started out, I discovered it was a huge challenge to get a supplier for ingredients. Studio15 will be a place where you can purchase the ingredients you need but don't usually get.


… And where it goes from here

We currently have three outlets in Mumbai. The plan is to introduce two more in the city by the end of this year and more around the country the following year. We've grown about 200 per cent since we started out, which in some ways is good but not as fast in many others. Three stores in three years isn't something many would like to boast about.

However, it has been a conscious decision. We did have offers of franchises and opportunities to expand but I wanted to make sure I learnt every aspect of my business before I branched out. Now that things are settled; I'm ready.

 


Image: Macarons continue to be Le15's trademark product
Photographs: Courtesy Pooja Dhingra

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How to make chocolate lava cake

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What I enjoy making and eating

Macarons, of course but besides that I really enjoy making simple Italian food, pastas that I can toss up when come home from work and are easy to put together. But for all that, I am not a very fussy eater. I enjoy anything that tastes good.

Here's a simple recipe for Chocolate lava cake (video above):

Ingredients:

  • 200 gm Dark chocolate
  • 200 gm Amul butter
  • 4 eggs
  • 50 gm Maida
  • 150 gm Castor sugar
  • Melt the dark chocolate and butter in the microwave and mix well.

Method

  • Add sugar and whisk till the sugar dissolves.
  • Add all the eggs one by one. Ensure the mixture is cooled down.
  • Mix till yolks dissolve.
  • Add half the maida and whisk it gently. Ensure you don't whisk it too briskly because you'll end up having a hard cake. The rule is whisk gently for cakes, briskly for breads.
  • Pour it into any bowls that can go into an oven (not microwave but OTG)
  • Bake it at 200 degrees centigrade and ready!

Video: Afsar Dayatar


Image: How to make chocolate lava cake


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