Books: The macaron queen Pooja Dhingra spills the beans
Imagine travelling abroad and eating something that changes your life and defines your career after you bring it back home with you. Then, years later, you meet the chef who changed your whole life and spend an entire evening talking about the dish. The bonus? The chef writes the foreword for your new book and send it to you on your birthday!
That’s what happened to Pooja Dhingra, 35, India’s reigning queen of macaron, who had her first bite of Pierre Hermes’ macaron at his store in Paris in 2008 and, on her return to India, opened a bakery called Le15 Patisserie that is now a beloved franchise.
Pooja admits to being a total Pierre Hermes fan-girl who has devoured all his books through the years. “Le15 wouldn’t exist in the form it does if I hadn’t had that macaron,” says the chef-entrepreneur who met Pierre in Paris as a part of the Indian delegation. Then the two followed each other on Instagram.
Which brings us to the extensive use this millennial has made of social media to spread the word about her business.
“We are the internet generation and when I started Le15 in 2010, my phone felt like an extension of my arm. I was 23, I didn’t know anything about public relations or marketing. All I did was take pictures of my products and put them on Facebook. Friends and family would see the pictures and order. And then I moved to Instagram, which is a great visual medium when it comes to food,” says Pooja, who views social media platforms as a brilliant way to directly connect with customers, understand problems with products and resolve issues.
“My approach to work is always product first because if people believe in your product after eating it, they will refer it to other people. Remember, people will only try a place once due to hype. So, word-of-mouth is what I’ve stuck by through the last decade, even on social media,” she says.
How important is marketing yourself today? “A combination of making people feel good and offering something unique are crucial. But marketing in any industry is important as it’s how people find out what you do,” she elaborates.
Her mantra when she sits down to ideate? “I ask myself how are you bringing joy to someone with your product?” The answer may lie in collaborating with another person or following something else you’re passionate about, like K Drama for Pooja. “It’s about going with your instincts, doing what you understand and love,” she emphasises.
Fame and girl gang
Ask her if her association with famous personalities has helped her, and she nods. “In terms of discoverability for sure. We do make cakes for celebs and well-known people, which helps.” And what about her girl gang which includes the likes of Masaba Gupta and Rhea and Sonam Kapoor? “It helps me a lot to have a group of people who understand what I’m going through. I’ve always had a great support system of women around me and I’m grateful for girl gang in my life,” Pooja smiles.
The Covid pandemic has forced Pooja to face difficult questions about her business. With the food and beverage and hospitality industries hit hard by last year’s lockdown, she had to think about possibilities such as shutting down part of the business or even the whole thing.
“I asked myself what I would do if I can’t do what I am doing currently. What is my identity linked to if I don’t do this? I had been passionate about baking for 10 years. But I asked myself if I still was passionate when I was just baking for myself through the lockdown,” she recalls. “Fortunately, I found the courage to keep going and felt a renewed sense of purpose after that.”
That’s when she thought about encapsulating the whole experience in her latest book, her sixth, titled Coming Home.
“I started my career by baking for fun—family and friends were my customers. I made cookies at 3am with my brother and ate them. I felt this had to be in the book,” she says about the nostalgia segment of her book, which pulls from her childhood—flapjacks from Tarla Dalal recipe books, halwa her nani would make and desserts inspired by pineapple cake.
Any learnings from the pandemic? “To not over-complicate things. In the early days of the pandemic, I went from being used to having kitchen full of ingredients to not being able to find basic ones! And as I started simplifying things in the home pantry, I extended that to life, too. I’ve learned to take each day as it comes—there are so many fires to put out every single day and no sugar coating, just like in the book,” concludes the Mumbai girl.
Pooja Dhingra, 35, is a celebrity pastry chef and the owner of Le15 Patisserie, which specialises in macarons and French desserts.
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From HT Brunch, September 26, 2021
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