This former advertising executive swapped the board room for the chopping board.Diya Koshy George
From an early age, cooking was never just child’s play for this Bangalore-based chef. Here’s Mathew K. Thomas’ #PassiontoPaycheck journey
When Mathew K. Thomas was 15 years old, a friend’s mother gifted him a copy of the Australian Women’s Weekly cookbook. While this may seem an unorthodox choice for a teenage boy, to those who knew him best, it was perfect.
“I have been baking and cooking since I was a kid. My mother is a brilliant cook and I would try and follow all her recipes,” says Mathew, who owns Ma Baker, a popular baking and catering business in Bangalore. One of his fondest memories is of a Crazy Chocolate Cake that she baked. “I would make it all the time, and everyone at home finally got fed up with it. But, no one ever said anything to discourage me, even when I goofed up.”
This love of cooking, however, was to stay on the back burner for a while. As is the case with many of us, life got in the way and Mathew joined his family’s advertising agency after completing a Bachelor of Commerce degree. A few years into client servicing, Mathew knew that his heart truly lay elsewhere, and that it was time to follow his passion. He was luckier than most in having a family that encouraged his decision.
He applied and was accepted to École Grégoire-Ferrandi in Paris, run by the Paris Chamber of Commerce. “The culinary school École Supérieure de Cuisine Française (ESCF) offered only two courses in English – patisserie and bread making. After completing the course, I did a three-month internship at the Ritz in Paris, before returning to India,” he says.
Starting up is not a song
Mathew knew that getting a job in the industry was not going to be easy. He was already older than many of the graduates joining the hotel business and he would have had to start at the bottom as a commis chef and work his way up the ladder. That is when he thought of starting something on his own.
“Once again, my family was very supportive of this decision. In fact, it was my brother Daniel and friend Joe who came up with the name Ma Baker. We are all BoneyM fans and loved the song Ma Baker, and M-A are the first two letters of my name,” he laughs.
Right from the onset, there were challenges. “Everything from finding the right staff to setting up a kitchen takes a lot of effort. Starting out on your own is not easy. You should be fully invested and not just leave things in someone else’s hands, because that’s when everything goes haywire. We have a lot of youngsters coming to work part-time and they find that this business look a lot easier from the outside.” says Mathew.
And the heat is on outside the kitchen too.
The advent of the home baker has made the space highly competitive. “Earlier, our choices were limited. You went to Nilgiri’s, Thom’s, or Sweet Chariot and picked up whatever they had. Or you baked at home. Now, all that has changed. There are so many choices and people are willing to pay. And many bakers out there are really excellent.”
The increasingly crowded space prompted Mathew to diversify into cuisine and he specialises in Mediterranean, European, and Kerala food. Ma Baker’s clients include many restaurants in the city where he supplies cake and dessert; multi-nationals and co-working spaces. “We also cater for a lot of corporate events and private parties,” he says.
Among his most anticipated spreads each year are the special Christmas and Easter menus where he serves up a range of cakes, dessert, marzipan, pies and smoked meats.
While encouraging people to follow their passion, Mathew advises caution. “Remember that your expenses will be more than your income initially. If you are quitting your job, you should know that there is no steady salary that comes into your account every month. You need deep pockets, and not expect proper returns for the first year, or even longer. Also factor in the added expense of salaries and the cost of scaling up. You suddenly have a lot more responsibility.”
He also advises not to trust people blindly. He shares the story of a friend who was running a very successful food truck. She then decided to open a restaurant and invested everything into making that happen. On the first day itself, none of the staff showed up for work. “Her employees had planned the whole thing. She had to fold up her plans and return to work. It was sad, because she was really good at what she did,” says Mathew.
“Don’t assume everyone who joins you will deliver on their promises. Never take things for granted. You will actually know what people are like only when you see them work.”
The most important advice he gives is – know your food. “A lot of people want to start cafes without even knowing what menu they will have. If you don’t know the basics, and are always depending on someone else to execute things while you manage from the top, that person will start acting up after a few months. So, know your operations from the ground up. Be passionate about food, not just to run a café…”
The sweet life
He says he has no regrets about choosing to follow his passion. For those looking to chase their #PassiontoPaycheck ambition, he says, “Ultimately, there’s nothing like running your own show. There will always be ups and downs. You just have to be ready for everything.”
And, does he get any time to himself? When not whipping up sinful treats, and doing “clerical work” at Ma Baker, Mathew collects recipe books (he now owns over 1,000), plays guitar and tends the garden on the family farm, where he shares living space with several dogs and four donkeys – Hee, Haw, Rainbow and Sunshine. Can he identify which is which? “It doesn’t matter,” he laughs. “If you call one, they all come running.”