Mandakini Gupta is not your typical home grown chef, who watched her mother cook and had a burning ambition to be a chef since she was five. She studied at the Asian College of Journalism, and became a television journalist. Till five years ago, Mandakini admits she could not even bake a simple chocolate cake. But once she had made up her mind to become a pastry chef, she left a lucrative career in television journalism to start right at the bottom. In this case, it meant getting an internship at the Park Hotel, Delhi standing on her feet for hours at end and scrubbing filthy fridges just to learn the required skills to become a pâtissier. The results paid off, from a mere ten orders a week, in the last three years she’s now making over a hundred and commands a loyal and dedicated clientele. No surprises then that when Shahid Kapur decided on a Delhi wedding, the handmade artisanal chocolates were ordered from
‘Smitten’ the company she set up right out of her own kitchen. On any given day her hallmark salted caramel chocolate tarts, dark chocolate sea-salt cookies, lemon poppy seed cakes are sold out even before they are out of the oven.
Chatting nineteen to the dozen, when you ask her how it all started Mandakini may appear as a giggly teenager, but there’s a sane business woman at the back of that banter. Yes, baking is her passion, but she’s clear she doesn’t want to open and manage her own shop till she is hundred percent sure of being able to manage it.
Mandakini does it all herself. There’s no battery of assistants, except for a domestic help and an obliging husband, who chips in after his day job as a journalist. It’s her husband and their passion for cooking together after they got married which in fact inspired her to make such a major life change. She’s candid about her training- ‘I didn’t go to France, I don’t know French so what’s the point? I had no money to go to a culinary institute that charges 50 lakhs a year for a course.’ So she spent the initial time working in commercial kitchens like Indigo Deli in Mumbai, WD50 in New York. And then went on to do a foundation course at the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan for 3 months. She came back to India to hone her skills at the pastry chain L’Opera before she launched ‘Smitten’. Few know that Mandakini is a passionate animal lover she has five dogs in the house, and is constantly rescuing animals off the street, in between her bouts of frenetic baking. Here’s Mandakini Gupta on what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur in the world of breads, cakes and more –
Why she quit journalism
It took a lot of thinking and planning, and proving to myself that this is what I really wanted to do: which meant actually going and working in a professional kitchen as an intern before I was convinced that I loved baking enough to work 12 hours a day in a kitchen and still feel happy. Only when I knew that I was capable of doing this, did I quit my TV job.
Her USP and business model
Some of the ingredients are expensive yes, but I don’t believe in a high price for my desserts, I don’t want to cater just luxury desserts I want to make comfort food that people can afford. I don’t use Indian chocolates in my cake as they aren’t the best quality, I use chocolates from abroad; the passion fruit and raspberries are from France and lemons from my parent’s farm.
Her advice to other entrepreneurs who want to sell cakes
Don’t advertise or start taking big orders till you are sure of how many orders you can handle. If you stay small you can expand, but you can’t start big then and go small. Set high standards for yourself. If you have a bad experience, learn from it. And always call your client the next day and check if they liked what you baked. Sometimes I get feedback that the cake was too crumbly, I always use the feedback to check; did I go wrong that day? Did the customer use a wrong knife; was the cake not stored properly? And that’s how I control for quality. Never under value the feedback of your customers
How did the Shahid Kapur wedding order happen?
I got a call from Meera Rajput’s sister. One of my customers had recommended my name to her. I had no idea then that I was dealing with a celebrity wedding. Its only when I read some links on social media it hit me oh my god, I am making chocolates for a Bollywood wedding. I did a happy dance once the callwas over. I had to make 100 chocolates; I had a super packed day with orders already on the day this order came. And I print my own wrappers so that required some coordination with the printer. Later, once the order was done, Meera came herself to collect them, which I thought was quite sweet. I was also told later that Supriya Pathak had also asked about my chocolates and left a word saying they were delicious. My company is doing well yes, but my mother has taught me to take the good with the bad, just go on doing what you feel is the best and not get swayed. I was happy yes, but the next day I was back in the kitchen baking, there’s no time to rest or over think everything.
(first image credits-Chef Bakshish Dean, all others- Smitten)