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Hospitality: a profile of Kainaz Messman

From rustling up midnight sweets as a child to whipping up desserts for her college friends as a teenager, Kainaz Messman has always had her fingers in many pies. Purva Mehra speaks to the entrepreneur. (Reporting: Purva Mehra; Photographs: Santosh Harhare)Q&A with Kainaz Messman | Rapidfire | Another rising star: Pranav Thakkar | Qualifications & Training | Career options | Global opportunities | Pluses & Minuses | Industry Overview | Challenges | An interview with Shatbhi Basu | Quirky facts | Reporter's blog | An interview with Rajiv Samant & Craig Wedge
Hindustan Times | By Purva Mehra, Mumbai
UPDATED ON MAR 15, 2008 02:59 AM IST

From rustling up midnight sweets as a child to whipping up desserts for her college friends as a teenager, Kainaz Messman has always had her fingers in many pies. Today, the 28-year-old manages a café that has become a Mumbai culinary landmark, bursting with customers hooked on to her chocolates and pastries. Messman proves that an obsession with sugar can be very rewarding.

"Let them eat cake!" cried Marie Antoinette, the dauphine of France, before she lost her head. Centuries later, Kainaz Messman is spreading the same message throughout Mumbai - although her feet are planted firmly on the ground.

The 28-year-old is the brain behind Theobroma, or Theo's -- her own French style café, which serves up the food of the Gods. Having started from scratch, Messman now supervises three kitchens, with a total workforce of 45 and turnover of Rs 15-20 lakhs a month. Her own TV show is in the pipeline.

While she doesn't for one minute believe, like Antoinette, that cake can replace bread, Messman claims that an indulgent desert of afternoon pastry can restore smiles and banish woes.

However, Messman had to overcome her own woes before she could realise her dream. In 2003, she was appointed pastry chef the Oberoi, Udaivilas. Before long she began getting severe pain in her back and eventually had to trade in her chef's uniform for a year of constant care and physiotherapy. It was a blessing in disguise as the time out of the kitchen gave Messman the chance to devise Theobroma.

"My biggest fear is not being able to cook and although the doctor's had declared an end to my career, I was determined to continue serving delicacies. Theobroma was conceived in that interim period," says Messman.

A man's world?

The IHM Mumbai graduate completed a three year post-grad course in kitchen management at the Oberoi Centre for Learning and Development, but was warned that it was a male-dominated industry.

"While at IHM plenty warnings were issued that mine was an incorrect profession for girls," Messman recalls. "One of our trainers however took a chance and submitted my name for the National Chef competition. It was the first all girls team in 15 years. We got back from the finals in Chandigarh with 14 of the 17 trophies."

In addition Messman called on her family's traditional obsession with food and desserts to take the leap of faith. Sunday meals were decided a week in advance, midnight munchies of ice cream and chocolate were a regular habit and mother played dessert genie, whipping up sweet sensations on the indulgent whims of her daughters. Messman's orientation towards sugar was thus predetermined. "Mum ran a private catering business," she said. "There would be cauldrons of truffles at home, which my friends and I thoroughly exploited after club nights."

A French education

If seeds of culinary indulgence were planted at home in India, it was France that saw Messman's taste for all things sweet flower into an obsession. She spent a year in Albi, South France as an exchange student, but rather than sit in a classroom learning about Marie Antoinette, she would skip school and patisserie-hop with friends. "I'd sit for hours gathering recipes from my host mum and leaf through French cook books. Albi prides itself on its secret recipes and real, homegrown food," says Messman.

Theobroma opened its doors in October 2004 and was the result of Messman's collective experiences. The brick layered patisserie, located at the nape of Colaba's flea market serves up a mean breakfast, hot subs and cold sandwiches, and a selection of desserts that ensures a steady flow of custom throughout the day.

"The first six months were tough and physically vexing for my mum and I. We had a very understated launch and never anticipated such response. It was heartening to see queues outside, but for a while we didn't know how to deal with it. The desserts we had stocked up for three days, sold out in four hours," says Messman.

With prices ranging between Rs 20 for an oven-fresh croissant to Rs 1,200 upwards for custom-made cakes, anyone can enjoy Theo's. Despite originally only serving deserts, Kessman has branched out with savoury snacks too. "Regulars would spend hours here and started asking for savoury items. Hailing from a five star training, I was quite strong minded about what I'd have on the menu initially, but I've learned to accommodate my clients' needs," Messman says.

Despite all the other influences on Theo's, it is France that Messman keeps returning to. "I learned in Albi, the value of real, homemade produce," she says. "Nothing from Theobroma is externally sourced. My whole family is involved in the daily operations from running the shop to back end details. I wanted the place to exude a warmth and feeling of familiarity," says Messman.

In the future, Messman is considering turning Theo's into a franchise, but worries about sacrificing the values of her French-inspired, 'homely' feel. "We've toyed with the idea of a franchise although that means compromising on family involvement," she says. "So that's a tug of war situation right now."

Regulars and those itching for Messman's secret ingredients can expect to see her hosting a cooking show shortly. "My sister Tina has already devised a business plan for the TV show. I also want to write a book on desserts only," says Messman.

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