DEC 25, 2020 | 24:19

Episode 5: Whipping Up Conversations
with Pooja Dhingra

Uninterrupted is a platform that was merely curated with one goal, to build a community: a familiar thread to connect with like-minded people. For this week, our special guest is Pooja Dhingra. She started out at 23 with a dream to bring her happy place Paris to Mumbai. Today she runs one of India's most sought-after bakeries "Le 15 patisserie" with multiple stores, a flagship cafe, a studio workshop, a line of best-selling cookbooks, and a team of over 100 people.
Was it your love for food that inspired you to study Pastry Arts?

I'm obsessed with dessert. I've loved chocolate for my whole life. I think it's my first love. I just reached the stage, when you are young, and you're about 16-17, and you're confused about your career. Back then, being in F&B, or being a chef wasn't so mainstream. But the dream was to start a cafe because yes, I do love food. I come from a family that's obsessed with food, and that’s what took me to Paris.

Can you tell me a little bit about when you were studying Pastry Arts?

It was such an eye-opening experience. I was 21 when I moved to Paris. I'd lived in Switzerland before, and I moved to Paris with one of my best friends who also went to school with me. We just had the best time because it was like when you're 21, you think you have all the problems in the world, but you really have no problems at all. You're living in one of the best cities in the world, and you're so immersed in food, and for me, that was very exciting. It was also very different because French pastry was so different from anything that I had known before. I grew up in Mumbai, eating doughnuts, and cheesecake, and brownies. A patisserie feels like, you're walking into a gallery, and it's almost like a chef is treated like an artist. I tried my first macaron. Even in class, the chef would say “Today we're making Madeleine.” I didn't know what that was, I'd never had any of it before. So being in school was a great experience, because I was learning something completely new every single day.

How did it feel to open up your first Le 15 store?

I used to daydream a little bit when I was in school, and I used to draw out what I'd want my store to look like. So I always had a vision of what I wanted it to be like, and then when I finally came back and I started Le 15, the first proper store was a Bandra shop about 8-10 years ago. It took me a long time to find the space and the day I signed it, I went there with my friend Pratish, who's our graphic designer, and we walked in and we saw the place, and then we went to lunch. There were these table mats which he turned upside down and he said “Close your eyes and describe the store to me.” I closed my eyes and I walked him through the store -how I wanted it to look, I wanted this white picket fence- and while I was talking, he was taking notes, and he was drawing it. We just went to a friend whose dad is an architect, and I said “Uncle, this is my store. Can you make this for me?” So finding the right space, putting together the money to do up the store, getting all the legal work done, just getting up and running, finding the team, training, etc. and I think that actually seeing your dream come to life kind of gives you a sort of push to deal with all the other problems that string up when you're making it happen. It was a great feeling.

What are some of the challenges you faced early on? And what was it that drove you to keep building this brand?

A lot of people that start their own businesses should be aware of consistency because making one cake at home once is easy, everyone should be able to do that. But doing that every single day, and then doing it on a large scale is the real challenge. There were a lot of challenges from the start. Pastries were very different in the country. You didn't have the right ingredients. Today, you can get everything. You get the right butter, the right chocolate. Back then even sourcing the right ingredients was tough, everyone was using premixes. So kind of being really strict about making things from scratch. I've made so many mistakes, like any entrepreneur when they start off, and I was doing this alone, so I did what I could to the best of my abilities. But the one thing that always helped was the need to keep learning and getting better every day. So no matter what challenges kept coming, and they still do, 10 years later, but it's about trying to figure out how to solve the problem. It only comes with experience. I've been through my share of challenges from day one till today.

But did you ever face any stereotypes, being a woman and running your own kitchen at such a young age?

I think it goes without saying that any woman trying to do anything could be at the receiving end of such things. I was just so young and so passionate and so naive that I never really let it bother me. At home, we were treated with so much equality, that the fact that I was a girl didn’t seem like it would be an issue. People would always want to speak to my dad or try to find out where the husband is. I also feel that I had to face that because I was a young girl doing something so unique at the time. There were a lot of positives as well. There was a lot of media attention. There were a lot of people encouraging me because I was a young girl. So I think I chose to just focus on that, instead of trying to break any stereotypes. I just wanted to do my job, and I wanted to try and do a good job every day. And hopefully, that should speak for itself.

How did you initially explain what a macaron means to someone in India?

I didn't even know what a macaron was till I moved to France. I remember eating my first one. When I looked at one, I was like, “Oh, this looks like a mini burger. This is really cute.” I just thought it has the potential to be really big in India because I've never seen one. And when I started, I did these tasting. A lot of like free tastings. I would set up in malls, give people samples to try. People who traveled knew what a macaron was already. For the people who didn't know, it was just about explaining that this is a French-style cookie, which took a while. It was mainly about getting as many people to try it. The minute people tasted it, it just changed everything.

So when you're making a new addition to your menu, or you're innovating on your current offerings, what does that creative process look like for you?

It has evolved a lot since I started. I think when I started off, there was a constant need to do something new because that's just the kind of person I am. I get bored really fast and there are always new things to do for a while there. For me now, it's innovation and creating new things. How do you get better than you were yesterday? So you know, just like experimenting, that was a whole different ball game. So experimenting with new flavors, testing new cookie recipes and many many failed batches of you know hot chocolate later, we have something. 

I know that the cafe and the menu are of course hugely inspired by your experiences in Paris etc. Did you ever consider experimenting with Indian flavor profiles?

A big part of what I wanted to do when I moved back from France was always to look at French techniques meeting Indian flavors. It was actually inspired by Japanese chefs that I knew and worked within Paris. You saw the Japanese quite proud of their cultural heritage and kind of adapting French pastry to their flavor profile. I always wondered why we don’t do this with Indian flavors. In the first few years, we had a made in India collection, in which we had a chai macaron, the green chili macaron, the paan macarons, etc. For Diwali, we do kaju-katli macarons and it's fun to try new things!
 You are constantly experimenting with these ingredients and new flavors, and on the other hand, you have actually experimented with words too. Today, you're like five books strong, Can you tell me more about your journey as an author? How did it start?

I love writing. Writing has been a big passion. Storytelling is one of my strengths. Growing up, as a kid that loves baking in India, I realized that there were a lot of things that were not easily available. And obviously, we didn't have the internet as it is today. But just finding the right recipe books, finding the right recipes. I love cookbooks, I collected them, I read them as independent stories, and I just have the most massive collection. It was always a dream that I wanted to write my own book, and I wanted to write a baking Bible of sorts for the Indian home kitchen. And that's where the first book came about. All the books have been part of the journey and I just started working on the sixth one now, I'm extremely excited about it.

So tell me, what is your vision for Le 15 as a brand, and what does it stand for?

I've had a lot of time to think about all of this in the last eight months. For me, Le 15 has always been about taking you to a better place and bringing you moments of joy. As a brand, that's what we do. We are a part of your happiest moments, we are a part of your celebrations. I'd love for us to be part of the small joys of every day. 

How do you go about hiring people to be a part of your team/kitchen?

Hiring is definitely a place where I personally feel like I needed a lot of work and help, and that's something that I have been working on over the last couple of months. I do think that when you're starting out as an entrepreneur, and you have a vision for a company, and culture is so important, I think it's just very important to have really defined roles and a basic structure of what you're looking for in a person. So for me, 80% of it is instinctive and depends on how it is to meet the person. A lot of the fixed stuff needs to be checked off first, the basic criteria to hire, and then after that, it's just a matter of me meeting the person.

What is your advice to someone who's looking to start like a patisserie?

I would say that you really need to know what you're doing and why you're doing it. Make sure you carve a niche for yourself, figure out what your specialty is or what you're really good at, and just play on your strengths. I feel like it's quite a crowded marketplace now. But there's enough room for everyone.

What has your biggest learning been in the last eight months?

My biggest learning in the last eight months was that you really have no control over anything. So, just taking one day at a time. Living in the now and living in the present. I think this is the first year that I've put that to practice.

Is there one thing that you're really grateful for?

I'm grateful for so many things. I'm grateful for my family every single day. I'm grateful for our health and safety. I'm grateful that we have food on the table.

What are the three things that you think anyone entering the Le 15 Patisserie shouldn't leave without trying?

You have to try on macarons because that's what we're known for. I would highly recommend getting the hot chocolate, The monster macaron, The cheesecake.

What are two things that the world does not know about you?

I'm a trained Reebok instructor, and I have a real good knack for understanding and learning languages.

What is your favorite ingredient to experiment with?

Always chocolate!

What is one thing that is a strict no-no in your kitchen?

Disrespect.

What is the best thing about running your own Patisserie and being the macaron Queen of India?

You can use all the chocolate you want.



To catch the full candid podcast tune into Uninterrupted by clicking here!

Episode 5: Whipping Up Conversations with Pooja Dhingra