She’s not just a celebrity pastry chef with many A-list celebs on her client list. Pooja Dhingra is also a food writer, teacher, an entrepreneur, and recently made a podcast that has topped the charts in the country. In Delhi’s Cara Studio – where Dhingra is preparing to hold a baking class for a motley group – she’s kind, warm, funny and talkative. But her eyes never leave the ingredients. She executes her steps with finesse, as she keeps her students hooked and charmed.
Excerpts from an interview:
You were in law school but you left it in a week to go and study hospitality and management at the Cesar-Ritz Hospitality Management School in Switzerland. When did you find out that being a pastry chef was your calling?
I was always very passionate about baking. It was something I started when I was very young. Only, I never thought it would be my career. There was a time when I thought a career in law was my calling. So I went to a law school but it did not last very long. (laughs)
The dream was to have a cafe of my own someday, but my family believed in education. So they asked me to go and study it – and I followed. I went to the Cesar Ritz to study hospitality management and it was then that I realized I belonged in the pastry kitchen.
You’re India’s macaron queen. Which was the first flavour of macaron you tasted that got you hooked to them forever?
The first macaron flavour I tasted was – surprisingly – passion fruit. Some of my French friends were shocked when they learned that I never had a macaron in my life even after I stayed in Paris for quite some time. So they suggested a place for me to get a macaron from and I went. I didn’t think it would be a big deal. I took my first bite into a macaron and that was it – it was a defining moment for me – it was sweet and sour; acidic and crunchy; it felt like an explosion in my mouth. And just like that, as I wondered why I never had it earlier before I realized it, I was already hooked to it.
Did you ever feel the decision to introduce macarons in India was too much of a geographical divide to bridge?
I never thought so because I think the timing of it all was on my side. The time I introduced macaron to India was when people started traveling a lot more than ever before, they began exploring food, the palates were expanding. People wanted something new. So I feel I was at the right place at the right time and it sort of worked out pretty well.
While people look at beautiful cakes and glorify the job of chefs, it is not easy work – it involves long hours of work and crazy organisational skills. What is that one thing about being a pastry chef that keeps you going? Don’t you ever feel like giving up?
I agree. (Laughs). Being a pastry chef and a business owner is a tough job – you end up working 16-17 hours a day. There are times when I ask myself why I am still doing it. It almost seems unbelievable, you know. But then it settles down.
I feel in moments like these, it is very important to have a bigger picture or a bigger goal in mind to remind you what you have been fighting for all this time. If you lose track of the larger picture, you generally tend to give it all up quite easily. I would have, at least.
You have trained at Le Cordon Bleu. What was the experience like?
It was an incredible experience. I’d like to believe that when I started out – I was one of the first few in India to have received a culinary education at the Cordon Bleu. When I was there, I was the only Indian girl in the whole school. But now when I visit it, I see so many Indians who are studying there. It feels great.
Why did you pick the name Le-15?
So, Paris is divided into different arrondissements and the fifteenth is where I lived and where I studied – it was pretty much the place where my French life, if I may say so, happened. It was my home away from home and I have a special corner for it. So I wanted people to feel the same way about Le 15 as I feel about the 15th in Paris when they walk into our stores.
You started it all when you were 23. Looking back, has it all turned out just like you thought it would?
Even if there were a lot of speed bumps along the way, I’d say – pretty much yes. I have learned things no one can usually prepare you for, or no business school can teach you, along the way. What I feel is it really helped that I started young. The good thing about starting young is that you don’t have enough life experiences to tell you what you can or cannot achieve – so you go along and fight. And if you do end up achieving it, you’re in luck.
Any hacks/tips for new bakers?
Yes – I’d really like to ask them to buy a weighing scale. Baking is a science – it requires precision. You cannot just wing it – it is important to measure your ingredients correctly, try to stick to the recipe and follow it.
And please, invest in a good oven.
This is a unique experience that Airbnb has created. You can now teach people and inspire new bakers and entrepreneurs just anywhere in the country. Tell us a little bit about this concept.
I feel it’s great. It mixes my two interests apart from baking – travelling and teaching. When I travel, the first thing I look up is for things that I can go and learn. For our generation, travelling is about gathering new experiences. So I feel it’s great Airbnb has come up with this idea – people who have an interest in baking or even newbies who want to learn how to go about it can now get a credible source to learn the tricks of the trade from.
What’s your favourite dessert? And your favourite flavour?
That’s a very difficult question because I have a sweet tooth, but it is also easy because I am a chocoholic. Anything to do with dark chocolate and salted caramel is my go-to dessert.
Watch the video here: