Chef Kainaz Messman remembers the first time her dessert store Theobroma introduced carrot cake when they first opened. “People were like, ‘Why should we eat a cake made of a vegetable? That’s disgusting!’” Messman says. “We were literally forcing customers to try it. We’d say, ‘Okay, you are taking the chocolate cake, now try a slice of carrot cake’.”
Tried and tested: Kainaz is at her Bandra central kitchen every day at 10am, five days a week. Her job: to make sure Theobroma’s goodies are consistently on the ball.
And then they became super popular. "It was not their fault," Messman reasons. "People hadn’t travelled and not seen a pâtisserie." So when she (with help from her parents and sister) opened a little shop in Colaba one October in 2004, they made sure at least one of them was present to talk to buyers. "I knew the names of most customers and even their kids!" she says.
Today the family-run pâtisserie fondly nicknamed Theo is a city institution and Messman is still as involved. At her central kitchen in Bandra, prep is in full swing. What seem to be like dozens of cakes have started baking in industrial ovens, tubs full of batter are being prepared, kilos of butter cover every possible surface and colourful macarons are getting the final touch.
The goodies will make their way to Theobroma’s shops in Colaba, Peddar Road, Bandra, Lokhandwala, Goregaon and Powai. Kainaz herself looks calm, much like a seasoned chef should. She points to a white board scribbled with the orders of the day and says, “You won’t be able to see the board after a while, there will be so many orders on it.”
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Theo could be credited for making Mumbaikars look at pâtisserie in a new way. It bridged the gap between five-star pastry shops and chain stores offering good old Dutch Truffle and Black Forest cake. Theo is where many young Mumbaikars sampled their first chocolate brownie or cheesecake.
“When we started out, no one was doing what we were out to do,” Messman says. She’d already developed a love for food growing up as the daughter of a home caterer, but it was a visit at 16 to the south of France, to a town called Albi, that “changed my whole world” she says. “I sort of grew up in that year,” she says.
“I had travelled to France on an exchange programme and baking was part of the culture of the family I was staying with. Albi didn’t have a proper railway station, but had many pâtisseries! One day, I went to a pastry shop and ate a strawberry tart, baked French style with custard. As soon as I bit into it, I knew this is what I had to do. I also met people who became my family, and I keep going back to them to learn more.”
She went on to study hotel management and completed her post-graduation from Oberoi Centre of Learning & Development, Delhi. “I was the only woman in my class. And it was a tough, competitive course. They bombard you with so much information, you leave feeling terribly arrogant.”
Theobroma had several teething troubles despite appeasing Mumbai’s sweet tooth. She’d be constantly on the boil. “It was hard explaining things to the people I was working with, people who weren’t from the same background as me. How to explain pastry to a young chef who has come up the hard way, and who didn’t know English?”
Ten years on, Messman says she’s “much calmer and patient”. It’s hard to imagine this soft spoken chef, who smiles shyly every now and then, ever being angry. But her role as the boss is palpable – she’s calm but firm with her staff – giving clear instructions.
She smiles a sheepish smile as she says, “I am much more understanding today and I learn from my colleagues now. I have a mentoring and guiding role. I want everyone to grow – we have pastry competitions and whoever wins gets a chance to have the dessert in the shop. My head pastry chef was once a loader, and another senior pastry chef who started as a pot wash guy.”
India’s pâtisserie market has also grown in the last decade. You can’t walk a kilometre in neighbourhoods like Bandra without falling into a cupcake or macaron shop. Messman sees this only as a good thing, a sign of a growing market. And a chance to secure loyalty. “We have clients who keep coming back over these ten years.”
That’s when I interrupt her to complain about my recent experience at Theo, Colaba. “I have never had a bad dense chocolate loaf at Theo, but the red velvet cupcake was doughy,” I tell Messman.
She apologises and asks a colleague to check if there are any red velvets baking in the oven: “Chill four for me please.” And then she looks at me and sighs, “You should have returned it. I am sorry. We as a family look into every complaint.”
Kainaz’s mother, Kamal, is head of retail and often mans the front of the shops. Her father Farokh takes care of business development and her sister Tina Wykes, plans the business strategy for Theobroma. “We have had some problems thanks to this being a family business,” she admits.
“But we have realised that to grow, you need to let go and delegate. It’s a lot of heartache, giving up control. When I see someone making a dessert, I know I would have done it differently. My job now at Theo is R&D and quality control. So when you tell me your cupcakes were bad, I am responsible.”
The red velvets are ready, and she breaks open one. “Even this one is doughy,” she grimaces and says to a colleague, “I need to look into these. These have to be perfect.”
Keeping it sweet
But Theo has many more fan stories than complaints. If you’re a young Mumbaikar today, you probably know someone who can’t do without their daily or weekly Theo fix. Photographer Hashim Badani remembers being in love with Theo’s cookies, as he had never eaten anything like them.
“Once, I was supposed to take a flight to the Andamans, and I thought it would be great if I could eat the cookies there,” he recalls. “I rushed from Byculla to Colaba at 7pm in peak traffic to get a box. My flight was to leave around 9. I made it only because my flight was delayed. People usually go for a walk as a daily ritual, but going to Theobroma to eat cookies was my ritual.”
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The Messmans have clearly been listening to their customers. Those famed cookies can now be couriered across the country. Feedback from customers has also resulted in Theo having more veggie options on the menu today.
Messman gets red in the face when we ask her to tell us her favourite compliment. “Once, I was sitting at the Colaba store, and this young boy came up to me and said, ‘You are the chef, right? I am a hotel management student. I have come from Calcutta, and I come here every day. It’s the best cake shop ever, even better than any old institution in Calcutta. I have to take your autograph!’ I was shocked and very, very flattered.”
Writer Saumya Ancheri loves the warmth and goodness of the family-run cafe. “Every time I visit Theo’s, I’m revisiting snatches of happy food memories shared with some of my favourite people – the full English breakfast and café mocha with my buddies, Parsi akoori with my family, dark chocolate chip cookies that unfailingly perked up my best friend struggling with cancer, the marshmallows that tasted even better when toasted, and the dense chocolate loaves that I bought all for myself some weekends.”
That’s a whole lot of love for a pastry shop. And Messman and family don’t take anything for granted. The pastry chef is constantly on the looking for new things to introduce: “There is never enough time to make the things I need to make.”
And through it all, it’s her own love for dessert that hasn’t diminished with time. “My sister took me to Belgium for my birthday many years ago, and we travelled by the Eurostar. We spent four days in Brussels, and the only savoury meal we ate was a plate of fries (as Brussels is famous for those and for their mussels).
We ate chocolate for all the other meals. As we got ready to board the train, I said I didn’t want to have chocolate ever again. My sister said ‘okay’. After an hour on the train, my sister took out a chocolate bag and said ‘You want one?’ And I said ‘sure’. I will never stop loving chocolate.”
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From HT Brunch, October 5
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Never been to theo’s? Here is what you should try:
Chocolate BrowniesThey are the foundation of the store and they sell eight to 10 varieties. Chocolate chip brownies and the Millionaire brownies have stood the test of time
Chocolate Dense LoafThis moist cake is always sitting at the counter. It travels well and is as dense as it claims to be
Chocolate Almond Fudge Inspired by Messman’s several trips to Lonavala as a kid, this version transforms the iconic fudge into a sticky walnut tart, and has also been sandwiched between cake layers
Mava Cake The first non-chocolate item on their menu. It is a gentle nod to the Messmans’ Parsi heritage and is loved by non-Parsis too
Chocolate Truffle Cake A classic, made with rich ganache and a twist of flavours – orange, rum, mint and more. Each slice stands tall
Strawberry or Mango Tart This is how Messman’s affair with French pâtisserie began. Made with a short crust pastry, almond frangipani and fresh seasonal fruit, these tarts are worth waiting for every year
Chip Butty Fries, cheese, mayo and, if you want, bacon. A greasy mess that takes you straight to heaven. Young patrons love it
Stollen This German festive bread is almost cake-like. It’s got spices and fruits and a marzipan centre. A favourite when it goes on sale at Christmas
|Tiered Temptation Smooth chocolate orange mousse spread between layers of chocolate cake. This dessert has been on the shelf at Theo’s for 10 years and Messman says she won’t dare stop making it|
Cheesecake Theo does several versions of the simple but popular dessert and each has devoted followers. Are you partial to lemon, mixed berry, meringue, chilli or chocolate? It doesn’t matter. The blueberry version outsells them all
From HT Brunch, October 12
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