Growing up with Theos
Baking a Dream by Kainaz Messman is an invitation to sit on their dinner table and be privy to a 15-year journey as a family baked Theobroma into Mumbai's nascent patisserie scene
As the rickshaw stops outside building No. 33 in Deonar village, we know we have arrived, for the building is painted in the exact shade of pista-green as the takeaway box of Theobroma that we flipped open so many times for a millionaire brownie. On the agenda is a meeting with founder-owner and chef Kainaz Messman, whose book Baking a Dream (Harper Collins) co-authored with sister Tina Messman Wykes, is set to release on March 13.
Dressed in a sunshine yellow top and pants, her poker straight hair is pulled behind her ears, like always. We glance at the collection of cookbooks when she offers to make us a short espresso. As the coffee machine wheezes, we flip through the book and meet the Messmans—Farokh, wife Kamal and their daughters Tina and Kainaz. We are now privy to casual family banter about starting a business in 2004. It seems like a day-by-day account of Theobroma patiseerie opening on Colaba Causeway on a rainy day. There is the first-timer angst, but gradually they find collaborators, like their transitioning CEO Cyrus Shroff who helped them retain the old-world charm in changing times. "We had received offers to write a recipe book, but I felt that would be too simple," says Kainaz, an alumnus of Dadar's Institute of Hotel Management. She was only 24 when she launched Theobroma's after a back injury had pulled her out of training with the Oberoi Hotels. From a small staff of three in the first year, she has grown the business to one that supports a strength of 300, with branches in Mumbai, Pune and Delhi, and soon to launch in Hyderabad and Bengaluru.
"I know our products are old fashioned, but I am happy with them. I don't want to be part of a customer's special occasion alone. I want us to be part of their daily lives, serving them their cravings," says Kainaz. This philosophy reflects a turn she has experienced over time, now attracted to simpler eats than what the hottest chefs are putting out. "Fancy looking things don't interest me. They tend to look pretty, but don't taste great. I want to be the person who gives people food and happiness on a regular day." She speaks of comfort through food, the sort that makes us turn to the familiar khichdi on a day when we aren't feeling very well. "People take us for granted, but that's why they come back to us for the known," she adds.
Chef Pranay Singh Thakur making baguettes at the central kitchen in Deonar. The patisserie, which started in 2004 with three helpers, now has a staff of 300, and branches across the country. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar
In the book, Kainaz reveals that she didn't want to helm a thriving hospitality business. "I was happy with one store and being in the kitchen, which started in my grandmother's home, Shirin Manzil. Even now, there are days when I don't want to do this. The thought of launching in a new city, starting from scratch, sometimes overwhelms me. You could have worked in the kitchen for 50 years, but you still don't know enough about food."
The old-world bent of mind is evident in her decision not to be proactive on social media. "Again, it boils down to the kind of people we are. I don't call myself an introvert. I love to chat, but I don't like to be on my phone all the time. I have other priorities, like my three-year-old daughter [Nina]."
Speaking of Nina reminds her of the time she was a little girl, and watched her mother run a home-bakery called Not Just Desserts. This was back in the '80s. "It's she who introduced me to new flavours, and I do the same with Nina. When she was teething, I gave her sour dough to chew on. Recently, I took her to Sanjana Patel's chocolate factory where she watched how chocolate is made and couldn't get enough of the pain au chocolat. Nina is the typical Parsi child. She likes to dip her toast in chai." Do brownies, Theo's mainstay, bore her now? She laughs. "Not when I make them, but it is not my first choice to eat. I love the custard crème anglaise, with chopped banana and strawberry. I also love lemon tarts," she says, bringing in a batch for us to try as we take a clumsy, greedy bite of the khattu meethu curd.
Her office fronts a three-storeyed kitchen set up. She spends considerable time at the Quality Assurant Lab where five products are picked randomly every day and studied for quality. "Two chefs, a project manager and I review them. The tasters keep changing so that different palates are reviewing our products every day," she explains.
Work, says Kainaz, is her meditative kriya. "I used to be in the kitchen every day—cooking, shouting, screaming. When the business grew, it required a larger perspective, and for that, I had to step out of the kitchen to see what was needed. But it wasn't easy." Instead, she has learnt to develop the hawk's eye, continuously questioning what she puts out and taking feedback on her chin.
In the book, there is a section titled Apology. Here, she says sorry for a wedding cake that fell apart during transport, and cupcakes that didn't make it to a birthday party in time. "There are many days we recall a product at a huge cost, but then if it is bad, it should not have gone out in the first place. I am now on the board and answerable to investors. There is a fear of going old and stale if I am not in touch with my customers. I just received my KRA [Key Result Area; positive results to be realised for the organisation to achieve its strategic goal(s)] for 2020 and it involves spending time at the outlets. Over the years, Theobroma has evolved, but there is still so much more to do."
Kainaz Messman and Tina Messman Wykes
"I was a difficult child, and academic systems of rote learning didn't suit me. Kainaz was the hardworking, nerdy girl who brushed her hair. I didn't. I surprised my own self when I cleared the chartered accountancy exam," Tina says over the phone from London, where she lives. The business is family run, and this trust came spontaneously. "We didn't have to question each other's motives," says Tina, who is involved with everything that requires her attention—from business to PR, social media and accounting. "Kainu [Kainaz] is the face of the company as chef and founder. Backstage, the family and I do everything that's expected in a family business."
I like my chocolate and my cheese
I like my brownie at room temperature, but many of our guests like it warm. Croissants don't need to be buttered; we put plenty of butter while making the dough—but some would prefer it such. Our guests have their own ways of enjoying our products; we respect their wishes and try to accommodate their requests. Some are dunkers, some are not. Some (including my dad) smother everything in ketchup, some (also my mum) like chilies with almost everything. Tastes and preferences evolve and some habits become the new norm while others wither away by the side. I love that the way we interact with our food, much like language, evolves as we go along on our journey.
The guests' preferences are what matters; we are there to serve them. I recall how many years ago, one of our regular guests went to Portugal and fell in love with Portuguese Custard Tarts. He asked me to make them here and it took us 20 trials (and his input at each attempt) until he was fully satisfied with the result. This was an exhilarating process for me. And many of our coffees, cakes and sandwiches were started in this way, by someone asking us to make something for them.
Every request is considered, but not all make it to the menu. For instance, many guests ask for healthy versions of our desserts, but they do not sell in sufficient quantities to justify making them.
Personally, I don't like fads and I hate the demands it makes on my business. No wheat, no sugar, no dairy, no nuts, no eggs, no carbohydrates, no lactose, no yeast, no salt, no soy, no protein—I have heard it all. I understand that a few people have a genuine allergy to and risk from some foods, and I respect that others are prohibited by religion to consume some items. However, daily changing diet fads, fake intolerances and the continuous need to find new foods to eliminate from one's diet baffles me.
I am a champion of healthy eating, regular exercise and balanced living. Approximately 80 per cent of what I eat is healthy. Food is a very important part of my life and chocolate, cheese, bread, cake and wine are integral parts of my diet. I do not want to preach or tell anyone what to do but for me, moderation works. I do not want to live on cucumber and cabbage alone. I would not dream of living on sugar and bread either.
As the legendary late Anthony Bourdain beautifully summed it up, 'Your body is not a temple, it's an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.'
Excerpted with permission from Baking a Dream by Kainaz Messman and Tina Messman Wykes, published by HarperCollins India
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