Channeling their passion for food, Ambika Seth and Alice Helme came together to serve Delhi some ace meals with CAARA.
Talking to the duo of Ambika Seth and Alice Helme can never have a dull moment. While Alice is the exuberant one and Ambika exudes a calm, collected charm, together they possess a passion for food which compels you to lean in and listen (and taste!). A chance meeting at a party got the two talking and the shared love for putting sumptuous high quality produce on dinner tables led to their Culinary Arts & Research Academy (CAARA). That was 2014, since then Delhi’s been served a plateful of their food exploration with bespoke catering which comes with top of the pops local and international ingredients.
With hospitality and culinary backgrounds, respectively, it’s no surprise that Ambika and Alice fit together like pieces of a puzzle when it comes to managing their business. Studying at Balleymaloe Culinary School, Ireland, Alice mastered, “A totally different approach to food, focussing on artisanal produce. They teach you how to rear pigs, grow carrots…and then you enter the kitchen. Later, while working in New York, I came to India on a six month assignment, however a chance to work with a food consultancy and having fallen in love with the country made stay back. One day, working with GreenHouse by Olive a lady came to us and asked if she could get catering done at her house. It was at that moment, after three years of working, that I decided to start my own catering venture.” With Alice running her catering company, Ambika stepped in to, “Take the brand forward,” as she tells us. “The two of us make a very good team together. Alice as a lot of experience in marketing as well which she handles for the company. For me, my strength lies in putting together the standards, which is the crux of hospitality and which most hotels live by” says the École Hôtelière de Lausanne, Switzerland graduate.
In an industry where joint ventures are typically exclusive to lifelong friends, these two came together shortly after being introduced by common friends. On what made them take the leap of faith, Ambika says, “When I came back to India I wanted to start a hotel but accidentally started farming for chemical-free produce. Alice had already started the work for this amazing catering company of hers, and when we met we realised we have some common factors together- bringing smashing food to people using superior grade, organic foodstuffs – which led to CAARA being formed.” Alice pitches in, “Ambika had FarmLove in place, which was really impressive and exactly what we needed – something I continually battle with-getting really high quality produce in the city. Then we started catering together and we naturally progressed from there.”
As the name says, CAARA isn’t simply a catering service, the lovely ladies set up shop at the British Council with their Caara Cafe, taking forward their ethos for preservative-free, fresh food. While their Head Chef, Atanu Nath, helps create stellar dishes all year round, they also invite chefs from all over the world to add to the magic to their kitchen from time to time, from European to Coastal to Asian and everything in between. They’ve also recently launched a Take-Away and Delivery service called Easy Dining. Helping the city eat fare that’s nutritious and tasty is no mean feat, Ambika shares how they maintain the standard across all their divisions, “Not only the purchase department, our chefs are in touch with our vendors too. Their being personally involved ensures that our motto is followed through, and luckily our suppliers tip us about the incoming quality produce, which helps us plan our menus in accordance with the next seasonal ingredients.”
Lip smackin’ food. Packed with nutrition. Evolving menus. If by now you’re wondering how can you hop onto the CAARA caravan, fret not, for these two have a trick up their sleeve for that as well. Whether an aspiring kitchen master or just a food enthusiast, you can sign up for their cooking classes, where chefs dispense vocational training, and help you inch closer to the CAARA way of life. Donning so many hats can’t be easy, that too in an industry as cut-throat as F&B, but the CAARA girls say that they lucked out, “The support and response has been amazing. We’re friends with most people in the industry, supporting and working with each other, so as a whole it’s been really positive. I cannot think of a single bad experience in that sense!” Ambika happily tells us. Alice seconds her on the industry being welcoming towards them, but talking about her overall experience she says, “If there’s one negative about the food scene in Delhi, it’s the online food groups which carry a lot of slamming and public humiliation of restaurants by people who aren’t necessarily qualified to critique the nuisances of each kind of dish. It’s just very rude behaviour. We should all encourage each other rather than bringing others down.”
All that and then some. They’ve come out with a homegrown pesto sauce, which has been replenished at the DSSC HQ more times than we’re proud to admit. We’ve been getting our stock through them, but soon they’re going into retail (supermarkets & online) so you can pick up as many without having to keep count. Not just the pesto, for all you non-Delhiwalas out there, CAARA plans on getting its services & products to you too, whether in India or abroad-so keep that bookmark ready!
With that we bag yet another pesto bottle and thank them, but not before throwing a trademark DSSC rapid fire their way.
Q. Favourite thing on the CAARA menu?
Ambika: The pesto pasta. Anything with pesto is my favourite.
Alice: I’m a sucker for whatever is new, so whichever is the latest dish we experiment with becomes my fave!
Q. The strangest experience while catering an event? Any weird demands by patrons?
Ambika: Once I had to clear food tables so that the clients could dance on top of those!
Alice: The short notice that clients give us for catering an event is a bit odd, we can create any kind of experience,but please give us the time!
Q. Favourite dish to make at the last moment?
Ambika: I have withdrawal symptoms if I don’t get my quota of pasta, so I’m always up for a ragu pasta or a chilli garlic agilo olio.
Alice: I’m possibly developing a wheat allergy so I’ve been experimenting with wheat alternatives a lot. Like a pesto and spinach omelette, or turning that into a furtada. Or a pesto bruschetta with chicken breast.
Q. Most reliable friend in the kitchen?
Ambika: Garlic press. I have to have one in my kitchen.
Alice: A good pepper grinder- it does away the whole having to grind it in the mixer and store it affair.
Q. Which tipple do you reach out to most often?
Ambika: When in season, I love my grandmother’s aam panna. And to go with my pastas I love myself a glass of red wine.
Alice: I like Negroni and Champagne or sparkling wine. For the non-alcoholic times I love a glass of fresh juice.
Q. Your sure-shot hangover cure this party season?
Ambika: A little water with electrolyte in it- you have to drink the whole bottle, it only works that way!
Alice: A really hearty breakfast and a glass of Berocca.
Q. Recipe for your one ‘cook to impress’ dish?
Ambika: There’s a recipe in the family called the Never Fail Cake, it’s an amazing coffee chocolate cake, and it actually never fails!
Alice: Lemon meringue pie.
Q. A dessert you can eat all-day-every-day?
Ambika: A traditional apple pie beats it all for me. And to go with the current festive & wedding season I love myself a CAARA Amaranth Hazelnut Laddu.
Alice: An avocado and cocoa brownie that has jaggery and dates, and is a relatively guilt-free dessert, tops my list at the moment.
This conversation is a part of the DSSC Secret Conversation Series, where we get candid with the ace of base industry disrupters.