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.

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