Pooja Dhingra | The Spool

You brought macarons into the mainstream in India and you made it your whole and soul. It was bit of a risk, but did you think it was a risk? And why only macarons?

There was a time when, in Bombay, you could go to any pastry shop and it almost felt like every place had the same chef. Because you’ve only got 5 different types of desserts, your blueberry cheese cake or your brownie or whatever, it’s all the same. And when I was in Paris I was in this new space of – this is pastry but it is also like art, it’s nothing like I have seen before, so why is it not available back home? So I just started with that and then obviously I ate my first macaron and I was like, ‘wow what is this?!’ So I came back and then I was just so young and naïve that I was like, ‘I’m going to do this’, and I didn’t really ask myself too many questions, I just knew. I was passionate about it and I saw that there was a market and that was it.

So what we are curious about is that the common advice is to hedge one’s bets, so first of all did you get that advice? And second, yet you pretty much stuck to your guns?

I am lucky that I come from a family that is very supportive and in fact my father was the one who pushed me. When he came to visit me in Paris, he saw the macarons there, he tasted them and he was the one that said, you should do this in India, it’ll be a hit, so it always was with the sort of thinking that I am going to do this and it will be successful. There was never any doubt.

And I think that’s important when you are starting anything, which most people don’t realize, that you can’t think negatively, you can’t think that this is going to fail, you can’t have a plan b.

Earlier if one had to take something when visiting people e.g. at a house warming, you would maybe go to Fab India or something like that and pick from there, but now picking something from Le 15 seems just right, because it is pretty and delicate and everything else. Did you see that, or do any research about it?

Yes, we did think about that. But I don’t know, I haven’t done any research as such, it’s just something that I had an instinct about. I saw the market in Paris, I’ve lived in Bombay all my life, I know the customers, so it just felt right. I think there was a big gap in the whole gifting market right? Which is what we were trying to get into. Whether it was weddings, or baby showers or you know just going to somebody’s house, you want to take something but not too expensive, but still something nice and I think we kind of hit that niche or got into that gap.

Food appears to us as a recommendation based business. Was there one stamp of approval that was the turning point for you?

Umm… I think for food word of mouth is what works best right? If you taste something, you like it, you tell your friends. So for normal day-to-day life it is just people telling each other. But for me, the one memory that I clearly have is at one of the first dinners where these chefs came together. There were 5 of us, it was a dinner at Café Zoe’s, I think it was 5 years ago, and Riyaaz was one of the guests and at some point everyone took a break and went out and he just looked at me, he’s like, ‘welcome to the big league’, I was 24 years old! I was like, ‘oh hi…’, I think for me that meant a lot.

What’s your favourite celebrity endorsement that you’ve got?

There’s many! But I think

I was most excited about making Ratan Tata’s retirement cake, the fact that we got to do that, for me was very big.

I mean all of them, I can’t point to one thing. But for me meeting Chrissy Teigen and John Legend and feeding them macarons in Boston was really like a big fan girl moment.

What do you think was the aha moment for your stores?

You know the thing is when you are busy working and your mind is focused on work, you miss everything around you. Which is great because you miss the good and the bad. So I think I have always just been focused on work, so I kind of miss everything that happens around.

For me it’s only like, are we achieving these goals, what are we doing next? And I miss all the noise.

What are these goals?

I am a person who works very well by setting goals for myself. It can be weekly, monthly or for a year. So every year I start with goals for myself, goals for the company and I also encourage the team to set goals for themselves. So last year it was to open a café in Colaba, it was to write the book. It was to climb a mountain and watch Coldplay live in concert, all silly things. Half marathon was the year before that, it was the stupidest thing I’ve done, but no, it was the most challenging. You know while you are there, you are just like, when will this get easy? It was supposed to get easy at some point, but no, the half marathon is tough.

It’s like a bucket list?

Almost. From now until September my goal is to be fluent in French. I kind of know it, but when I speak it I am a bit afraid so I stop myself and then I put myself in situations where I have no choice. So in September I am going to give a talk in French in Bordeaux in front of 4000 French people! So I kind of call myself out into achieving that goal, so everyday after work I go for French lessons, but yea it’s fun.

All this success that has happened, how much of it was planned goals, and how much of it was just happened?

So the thing with me is that I try and set goals and visualize everything and then I am amazed when it all happens.

For example for this café, I have been wanting something in Colaba for the longest time. And I knew I wanted something on this street, so I would come here almost every other week and try to look for stores that might be available, I did find a small shop that was right across and then that fell through and that was really heart breaking. I would keep sharing and asking and then suddenly one day a friend called me and said, ‘I have this place in Colaba, much bigger than your normal formats but do you want to come and look at it?’ And then she told me the location and I thought this is creepy and I walked in and I thought, this is mine! This is it. This is why the other things didn’t work out and then we changed the format and started this. So I’ve been working for it for three years, but when it happened it just felt like, wow this is a stroke of luck you know.

When we are reading up, following your life on social media, it looks like a nice fairy tale but, there have to be points when you are just like down and tired?

Yea, you know I get really upset when people are like life is a cakewalk or like life is easy, I’m like no. It is tough.

It’s hard work and achieving your goals and achieving success is great but it also comes with a price right?

When I started Le 15, I was working 14-16 hours a day and I couldn’t see my friends, I was always tired, relationships got ruined. It was just bad time but it was great for work, because I was putting in all my energy at work but my personal life was kind of taking a toll. I started gaining a lot of weight, so you know it was like in one way you are doing well, you are successful and all of that, but your personal life takes a hit. So finding that balance takes a bit of time and I can only do it now.

But I know that if I hadn’t put in that work in the start I wouldn’t have been able to do this now.

I think having a job is so much easier, because once you are done you just switch off and it’s done. For me 6:30 in the morning when my kitchen opens, stress begins then and when this place shuts at 12:30 at night. So I have a window in the night from 12:30 to 6:30 where everyone is asleep and then I can breathe but until that it’s always crazy.

Have you ever considered swapping it for anything else?

Never, I would never. I love it. I love every minute of it.

So when we spoke to Riyaaz Amlani, he said something that stuck with us. He said, ‘fruit flies and restaurants don’t last long’ and you’ve lasted this long. What did you do differently?

It’s constant innovation, constant creation. I am the kind of person who gets bored really fast, so that actually works in my favour, because I am always doing new things with work. So whether it’s opening new stores or working on new menus, working on collaborations so people don’t get bored of the same product. And I think that just makes something last long. You can’t expect to do the same thing and have people keep coming back to it for years and years and years, unless, you know, it keeps reinventing itself.

How do you decide what you are going to add next?

My whim, that’s it. I travel somewhere, I see something, I like it, I want to adapt it. Sometimes whatever is in the season, whatever I am obsessed with.

Are there any failed macarons that didn’t make it?

Oh so many. I tried to do this Made in India collection once and we still have some on the menu like the Pan, Chai, but I tried to make a Kala Khatta macaron it was horrible I mean it was really bad!

Who’s the person who tries all these?

My family.

My brother is my harshest critic. I trust his palette more than anything.

My parents like everything, they are very biased. My brother will just taste something and go, ‘no this is disgusting, you need to change this, you need to change that’. So I go by his palette.

I think a lot of us started knowing about you because of social media. So do you ever feel you are an entrepreneur/restaurateur who is powered by social media.

I don’t know. That’s a kind of a strong statement. I like to say we are supported by social media not only powered.

So does social media help or do you think at times it gets too much?

No, it always helps. You know there’s two sides to it, one is it’s great that people enjoy your product, but it also tells you when you go wrong. It also kind of helps to keep us grounded and work hard towards everything. I also feel it comes more from a space of care, they have a bad experience and they reach out and tell me ‘oh I went here and this happened’ and it’s taken in the best sense possible and we try and correct it. I think as a business it helps us, it helps us control a lot of things rather than physically me being present everywhere. I feel like I have a support group of people helping me achieve what I want to do and that’s great.

How different is a pastry kitchen from a cooking kitchen?

Oh completely different. People are so much nicer. The hot kitchen is extremely hot. It’s very different there. In a pastry kitchen everything has to be planned before. The prep is done from before. Everything is much calmer, nicer & cooler. In a hot kitchen there’s a lot of adrenaline, last minute rush.

You are pretty much a one-woman show; do you ever wish you had a partner at work?

Yea all the time, cause I see my friends who have co-founders and

sometimes it just feels nice to bounce ideas off with someone and not just think things in your head.

I am lucky that I have a family to do those things with though. I guess I get the best of both, I can go to them and get their advice but I don’t have someone who works with me. It works for me but there are times I feel I wish I had someone to fill in.

How do all you chefs know each other?

So I’ll tell you, when I moved back to Bombay, it wasn’t like that. Everyone knew everyone and individually they had their own thing but it was not like a fraternity. And then there was this event that started called Food With Benefits where we chefs came together and started cooking. Normally for chefs Monday nights are when you have your day off or you are free so Kelvin and I, we started this group, Monday Chef Nights. And we also started meeting outside of work and there were simple rules like no one talks about work and just like really fun things and then it sort of became like a community where we are all on a Whatsapp group and we all are there helping each other. So if anyone has a problem e.g. with supplies or staff or whatever, everyone is there and you are just a message away helping each other. It’s a lot of respect because everyone understands how the industry is and we’re constantly working and we don’t have time when normal people socialize. So we have to stick to each other.

It’s a support system of sorts, like everyone is helping each other out and we all come together when it’s needed. It’s important to have in any industry, it’s the only way everyone grows together.

A lot of outsiders to the industry say that, it looks like a place where if you have to succeed you have to know the right people, what do you have to say to that?

I never think of it like that, it’s just people doing interesting things and I mean I have people coming to me all the time asking me for help advise, whether it’s restaurant owners, whether it’s people who are starting out in the kitchen, so we are always open to talking to people, so

it’s not like a clique, it’s an open community.

Where do restaurateurs socialize?

At Gokul, at Janta at each other’s houses. So it really depends, we go everywhere. We change locations everytime. No rules. Normally people’s houses or bars after work. We are people too, right?!

A lot of people now when they have grouses with a restaurant, a lot of time the first place they go to complain is twitter. Do you think that is fair?

It’s not fair at all. Because if you are at a restaurant and you have problem with the food, you mention it or bring it up right there so it can be fixed.

Don’t settle for something bad and then complain about it later.

Mistakes happen all the time or something’s not to your liking, but it can be fixed at the moment. Speak to the person involved, why do you have to go bitch about it to the whole world once it’s already done?

A lot of people bake and cook as a way to relax, what do you do?

I run and dance and do yoga.

You have spoken a bunch of times about how you are trying to get fitter, do marathons etc., on the other hand there is this saying, ‘never trust a skinny chef’. What is the deal?

Listen, you can trust me when I am skinny. I can have it all. No it’s more about feeling fit. I should be able to run, I should be able to go upstairs, all of that. Which was becoming a bit challenging because I was in the kitchen all the time and you know when you are standing and working, I started having back issues and all these things started happening to me and I was like I am 28, this is not meant to happen right now! I have always been into fitness and yoga and running and all that. It’s just because, like I said I was working so hard, and I would come home I had no energy for anything else. So I sort of shifted that cycle and started giving more importance to my health and well-being and now it’s at a place where it’s a fine balance.

Are you the girl who always brings the cake?

Always! I mean it’s now that people get offended.

Like if I go for a meeting and I don’t have a box, people are like, ‘oh we were hoping you would get something’.

I am like, thanks! I mean I always do, as a principle I always take something for whoever I meet. But now it’s become like they expect it, you know like taken for granted.

You have done a lot at a significantly younger age, do you ever feel that it all came too fast too soon and is there a fear ever?

Never. It just pushes me to think that I can do so much more now. Like I did so much when I was young and I didn’t know too much about things and now I know so much more so I can probably put in that much more. So it always encourages me to do more than I have done. I don’t know if that makes sense, but it pushes me to think bigger.

Do you see yourself doing this at 60?

I… I don’t know what I will be doing at 60. Hopefully I’ll be retired, chilling with Richard Branson on his island. No, but I will definitely be doing something, I will be working, I don’t think I can be one of those people who just retire.

I remember once you spoke about street kids near the Parel kitchen, do you guys keep doing stuff like that?

We do. I believe in women education and doing something for children and that’s what I believe in. We always do work with communities around us, that’s something that’s always been a Le15 thing ever since we started, we didn’t have money when we started but I remember when Xaviers was doing some charity drive and they came to me and asked, we need 1000 boxes, I said we’ll do it, it doesn’t matter how but we’ll make this happen and that has been a part of our DNA and we keep doing that. I feel like everytime we feel like we have achieved something or we need to celebrate we try and go out and reach out to people and do something with them. For example, two Diwali’s ago we did something with Save the Children India where we decided to sponsor 1000 meals. For my 29 or 30th birthday I did a crowdfunding campaign where I said don’t give me any birthday gifts but we raised money for subscriptions for a magazine called White Print, which is a magazine in braille. I think the goal was 170 subscriptions and we surpassed it.

That’s what gives me happiness, to see what we can do for others and not just for ourselves.


One Indian dessert you hate?

I don’t like Shrikhand

A foodie idea you wish you came up with first?

You know so I actually did, but my family didn’t follow through with it. I wanted to do Chai like Chai Point or Chayoos, so when I came back I wanted to do that with chai and no one listened to me.

The worst review you ever got?

It was I think when I started Le 15, my first, it was a very very hurtful review. It was by an influential food blogger and she was also a baker. It was more like I can do this better, this sucks and this is not how French products should be. And just that day I met these French people who said you know we pass your store every week and we love it because it makes us feel like home. So I sent them that review and asked them what do you think, is it justified, should I do something about it? And they got so offended and till today my friend tells me if you search for his name the first thing that comes up is his comments on that review.

So what’s the best review that you ever got, what’s the thing that made your heart go woooo?

I think when people come and tell me that they have tasted macarons in Paris and they still prefer ours – that makes me happy.

So we know that there are a lot of celebrities who love your macarons but the one celebrity fan you are still chasing?

Amitabh Bachchan

Apart from Ryan Gosling, who’s your top pick for arm candy if you were to ever get one?

Trevor Noah, my latest obsession. Not like I know either of them. But I feel like Trevor is not only really cute but he is also super smart and funny, he makes a perfect combination. Can you tweet this article to him so I can meet him?

What’s on your Tinder bio?

Pastry chef.

That’s it?

That’s all you need.

Two of your food heroes from the world, and one from this country?

Across the world, one would be David Chang, not only because of his food but also the empire that he has built. And second would be Dominique Ansel, same thing. And from India I am a very big fan of Chef Manish Malhotra, I totally fangirl over him and I am always amazed by how humble he is and every time I meet him it’s just like an inspiration of creativity and ethics and everything.

Trevor Noah aside, who else do you fangirl over?

There are a lot of people guys, I am very creepy. It’s always like Beyonce and Oprah and Jimmy Fallon. I am a bit ashamed of that. Chrissy Teigen, I am a big big big fan of hers. So I met her when I was in Boston and she gave me her phone, my DNA is on her phone, she gave me her phone and said how do I follow you on Instagram, I was like, ‘what?!’ I found myself and said okay here and every now and then I’ll check if she is still following me. She is, okay, she is.