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The icing on the cake

One of Pooja Dhingra's first customers told her, "Knowing you is going to make me very happy…and fat." Happy, because Dhingra creates divine French desserts that please the palates of many of the city's celebrities and industrialists. Fat, because you just can't resist her sinful Belgian chocolate cupcakes. Tasneem Nashrulla writes.

mumbai Updated: Dec 03, 2010 01:18 IST
Tasneem Nashrulla

One of Pooja Dhingra's first customers told her, "Knowing you is going to make me very happy…and fat."

Happy, because Dhingra creates divine French desserts that please the palates of many of the city's celebrities and industrialists. Fat, because you just can't resist her sinful Belgian chocolate cupcakes.

Lower Parel might not be Le Marais, but at Dhingra's central kitchen in the commercial hub of Mumbai, a tantalisingly faint fragrance of fresh creamy butter and dark chocolate conjures visions of a quaint French bakery.

As it turns out, the 24-year-old owner of Le 15 Patisserie is obsessed with all things Parisian. Le 15 is named, in fact, after the area where Dhingra lived for a year while she studied at famed French culinary institute Le Cordon Bleu.

"It was a very local, authentic French district," says Dhingra, who quit law school in 2004 to study hospitality in Switzerland, with the hope of heading her father's hotel and restaurant business.

The business didn't catch her fancy, though, so she headed to Paris in 2008 and, while studying and working for a local chocolatier, fell in love with the French style of cooking.

When Dhingra returned to Mumbai in March 2009, she was unable to find any of the French treats she relished, especially her beloved macaroons - the popular French version of a cookie.

So she started baking them at home, doing test runs with family and friends. In October 2009, she returned to Paris for a one-month professional course and came back "completely inspired".

Dhingra started to plan her own brand; she got a graphic designer to create her logo, bags and boxes, found a location in March and finally set up her own piece of Paris in the centre of Mumbai.

Now, her melt-in-the-mouth macaroons and velvety cupcakes are flying off her shelves. She has also delivered her goodies to Delhi, Bangalore and Kolkata.

In June, she opened a small display counter at a friend's salon in Worli and plans to open another by end-October.

Everything about Le 15 is pretty, from the charming Dhingra's pale pink chef's coat to her dainty pink boxes and bags, and, of course, the cupcakes topped with luscious chunks of kiwi and raspberry and meticulously fringed with icing.

"A client once told me she treats my cupcakes like jewellery - saving them as if they were precious. That's exactly how I treat my brand," says Dhingra.

Fulfilling her desire to be a writer, she also started a blog where she talks about her personal culinary experiences, posts interesting recipes and updates readers on her cooking and baking workshops, which are held at the Le 15 kitchen six to eight times a month.

"I want this to become a place of learning," she says.

In the first week after Le 15's launch, Dhingra held an international culinary week, where her Korean, French and Israeli friends from Le Cordon Bleu conducted cooking classes for a packed audience.

"Students from Hyderabad and Bangalore come down for the day just to attend the baking workshops," says Dhingra who, while managing the business herself, is still hands-on when it comes to cooking.

"I've stood in the kitchen, hand-piping 6,000 cupcakes in a single day."

It's this sort of earnest dedication that earns Dhingra a minimum monthly income of Rs 2 lakh.

"Once I got so excited about a supply of fresh raspberries coming straight from Mahabaleshwar that I didn't sleep all night," she says, smiling.

So what's Dhingra's advice for rookies?

"You need to be really passionate about food to stay in this business," she says.

"It's not as glamourous as it may seem. It's standing in the kitchen all day, with your feet and back killing you."