Taste Memory Talks: Series Two—Pooja Dhingra

Our lives are made up of dreams. We visualise them with great passion, and give it our soul to fulfil them. But, when you realise the dream can no more thrive, you can feel the cocoon coming apart. What you actually need to do is to wake up the next morning, smell the coffee and keep going. Dream another dream. Eat a chocolate chip cookie, probably, and be hopeful for tomorrow.

As a chef and an entrepreneur, Pooja Dhingra dreaded the shutdown of Le15 Café in Colaba, Mumbai. Her food enterprise, Le15 India, is an iconic one in Mumbai, which includes many counters across the city. Le15 Café, however, was a place she often called her home. “I had to make a tough decision based on the current economic climate. It was a decision that wasn’t easy (but a necessary one) so that the rest of the business could survive. I spoke to my investors and mentors and took the decision based on all the facts in front of me,” says the 34-year-old chef.

After seeing all the love for the café, Pooja and her team decided to come up with an e-cookbook (in less than a month’s time) with the precious recipes and stories coming straight from their kitchen. “It was heartwarming to see the memories everyone had of the café. It made me believe that when you put out something with the intention of love, it’s received with that same intention,” says Pooja.

A cookbook for the memory keepers 

“I’ve always wanted to write the Le15 Café Cookbook and highlight our recipes and dishes. When we shut the café, I was heartbroken and wanted our recipes to live on forever. That’s when we decided to have an e-cookbook (with co-author, Tejashwi Muppidi, who was the head chef of savouries at the café). Now, people can make their favourites at home and support our business and team with every purchase,” says Pooja. The e-cookbook has 50 recipes of basic items like pickled onions and hollandaise sauce, breakfast hits like Pooja’s Omelette and the Turkish eggs and of course, the pancakes, pastas, waffles and desserts (yes, the hot chocolate is included too).

The feeling of home

As a kid, Pooja remembers the special meals that her dad cooked at home for the entire family. During the lockdown, the chef in him came back in action. “It’s exciting to see him rediscover his love for food and cooking,” says Pooja. The current scenario has allowed her to catch up on some reading and learn the most-cherished home recipes. “I’m trying to learn how to cook from my family. I haven’t spent so much time at home in 10 years and the silver lining is that I’m with them. Considering that the ingredients are limited and access to groceries is sparse, I’m not experimenting too much with anything new,” says Pooja, whose current reads are Normal People by Sally Rooney and Everything is Figureoutable by Marie Forleo. What is the first thing she wants to do when the lockdown is over? “Honestly, I just miss the simple things like having dinner and being with my friends. Post pandemic, that’s the thing I’m most excited about,” says Pooja.

Memorable meals around the world

As a child, Pooja used to love it when her Nani visited her from Delhi and cooked some good food in their Mumbai kitchen. “That was the time when actually I ate the typical Punjabi food; those are all happy memories,” says Pooja. Her favourite travel food memory, though, is from the time when she had travelled to Peru. “I had one of my most incredible meals at a restaurant called ‘Central’ in Lima, Peru,” she says. A trip to Tokyo made her believe that delicious food has no labels. “I had a simple pork cutlet from 7-Eleven in Kyoto, Japan. It was just a random day; I walked in, picked up something from the supermarket, and, it turned out to be one of the best things I’ve ever eaten that costed like nothing!” reminisces Pooja.

Good days, bad days

Life of a pastry chef is not just about berries and pies, there’s a new little war at work every day. “I don’t think life is a cakewalk for any person running a business. There are always problems and nothing can prepare you for most of them. I’ve been running Le15 for 10 years and the challenges have only changed in nature but they still exist. From starting out as a very young businesswoman, not being taken seriously and trying to understand the business to now dealing with a large team, navigating the future and planning for scale—there’s a lot of hard work that has to be put in,” says Pooja, who also enjoys teaching baking skills through her studio workshops and books. Her newest dessert store is ready to open its doors at Palladium, Lower Parel, Mumbai (when the mall reopens after the lockdown).

Word of wisdom

If you’re an aspiring baker, listen out to what Pooja has to say. “Just be patient and passionate about what you do. The only competition you should have is with yourself. What matters the most is to keep learning new things and working on your skills.” And, don’t forget to wear the right attitude, the way she does. “There’s a lot that one doesn’t know and that keeps me motivated to constantly learn and grow,” says Pooja.

Le15 Café Cookbook is written by Pooja Dhingra and Tejashwi Muppidi. It can be bought here.

Taste Memory Talks: Series two—Ranveer Brar

He is India’s chef next door for millions of home cooks who find his cooking effortless and fun. Behind his modest smile is his strong culinary repertoire that makes chef Ranveer Brar stand out in the crowd. Here, he talks about his family life as he’s homebound, like the rest of the world, during these COVID-19 times

Being at home is something every chef must be grateful for these days, as their routines slow down. Chef Ranveer Brar is no different. He’s at his Mumbai home with his family and has been balancing out his time while creating content for his followers on social media. “Spending time with my son is something I was not able to do due to to my frequent travels, so, this is a great opportunity for me to catch up with the family,” says Ranveer.

The magic of home cooking

Ranveer loves the fact that he’s getting to cook for his family during these tough times. “As chefs, sometimes, we tend to get lost in the glamorous food of the commercial world. For me, now is the time to rediscover the comfort of home food,” says the chef. Ranveer supports the thought of making the best out of the resources that are made available at home. “I have always believed that less is more, and it’s the principle that is in force now more than ever,” says Ranveer, who likes to indulge in quick/cheat meals for his son and himself.

Bonding with his child

For any parent, being stuck at home without any outdoor activity can be nerve-wracking, but, for Ranveer, this time is all about enjoying every day with a positive mindset that helps one see a broader picture. “It is a challenge to keep kids constructively occupied at this time, especially when we are all mostly confined indoors. But, it is also a blessing in its own way. Try and inculcate healthy habits in kids, plan interactive family activities rather than leaving the kids alone to be entertained with digital media all the time. Rebuild that family bond,” he says.

Keeping busy at home

Apart from creating content for his brand and the ones he’s associated with, Ranveer is constantly doing recipes and live sessions on his Instagram page for his tribe. “Also, I’m catching up on my reading list and revisiting my bookshelf. Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks, The Third Curve by Mansoor Khan and Food for Thought – Thought for Food are some of the titles I’m reading at present. I’m also watching the latest season of Money Heist and Sherlock, my current favourite digital series,” says Ranveer.

Revisiting childhood summers

As a kid, Ranveer clearly remembers the train travels that he took with his family from Lucknow to Punjab. “The one thing about those journeys that pops up in my mind is the safar ka khana or the travel food that my mum cooked for us. It was unforgettable,” says Ranveer. Apart from this, the chef remembers being with his grandmother—whom he fondly calls Biji—in their ancestral kitchen or guarding the fields as a young boy. “Our summer holidays coincided with the harvest time for wheat, and after the harvest, we would sow alfalfa for the cattle. I was the guardian of the fields, and it was invariably my job to look after the crops. At that age, I used to feel a bit off when other kids at school would recite their interesting vacation stories and mine would be the same every year. But in retrospect, it’s become my most cherished memory,” says Ranveer.

Mango madness

We all have our own version of childhood stories when it comes to mangoes. And for Ranveer, his goes like this, “As kids, we used to pluck the mangoes from the trees, drop them in buckets of cold water and go off to play cricket (with bats that were made with mango tree branches) and come back to enjoy the juicy mangoes.”

The Pandemic effect

The five restaurants that Ranveer owns are currently operating with limited staff for deliveries, he confirmed. How will the pandemic impact the restaurant business? “The recovery from the COVID-19 situation would be a joint exercise, a give and take act between landlords, tenants and staff. Every one will have to pitch in. And this includes stretching the currency to stay afloat as well,” says Ranveer. Not just this, the food that would be cooked in professional kitchens might also see a streak of change, according to the chef. “Dishes ordered would be simpler. The menus—on the whole—would be smaller and simpler that would require less ingredients,” says Ranveer.