A candid chat with confectioner Pooja Dhingra and chef Conrad D'Souza
Every fortnight, we bring successful Mumbaikars together over grub. Lunchbox debuts with confectioner Pooja Dhingra and chef Conrad D'Souza discussing why it's an exciting time to be in the kitchen
Pooja and Conrad enjoy lunch and laughs at Colaba’s Le15 Cafe. Pics/Bipin Kokate
"It's so quaint. I love it," smiles the 43-year-old genial Conrad D'Souza, soaking in the sunlight that streams in through large bay windows at Pooja Dhingra's Parisian-style Le15 Cafe in Colaba. The 30-year-old pastry chef chides him, "Connie, I can't believe you've never come here. Shame on you!" as D'Souza, a Bandra boy, confesses that being in charge of the kitchen at the recently refurbished Carter Road all-day diner, Out Of The Blue, means he rarely has time to travel south.
The two haven't met in a while but the bonhomie is intact. They met six years ago when Conrad was executive chef at Pali Village Cafe, and Pooja had just returned from Le Cordon Bleu, Paris. "I would walk into to eat his food. When someone asks me to pick a favourite dessert in the city, it has to be Connie's Vanilla Panna Cotta with Passion Fruit Sauce. I still crave it," she smiles.
He high-fives her with a return compliment, "Pooja has changed the baking scene since she arrived. And now that she is launching her line of baking equipment, we're sorted."
In the company of the cafe's current piece de resistance — a lovely Christmas tree with presents strewn around — Pooja places an order from the menu that's created by chef Pablo Naranjo Agular. Conrad opts for Savoury Parmesan Waffles topped with poached egg, and Burrata (basil and dill chutney, tomato and pepper jam, olives).
When we request for a vegetarian pick, Pooja recommends the Spicy Raclette, a potato-and-cheese stuffed grilled sandwich. For herself, she orders a bowl of Quinoa. "How boring!" Conrad says, turning up his nose. She laughs, "Listen, I eat here all day, every day."
Pooja: This time, Christmas in Bandra seems mellow, right? You don't see as many lights. Demonetisation has hit our industry too.
Conrad: The old Christmas charm
is missing. There are fewer carol singing groups and midnight masses. You know, I come from a large family of seven siblings…
Pooja: Wow, I didn't know that!
Conrad: As kids, every night from December 10 to 20, we would help my mother make kalkals and gujiyas in (hometown) Ahmedabad. My favourite were rose cookies.
Pooja: Though I come from a Punjabi home, I've always loved Christmas. Till I was eight, I would write notes to Santa. In the last couple of years, Christmas food has undergone a modern makeover. We do Plum Cake Cupcakes.
Conrad: Oh yes, even we're doing a special Christmas menu with Black Forest French Toast.
Pooja: How do you make that?
Conrad: (Winks) Come and taste it.
Conrad: (Taking a bite of the waffles) They are crisp and the tomato sauce isn't overpowering, so I can taste the yolk of the perfectly poached egg. (Digs into Pooja's salad) The pomegranate is adding this nice flavour. I am a carnivore but I'll try the sandwich. (After a bite) The filling is good! When I return, I'm definitely ordering this.
Pooja: (Points at the burrata) Now, we get an excellent variety of cheese locally, which wasn't the case five years back. In fact, we source more ingredients from India now. Our vanilla comes from Kerala.
Conrad: But, it's high time we got good chocolate in India.
Pooja: I agree.
Krutika: Is this a good time to be chef in Mumbai?
Pooja: Definitely. There's a lot happening. We're seeing so many stand-alone, specialised offerings. Diners have become experimental. A few nights back, we started Table No 13 where chef Pablo and I offered a 10-course vegetarian menu. It was fun. For dessert, I made a dudhi cake. I'm obsessed with dudhi. we made it with dark chocolate ganache and powdered, burnt onion. Pop-ups, now a big thing, are a great way to showcase creativity too.
Conrad: That's true. We are planning a pop-up every month starting January. For the first one, we're doing a take on coastal food, since I'm Mangalorean and my executive chef is Goan.
Pooja: It's an exciting time, but I am taking it a step further and planning to learn to cook in 2017. I have a fear of hot kitchen because pastry chefs work in a specific manner, following recipes to the T. Cooking is instinctive.
Conrad: Dear, once you've mastered pastries, cooking is a cakewalk. I somehow foresee you opening a bigger restaurant with a bar.
Pooja: That's what I want to do! I am going to get a wine licence for this place too. It's my dream to
own a bar.
Conrad: And my new year resolution is to open a 45-seater bar with a grungy vibe in a basement, serving Prohibition era cocktails. But only in Bandra (laughs).
(Desserts are here)
Pooja: That's Lucie (chocolate and salted caramel tart) and Amelie (milk cake, raspberry coulis, pepper crumbs, mint). All our desserts are named after French ladies. Don't ask me why.
Conrad: I'm not a dessert person, but I make an exception for Pooja. (Digs into Lucie) Ooh, the base and caramel are perfect and the chocolate is not Indian, for sure.
Krutika: One thing you'd like to know about each other?
Conrad: (Smiles) I know what I'm going to ask!
Pooja: What keeps you going?
Conrad: My family. My elder brother is a huge motivation. He helmed 14 restaurants in Ahmedabad and Dubai till his partners chopped him off. And now my four-year-old son, Veer. He is a foodie. Now, my turn. When are you making your own wedding cake?
Pooja: What sort of question is that! even my mother doesn't ask me this (laughs). Initially, every year, my team used to decide what cake they'd make for my wedding. Then, they stopped. Find me a boy.
on christmas, you binge on
Conrad: Suckling pig.
Pooja: Marzipan and hot chocolate.
Travel for inspiration
Pooja: Next destination is South Korea. I travel at least once in four months because we don’t take any days off. The best bit for me is sitting in the plane…
Conrad: And switching your phone off! My next trip is to Peru.
A change you’d like to see in the mumbai F&B industry
Pooja: Our biggest challenge is a lack of trained employees. The turnover rate is high. I wish more people would make it a serious career option and acquire education and training.
Conrad: You’ve hit the nail on the head. There’s a dearth of good employees for both, back and front-end. In fact, we’re planning to start a centre to offer formal, three-month training and placement to youngsters keen on the profession.
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