Pooja Dhingra, the founder of Bombay’s favourite patisserie chain, Le 15, joined Kiran Manral for a scintillating discussion at this month’s Bombaywaali event.
Dhingra said that dessert has always been a big part of her life, though she never thought it would be a profession. She remembers the first brownies she made with her aunt, when she was six, and how it was magical to see basic ingredients turn into something magical. When she was in school, all her friends thought she would set up a chocolate shop, but she decided to go to law school. However, in two weeks, she quit and applied to a hospitality school.
Dhingra studied in Switzerland, and then studied pastry making in Paris. And it was in Paris that she discovered what a macaroon was.
It was her first weekend in Paris, and she was at a party. Someone asked her what she was studying, and when she said that she was here to study pastry making, they asked her if she had tried a macaroon, the most famous Parisian treat. Her friends told her that the best macaroon brand was on Rue Le 15. She remembers tasting her first macaroon — it was passionate fruit and chocolate. “Why don’t we know about this in India?” she thought, and that’s where the seed for Le 15 was planted.
She came back to India with a clear picture of what she wanted to do. And for the first six months back home, she worked tirelessly to perfect her recipes. “Cooking in France is completely different. To replicate it in India with the heat and humidity is another matter,” she said.
Soon, she was working out of a central kitchen. The initial investment came from her family, who has always believed in her. She also started a cooking class. The revenue and the media attention first came because of her classes. Nobody was teaching in a professional way, she says.
“When people come and tell me that this is like what I have tasted in Paris, I feel happy,” she says. Dhingra now has 5 outlets, including a cafe in Colaba, and running a business isn’t easy. She is faced with new challenges every day, and so these compliments are like a bit of sunshine.
Being a woman, and being so young, has thrown up its own unique challenges.
In the first few months of running her central kitchen, she remembers the BMC coming in. They kept asking her who the owner of the place was, and she kept insisting that she ran it. “It’s only me,” she said when they asked her about where her husband or father was
I just ignore them, she says. For everyone like this, there are people who push and support you.. Doing business in India is difficult, because there is no clarity on information, she says. When she had to get licenses, she had to ask ten different people. There is a lack of communication, she says.
The kinds of challenges she faces differ from day to day. When she first started out, she was struggling to find the right team, and spread the word. Now challenges are about scale and quality control.
“It may look glamorous on the outside, but every day brings its own struggle,” she says.
And Dhingra is not afraid of hard work. “I don’t have a normal day. The day can start whenever and end whenever. The kitchen opens at 6 am. My last shop closes at 12 am.”
Dhingra is very active on social media, and has many celebrity friends. But her focus is always on the product. Her sales have always been through word of mouth. “I think people forget that the important thing is product. My focus was to make the product be the best I can.”
“I would say have fun with it, enjoy it and know that it is a lot of hard work and dedication. When your friends are off, you will be working. I had to miss family weddings, holidays etc in the first three years. But the reward was as big.”
The best part of Dhingra’s job is creating recipes. “I love how in two hours your idea can be realised, and it can bring so much happiness and joy to others.”
Dhingra is a true blue Bombaywaali. “Everything about me is Bombay. The spirit of fighting through, making it through hardships, and the resilience. That fighting spirit is something I have,” she says.