When Heidi Shrager moved from New York to New Delhi last year, she was invariably homesick for the Big Apple. But in December, at a party in Sunder Nagar, she felt magically transported to the Upper West Side of Manhattan. “It was a Hanukkah party and they had the most amazing bagel, lox and cream cheese spread.”
Shrager loves bagels—the ubiquitous breakfast food that can be found in every corner of New York. Initially, Shrager was very sceptical anyone could make the bagel taste like they do in New York and wasn’t sure the bagels at the party, made by Uni Vaid in her backyard bakery in Delhi, lived up to New York standards. But a month later, when she sampled Vaid’s bagels again, she realized how wrong she had been. “I felt like I could eat six in a row,” Shrager says. “They rank right up there with the best in New York.”
Padma Srinivasan and Jayalaxmi make pizzas at lunch for hungry MNC workers. (Hemant Mishra / Mint)
Anita Bajaj moved back to Delhi from New York and was disappointed with her dessert options. “The desserts just don’t taste the same here,” she says. “I don’t know if it’s the chocolate or the cheese or what.”
But at a friend’s house, she had some of Vaid’s cheesecakes and fell in love instantly. For her daughter’s birthday, she “just blindly ordered from Uni for about 85 children. And it was a huge success. Even though it was catered and looked beautiful, they tasted like home-made desserts”.
For Carlos Quintana, after his move to India from Madrid to work at the Spanish embassy, he figured no one in India would really know the secrets of Spanish cooking. But Paramjeet Kaur surprised him. “People know tortillas, espangolas and gazpacho,” Quintana says, “but she knows special dishes, like pisto and chorizo—not something everyone knows. And, if you know anything about Spanish food, you know that this is very good Spanish food.”
Shanu Pugalia, a Mumbai homemaker, had some appetizers at a friend’s party a few years ago, which she loved. To her surprise, the catering had been done by one of her neighbours. Since then, the 42-year-old, who can’t do without her Seven Layer Mexican Dip, orders everything— from appetizers and dips to pasta—at least once a week from Toral Mehta.
But don’t go looking for Mehta’s dips, Kaur’s chorizo or Vaid’s bagels in any store or supermarket. These women are small-time entrepreneurs putting their cooking skills to work at home, making elaborate speciality dishes for friends, and building up their businesses through word of mouth. The words that always work: “You have to try this food!”
Vaid, an NRI, moved to Delhi from New York with her Delhi-born husband four years ago. She realized the cafés and bakeries in the city had an Asian or European influence. “Nobody was doing American stuff. I found myself missing all those great things,” she says. She was appalled by what she found at a bakery that claimed to make bagels: “It was a bread bun with a hole punched through it.”
Ravina Bhojwani uses brown rice on request for healthier sushi rolls. (Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint)
A trained consultant, she sat down and put together a business plan and then returned to the US to enrol in a professional cooking school. A year later, she began making bagels, cupcakes and cheesecakes, and tested them at lavish brunches at her home with as many as 30 friends. They raved about her food and it gave her the confidence to launch American Ambrosia.
A year later, she has a successful business feeding the growing demand for American bakery goods, offering bagels for homesick expats, delivering sumptuous mini cheesecakes as part of a wedding announcement party or creating cupcakes for Diwali gifts.
Mrina Bhugun, 31, a mother of two from Mauritius, began cooking only after she got married in 2001. She and her husband decided to decorate a cake for their son’s second birthday. He was obsessed with Nemo, the fish in the Disney movie. So they bought fish-decorated T-shirts, the movie, and made an orange and white-striped fish cake.
The cake was such a hit she started a tradition of character cakes for her son and daughter’s subsequent birthdays. A guest at one of the birthday parties recommended her when another mother was looking for a character cake. Soon, word was out and orders flowed in. Suddenly, her fun side-project for her kids became a viable business.
Other home kitchen entrepreneurs had a more definite plan when they began. Padma Srinivasan, 75, wanted to build a home for seniors in Bangalore. She realized the best way for her to raise money was by putting her cooking skills (learned as a mother and wife) to use. Her daughter provided a recipe for a quick, easy product that hungry men would love: pizza.
Paramjeet Kaur’s daughter helps her mom deliver Spanish food after she’s finished her homework. (Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint)
With the help of her daughter’s mother-in-law, Jayalaxmi, Srinivasan began cooking pizzas in her garage and sold them to boys from Baldwin Boy’s High School. The boys affectionately dubbed the duo the “Pizza Grannies”. They now supply their pizzas to Accenture, Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard for lunch. Her old-age home, Vishranti, is nearing completion.
While Vaid and Bhugun had little cooking experience before beginning their at-home adventures, others have had a long background in the cooking world. Hyrel and Bynen Desa ran the Bamboo Grove in Bandra, Mumbai, for years. Ten years ago, lease problems forced them to shut it down. So they began to cook Goan pork specialities in their own small kitchen.
Wedding parties keep Desa and her husband busy with demands for their vindaloo, sorpotel and their celebratory pigling roast stuffed with cashew nuts, plums and liver. Orders must be placed at least five days in advance because of the amount of work it takes to prepare a 7-9kg pig. But the end result is worthwhile for many party organizers: The pig can feed up to 100 people. “The process is quite painstaking, and so there are very few people doing the pigling roast,” says Desa. “For me, since the first time I made it 20 years ago, till now, the roast has always been perfect.”
Kaur, the cook known for Spanish food, may not have been in the restaurant business, but she was a private chef before venturing out on her own. After her husband’s death, she had to take up work as a cook for a Venezuelan documentary film-maker. He taught her the recipes of the Andalusia-inspired food he loved: Spanish tortillas, chorizo in lentils, and gazpacho—a cold tomato soup perfect on a hot Delhi day. After her boss returned to South America, Kaur began working with the Spanish embassy and the Spanish news agency, FA. One of the journalists who worked there suggested Kaur start selling her food to people in the city.
“Many people helped me. One woman gave me the idea of doing the menu and said it would help my business grow.” Now, after bringing lunch daily to the FA, she works on private orders with the help of her two teenage children. They deliver the food or people come to pick it up from her Jor Bagh home. The delicious, fresh food tastes straight out of Spain.
Part of the success of these private businesses is that they offer a product found only in high-priced restaurants—if at all. Bagels are a rarity in Delhi and good bagels, the kind that taste straight from a New York City deli, were impossible to find until American Ambrosia started. Vaid says she knew her business would be successful because no one had what she could offer.
Neerja Shah, a 34-year-old Malabar Hill resident, used to be a regular at Wasabi and Tiffin until she heard about Ravina Bhojwani’s company I Love Sushi. “When I want sushi,” Shah says, “I order from her. It’s complete value for the money.”
Uni Vaid’s bagels keep hungry expats from homesickness. (Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint)
Bhojwani, 28, learnt sushi making from a Japanese chef and started her catering business four years ago from her Napeansea Road home. “I want to be the sushi queen of the city,” laughs Bhojwani.
Her staff of four assists her with the day’s orders, which could be as little as 100 pieces or as much as a party of 1,500.
Of course, offering specialized food means having to source specialized ingredients. Vaid held taste tests to compare Indian products such as flour and Parmesan cheese against imported products and decided to import most of her bagel ingredients to achieve the distinct New York flavour.
Bhojwani says she imports all her sushi ingredients, as well as her decorative packages, from Japan. Bhugun finds most of the ingredients for her cakes in India, but she does rely on friends to bring her fresh stocks of food colouring from abroad.
Mehta, a dip and salsa maker, uses her family members abroad to send her the necessary Italian seasonings, oils and cheese. “My bhabhi from Kuwait sends me ingredients for my Lebanese dips,” Mehta says. “I have a nephew in the US and my husband travels a lot, so I easily get what I want.”
Mehta, a Mumbai resident, began cooking two and a half years ago and has a range of appetizers, from stuffed mushrooms to mint cheese baby potatoes—but she is known for her dips and salsas. From sun-dried tomato dip to cinnamon and green apple dip, she has more than 22 varieties and constant kitchen experiments keep adding to the list. “I make my dips without cream, with yogurt because it’s light and everyone is so health conscious these days,” says Mehta.
Mehta’s friends have offered to invest in a restaurant if she wants to start one, but she’s happy to work from home. “It’s more personal and less hectic,” she says.
Other at-home cooks agree. Bhugun cooks all her speciality character cakes at home. “No one touches my things.” Plus, after her day job as an assistant at the French school nursery, the cooking allows her to be home with her two young children, who change their minds “once a day” about what type of birthday cake they’ll want for their birthday party.
Vaid says that she is considering starting a bakery or restaurant to meet the continued demands of her growing bagel business, but she wanted to start with a delivery service to test the market. Plus, it helps that the home-to-work commute is only 3 minutes, across the lawn to the bakery in the backyard she built specifically for the business.
Above all, what drives all these private chefs is their love of food. Bhugun says, “It’s very creative; it’s challenging and it always makes someone happy.”
(Rachana Nakra and Pavitra Jayaraman contributed to this story)