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 One—Tejasvi Chandela

Meet Jaipur-based Tejasvi Chandela, who is all set to take the baking world by storm. Here, she talks about her favourite desserts that she’s had around the world and gives us an update on her creative life.

Since the past few years, chef and entrepreneur Tejasvi Chandela took it all in her stride to excel in what she went on to do in life. From studying at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris to doing her masters in chocolate making at EPGB, Barcelona, she has come a long way to reach where she has. Today, she enjoys the sweet taste of success, as she is the proud co-founder of All Things—an artisanal chocolate label, and runs Dzurt (cafe and pâtissière) and Cut Chocolate Cake (a studio kitchen) for imparting workshops.

The current lockdown scene, however, has helped her push the envelope in terms of reaching out to more people and share her baking expertise with. Apart from doing tutorials on YouTube and on her social media page, she is busy reading (her current read is Macarons by Pierre Herme) and penning her first cookbook. The cherry on the cake is the time she gets to spend with her baby girl and family. “I’m trying to stay motivated as much as I possibly can. There are good days and bad days—but I’m sailing through it like everyone else,” says Tejasvi.

Know her signature style

Tejasvi likes to give her personal touch to everything she makes in the kitchen. She takes inspiration from her travels, experiments at her All Things’ factory space with the assorted bars of chocolate and finally, uses her mastered French techniques to lend her own touch to the recipes she’s had since childhood. “I like to stay true to what I love to eat, and bring that to the table. For instance, I love S’mores. So, I decided to get my own version at Dzurt (her pâtissière and cafe in Jaipur). I have got a S’mores Choux Bun, which is basically a choux bun with a chocolate cremeux filling, a brûléed marshmallow fluff on top with a house-made graham cracker stuck on the side,” says Tejasvi.

Debunking baking myths 

For Tejasvi, one should always have fun while baking. “Baking is therapeutic and I genuinely believe that the mindset in which the cake was made is exactly how it turns out in the end. Having said that, I find the cut-and-fold method while making a cake batter a waste of time. It means nothing and rather, incorporates air in the batter. Your cake should never be over-beaten once the dry ingredients go in, as that will make the cake even more dense. Just mix the batter with a whisk first and finish it off with a spatula,” she says.

A baking trick she swears by 

“Foil paper is my go-to buddy in the kitchen. It’s a fabulous thing to play with. Many a time, I use steel/aluminium rings (bottomless) to bake my cakes. While I do that, I just place a piece of foil underneath and scrunch it up from all sides and this gives me the perfect mould,” says Tejasvi, and adds, “If your cake is fully baked on the top, but, is raw from the inside, you can gently place a piece of foil paper on top of the mould and save the cake from burning or browning the top.”

Much-loved dessert moments 

Thinking about her favourite food memories, Tejasvi recalls, “Every Sunday, my father would make banana flambé for us kids. Even now, there are times when we pester him to make it.” She fondly remembers the first time she got to taste what she calls the best tea cake in the world—the Victorian sponge cake. “I had it for the first time next to the Windsor Castle, which was very close to my university in London. The feeling of sitting in the garden on an English summer day and eating a slice of that heavenly cake—I’ll never ever forget that taste,” says Tejasvi. When her classmate made Brigadeiro—a traditional Brazilian dessert—for her, she knew she could never forget the taste for a long time. “I was studying in Paris at the time. My Brazilian bestie, Lulu, and I took a weekend off and went to see my god mother at Les Sables-d’Olonne. I remember entering a grocery store, where Lulu picked up a can of condensed milk, dark chocolate, butter and cream. We went back to our apartment and she made Brigadeiro and it blew my mind,” says Tejasvi.

Predicting the future 

“Honestly, post-pandemic, I really hope our businesses can sustain. Looking at the current scenario, our industry is going to take a huge hit. Nevertheless, I hope chefs remain inspired and something amazing comes out of this. Wishful thinking can do no harm,” she says.

Taste Memory Talks: Series One — Shilarna Vazé

A passionate foodie, mum, TV host, author and co-owner of Gaia Gourmet (Bollywood’s most-loved catering label), Shilarna Vazé is an inspiration for many home chefs. Here, she talks about how she spends her self-isolation days at home and spills a few kitchen secrets.

Taste Memory Talks: How are you coping with the current self-isolation days?

Shilarna Vazé: “As a working mom, I’m using this time to do all those things I said I wanted to do but didn’t have time to. Now, I can hang out with my baby without having an agenda of what’s next, cooking for my family and doing yoga (not as regularly as I would like). I’m enjoying this time without the pressure of our usual go-go-go lifestyle.”

TMT: What do you love to cook the most these days?

Shilarna: “I love to cook what I call ‘simple’ home meals but might not seem simple to a layman. It could be ramen one day or poha the next or a flourless chocolate cake! We basically cook what we feel like eating on a day!”

TMT: At home, which are the kitchen tricks and tools you swear by?

Shilarna: “A well-stocked pantry is the biggest essential. You can’t cook interesting food if you don’t have interesting and assorted ingredients in your kitchen. As far as tools go, my blender and oven are really being used. A good peeler and mortar pestle and a salad spinner are essential as well.”

TMT: Tell us a few food memories that are close to your heart. Also, a few of your favourite books.
Shilarna: “Varan bhat and fried fish from my childhood. The fondue that I had in the Swiss alps (reminds me of my husband’s home). Also, I’m a die-hard fan of amazing dim sums. When it comes to books, I like Island by Aldous Huxley, An Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan and the Third Plate by Dan Berber.

TMT: Post-pandemic, what changes can you see in terms of food trends?

Shilarna: “I see everyone wanting to be more self-sufficient, wanting to cook more, grow more and come back to a slightly more holistic way of living.”