She can’t help but steal a quick glance at the tray of cream cheese topped cupcakes sailing atop a baker’s head, as he makes his way to the industrial refrigerator that announces its presence with a gentle rumble every now and then. Once the steel tray is set in, she turns around to briefly inspect the plate in front of us, which is a riot of colours and sinful delights. Le15 Patisserie’s executive chef, Pooja Dhingra, leaves nothing to chance, everything is extensively planned and executed to perfection in this central kitchen; very much like the young entrepreneur’s business plan that she penned down at the age of 22. Right from the colours of her brand’s logo, the upholstery of the café, the items on the menu, the places she wanted to set up shop, to the publications she wanted to be featured in, the pastry chef had jotted it all down before she began.
Dhingra was a six-year-old when she became an informal apprentice to her aunt, who initiated her into the culinary art of baking. She soon added brownies, pastries and chocolates to her repertoire thanks to some inspiration from her mother, who ran a small business of homemade chocolates back then. Apart from the entrepreneurial spirit of her mother, Dhingra also had a chance to witness first-hand the business realities of the hospitality industry when she accompanied her father to the Mexican restaurant he co-owned. “Right from that time, I knew that I wanted to run a business of my own. As a child, I had already seen the risks involved but also the success,” says the owner of one of Mumbai’s finest patisserie chains.
Finding the right consistency
As a teenager, Dhingra would not only bake for herself but would also carry along treats to school for her classmates to sample. During her days at Bombay Scottish, she dreamt of opening a café of her own and all the incoherent scribblings by her friends in her yearbook are enthusiastic wishes for the future baker. “It was one of those cases, where everyone around you knew what you should be, except you,” she confides. While her affair with chocolate continued, she enrolled at law school after two years of studying commerce at Jai Hind college in Mumbai. Two weeks into law school, Dhingra realised that her true calling lies elsewhere and thus she packed her bags and flew to the land of chocolates, Switzerland, where she studied hospitality and business management at Cesar Ritz. As she made her way through each session from the hot kitchen to housekeeping, she knew exactly what she wanted to do when she stepped into the pastry kitchen. With her area of interest identified, Dhingra returned to India in 2007 and decided to secure professional training in the area of pastry making.
“I thought it would be difficult to convince my parents given that they had just spent three years on my education and here I was asking them for another year. But they understood and said ‘Let’s find out the best pastry school in the world’,” she recollects. And that is how Dhingra landed up at the Le Cordon Bleu Paris in 15th Arrondissement (administrative region) in France. It is not only an area that introduced her to the French dessert that would earn her a remarkable reputation, but one that would also become the brand name for her patisserie chain. The 30-year-old, who counts the Picasso of Pastry, Pierre Hermé, and Mumbai restaurateur, Riyaaz Amlani as her inspiration, found several mentors during her internship days in culinary school. While some experiences she defines as downright “torturous”, there are some that formed the foundation for her journey as an entrepreneur.
“I believed that working at a small place meant that you would learn a lot more, but I was terribly wrong in the case of my first internship at a small family-run hotel in Montreau”, she says. The treatment meted out to her by her first employers compelled the undergraduate to quit the place after just three months. But, that experience taught her the things she must avoid as a future employer. Then there was the stint at a five-star hotel where Dhingra did just about everything. “I started from the bottom, everyone around me spoke only French. That was a challenge. But, I approached it with the attitude that I must complete this for myself. I made 60 beds a day, cleaned bathrooms and toilets. Whatever was asked of me, I did it with a smile,” she says. It was here that she reveals, she learnt the importance of a good working environment and how a team responds well to an organised leader. Another stint at a small chocolate shop in Paris, taught her how a small entrepreneur managed to run the show in a highly competitive market with his unique marketing strategy.
This is something Dhingra put to use when she launched Le15 in 2009. With just two employees, the then 23-year-old patissier borrowed Rs.10 lakh from her father and set up her central kitchen and three outlets in Mumbai. “The pastry scene then was very different. If you walked into a store, there were these standard items that made it look like every outlet had the same pastry chef. And everything was always packaged in these brown boxes,” she adds. Dhingra sought to change the experience of savouring a pastry for the average Indian and she did this by paying attention to the design of her logo and box colours, which were in shades of pastel with dainty little ribbons that proved to be a hostess’ delight. Right from the moment a customer set eyes upon the pretty packaging and opened the box to find a rainbow of colours till the time he bit into one of her French confectionaries, Dhingra had envisioned it all when she launched her patisserie. But, the highlight of her launch story would be the almond crusted meringue cookies she introduced to Mumbai – the macaron. These little ganache-filled biscuits come in different flavours and colours and are an epicure’s dream come true. And she was well aware of the need to get people in this country to try out the French cookie. “Word-of-mouth publicity is the best strategy for food promotion. I wanted to get my product out there. So be it for a family gathering or a stall at an exhibition, I said yes to everything that came my way,” she says.
Straining out the lumps
While the young turk had her goal marked out, there were few initial challenges that she had to overcome. First, was the consistency of the macaron. The delicate nature of these sugary treats makes them vulnerable to humid weather. But Dhingra was persistent. Ever since she tasted her first passion fruit flavoured macaron in France, she was determined that she will bring this treat to the Indian market with her own twist of flavours. Fifty attempts later, not only did she get the mixture right but she also managed to roll out her own combination of flavours. Like a true gourmand, Dhingra confesses that she often ends up making things that she enjoys the most, and while that makes it difficult for her to stop gorging on them, it did pretty well for the patisserie. As a result, the menu boasts of paan-flavoured, green chilli and pistachio macarons along with a new take on traditional classics like passion fruit, Belgian chocolate, orange and sea salt.
Once the recipe was perfected, there were inhibitions to tackle. “It was difficult being a 23-year-old for people to take me seriously. So, when I had to buy big machinery or rent a place or talk to suppliers, I used to ask my dad to come along,” reveals Dhingra. Soon, the young entrepreneur had learnt the tricks of the trade and in the past six years, has added one more outlet and a full-fledged café in Colaba while being at the helm of a 70-employee organisation. While copycats are abound in the city serving up the same French delight, Dhingra is not worried as she is constantly innovating on her flavours with every season and festival. “As an entrepreneur, you face challenges every day. The challenges that I face today are very different from the challenges that I faced when I started out. Today, it is more about scale, growth, ability to expand without compromising on quality and amidst all this finding the time to always innovate,” she adds.
This explains why Dhingra still works seven days a week. Her hard work is reflected in her envious client list that features Bollywood A-listers and celebrities such as Sonam Kapoor, Salman Khan, Masaba Gupta and even corporate honchos like Ratan Tata. Despite her busy schedule, Dhingra finds time to conduct classes at her central kitchen. Alongside that, she has published a recipe book titled The Big Book of Treats where the pastry chef has compiled recipes that use ingredients that she claims can be found in a neighbourhood kirana store.
The book, which won second place at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in China, got Dhingra letters from 13 to 50-year-old amateur bakers who proudly told her that they tried their hand at everything in the book. Dhingra has another book coming out next January where the focus would be on desserts that are nutritious; this is where the pastry chef has challenged herself to compile a book of recipes that don’t use traditional baking essentials such as flour, eggs and butter.
Travel is on the cards as well “I intend to travel more often that I do, maybe at least once in three months for a few days,” she says about the one thing that inspires her work. But even on vacation, the patisserie owner is scouting for ingredients and dishes to create. Thus, a visit to Japan during the Cherry Blossom season, something she truly enjoys, inspired a range of teas at her café launched in March this year. A similar visit to New York brought about a cheesecake menu at Le15.
While the search for something new is always on, Dhingra, who attributes her discipline and attention to detail as contributors to her success, has a very clear plan for her baby, Le15. The vision board in her bedroom where she lists her personal and professional goals has it all. “I want to grow Le15 to more outlets in the city and even within India. I also want to be able to have more time to write more books.” With more macaron magic coming our way, clearly there’s lots more baking at Le15.