Mumbai dotes on its Theobroma. Now, it’s time to fall in love with its owner!Binjal Shah
With the Gateway of India and the Taj gallantly guarding its left, the shopping passageway with typically Indian trinkets piercing through its centre, and Mumbai’s most iconic vintage brands adorning its right, Colaba Causeway is one of those places in Mumbai that invoke the most profoundly fervid feeling of nostalgia. And when there cropped up a charming little cafe and desserts place at the end of the street in 2003, most of us instantly knew that it shall fit right into that reminiscence-heavy frame, and stand the test of time to become as iconic as its neighbours. Twelve years since, Theobroma became a city-wide chain and a household name. Considering this irreplaceable role that Theobroma has played in every Mumbaikar’s culinary exploits, I am sure one is anxious to meet the one who gave us mortals the ‘food for gods’. Without any further ado, meet one of our generation’s most talented pastry chefs – Kainaz Messman.
Kainaz’s lifetime has been about finding the joie de vivre through a happy tummy. Born into a merrily gourmand household, the family’s ties with serving up edible glee go way back. “I grew up in a sweet-smelling house. My family is obsessed with food. Our lives revolve around what we make and what we eat. My passion for baking has been my lifetime in the making,” she fondly recollects.
Her mother would supply cakes and desserts from home, and they were everyone’s absolute darling. “Theobroma is still an extension of that home business,” maintains Kainaz. But between that catering business and it turning into a commercial bestseller, was a series of assortments.
She was determined to pursue law academically, until a summer in France led her to her true-calling. “At the age of 16, I went to France as a Rotary Youth Exchange Student. That year changed my life and career. I fell in love with simple, classic, unpretentious patisserie. Upon my return I proceeded to study French literature, but I already knew I was going to become a chef.”
She procured a formal education in the field from IHM Mumbai, and then went on to OCLD Delhi. A strikingly passionate young woman, she was snatched up immediately by the Oberoi Udailvilas at Udaipur, where she had a rather delicious stint. Her plate was filled with success and progress, until a back injury abruptly threatened to end her career. The doctors broke it to her that being a chef would be implausible, as standing up for long hours and indulging in rigorous work could cause permanent damage. Adamant to create another way after the most convenient one had caved in, Kainaz had already started nurturing a new dream; of starting her own cake shop someday.
Her grit made sure that the day wasn’t far. In 2003, Kainaz boldly decided to start up, albeit with next to no experience to handle the business end of a culinary enterprise.
“I knew how to bake cakes, but not much else. I went from having the responsibility of making one product in a comfortable five star environment to being responsible for everything and totally unprepared for the retail market, the demands, and challenges that lay ahead. Whatever went wrong and whoever’s fault it was, I had to learn that the buck stopped at me, I had to set it right. Running your own business in India can be a minefield of permissions, approvals, bribes, and bureaucracy.”
And indeed, Kainaz had to navigate through the warped side of the spectrum to get what she wanted. “F&B is a male-dominated industry, in India and around the world. Women are in the minority for many reasons. The jobs are physically demanding, hours are unsociable, role models are few. The outside world – government agents, landlords, suppliers, employee candidates –is also disproportionately male. The obstacles are many but largely they are cultural.”
But not even systemic forces managed to provide a strong enough resistance to her spirit. The connoisseur, who initially started out intending to just give you your neighbourhood corner cafe, welcomed the risks with open arms. And today, she can proudly say that “no matter where you are in this vast city, you won’t have to travel too far to catch my signature brownies freshly out of the oven.” She does so with no less than nine wildly popular outlets across the map of Mumbai, each flawlessly retaining the fundamental ability of their love-laced desserts of deluding you into thinking life is bloomin’ awesome!
“When we started, we did not know what to expect. We didn’t even know if we would recover the costs of starting our business or whether we would be able to fill the four small tables we had ordered. We were making the things we liked to eat, we hoped to do well but we could not have ever predicted or dared to hope for the success that Theobroma would become. We have received so much love and warmth and blessings and encouragement that we are humbled and grateful in equal measure,” says Kainaz.
Considering that Kainaz ran an eatery with largely world-cuisine inspired dishes, her success and her brand’s popularity also pointed toward a maturity in our food – fare and culinary sense. “Mumbai has gastronomically evolved over a decade. The customer today is far more knowledgeable, better traveled, has a more developed palette, and is willing to experiment with new products and flavours. People routinely eat chocolate cake for breakfast or have a trio of desserts for dinner. I love that I have been able to be part of this evolution!”
Having been dealt such a serendipitous hand, Kainaz has never once moved her eyes from the goal. Spoiler alert – the icy grip of winter on the north would feel more warm and fuzzy in the years to come, as the best hot chocolate might be coming to your town! “We are in expansion mode. We have nine outlets open and a few in the pipeline. And Delhi is in our sights. It is our biggest market after Mumbai, we courier our products to the Capital all the time. We would love to be there but need to work out how to finance the growth, manage the operation, and maintain quality. I do not have a time frame to offer at this stage, but we are working on it,” she reveals, and I can already feel 10 million northerners hold their breaths.
And Kainaz isn’t all that different from that signature spicy hot chocolate. She serves you sinfully delicious dessert with a smile that makes your day at your favourite corner cafe, but at the same time, stands tall as a remarkable example for everything women can be, in this steadfastly changing food and beverage space.
“Riyaaz Amlani, the President of the National Restaurant Association of India (NRAI), has predicted a rise in the number of female chef owners opening restaurants in the larger cities throughout India. And I find this forecast to be absolutely palatable. The number of female chefs is set to grow. Women chefs have been under-represented, but the balance is slowly reversing,” she concludes confidently.