Say hello to Mandakini Gupta, the lady who has been whipping up a storm in #OurCity with Smitten Bakery & Pâtissière. From TV newsroom to the kitchen, Gupta packs a punch, be it through journalism or desserts. Drawing parallels between the two, the crackerjack baker shares, “You keep your nose to the ground and keep working, hour after hour, day after day.” Relinquishing her thriving career in TV journalism where Gupta worked with maestros like Rajdeep Sardesai and Sagarika Ghose at CNN IBN, she veered to baking, committing herself to learning the art and skill from scratch. Adept at thinking on her feet in dynamic situations, it’s no surprise that Gupta took to the kitchen swiftly and is now the proud possessor of one of the top stand alone bakeries in the capital city.
What started as a home bakery for F&F is now applauded by the country with names like Shahid Kapoor & Mira Rajput, Vijender Singh, and Nimrat Kaur amongst the acclaiming critics. With expansion plans on Gupta’s mind and tonic water by her side, we get talking to the lady about her journey, unveiling what maketh this pâtissière.
You had an established career when you kick-started your culinary journey. What inclined you to shift gears and explore food?
There came a time when I realised journalism was not my calling and I was dragging myself to work everyday like a petulant child being dragged to school. It was during this time that I stumbled upon food blogs and started trying out recipes. Before I knew it, I was addicted. I would return after a long, tiring day of work (often in the middle of the night) and still want to bake! With each passing day my curiosity grew about the techniques, processes, and ingredients and I really really wanted to bake all day and not have to be a journalist.
Fortunately, I have a very supportive group of people around me who encouraged it. My parents suggested I wait a little longer to see if the itch persisted and go all-in once I was sure about it. Aftab Sidhu, a dear friend in the industry, recommended I work in a commercial kitchen before enrolling in a baking course. The fourteen hour gruelling shifts are not for everyone and this would be the ultimate test to see if I can stand on my feet every day in the kitchen and still want to come back the next morning.
Swapping the camera for spatulas, how was the experience of working in a commercial kitchen for the first time at The Park Hotels?
After working in TV for many years, the male-dominated and often chauvinistic world of a restaurant kitchen was hard to digest. I constantly heard “A woman can’t do this, a woman can’t do that.” It was also physically straining as I wasn’t used to such a labor-intensive job. The first week my legs felt like jelly. However, mentors like Chef Bakshish Dean (Then The Park Hotel’s Executive Chef), Chef Nazir (Pastry Chef), Chef Sada, Chef Nakul, and Oindrila, helped me navigate my way into the industry.
When everyone in the kitchen found out I used to be a TV journalist, they thought I had lost the plot. Some even proposed I was hiding a camera in the buttons of my chef clothes for a sting operation on hygiene in hotel kitchens! It was hilarious. I also faced ragging for the first time since college; I was locked in a pitch dark -22C deep freezer as my initiation. Despite the extremely alien life inside the kitchen, I fell in love with this wondrous world and went back everyday, fascinated.
You went on to pursue a baking course at French Culinary Institute of America while working alongside at WD50, a Michelin-starred restaurant before you opened your own pâtisserie in 2013. How has the journey been since?
At some point, your learning curve gets higher if you have the liberty & freedom to work for yourself. Having worked in various kitchens in different cities, acquiring the essential techniques at the culinary institute I felt I was ready to work for myself and was eager to give it a try. I have always believed that culinary schools are like driving schools. They teach you the basics of how things work, but to really learn, you need to be in a real life situation and experience it for yourself.
I started very small and had no fixed menu or online presence for the longest time, working only for F&F. I learnt through the experiences; how to run a business, maintain consistency, develop recipes, and figure out vendors. When you start, mistakes happen and you evolve with each one. Once, someone came to pick up their order and the ganache wasn’t setting on the cake. They had to wait two hours! I was in tears. But, I became obsessed with improving the recipe and finally created one that I continue to use till today.
Belgian chocolates, French raspberries, organic herbs, Smitten showcases topnotch products. What goes into sourcing these ingredients?
At times I have dangerous urges to bake with certain ingredients. I obsessively hunt for them and locating vendors who stock quality products can be a cross-country adventure. Once, I had a huge order of chocolate bars and my Delhi vendor ran out of Belgian chocolate, all at the last minute. I had the chocolates flown from Bombay and then sent back to the customers in Bombay!
This summer I also managed to find a great farmer who grows the most delicious, sweet, crisp blueberries in Himachal; something I have been trying to source for the longest time. I also love the incredible varieties of mangoes in the country. At a friend’s birthday, I met the lovely lady who now runs Original Indian Table, Ishira Mehta and we spent the entire evening talking about local grains, millets, puffed cereals – things that are common in rural India but don’t make it to the cities. We bonded over my idea of an adult version of our childhood favourite, Cadbury’s chocolate. Ishira found a farmer in Tamil Nadu who makes organic puffed red rice and introduced the red rice crackle that Diwali. It became an instant hit!
Drawing inspiration from veterans like Jacques Genin, Rose Levy Berenbaum, David Lebovitz, Nancy Silverton, and none other than The City of Love, Paris, Gupta continues to refine her techniques and before she gets on to experimenting with new creations, we warm up the signature DSSC Rapid fire to bring you everything Smitten.
One thing you love about the industry? The one thing you hate?
I love that the industry produces great food but not the male chauvinism (though it’s changing). I also don’t care for ‘trends’.
An incident from WD50 that stuck with you?
At WD50 I was in charge of making rice krispie treats every night. One of the processes for that involved piping out tiny bits of marshmallow ice cream into liquid nitrogen. When my work ended, there was always some liquid nitrogen left over. The kitchen was oppressively hot and I was ‘instructed’ to call everyone and throw the liquid nitrogen on the floor. Everyone gleefully kicked off their shoes and stood in the freezing and fast evaporating liquid nitrogen. It was exhilarating for our tired feet. In that moment the kitchen looked like an 80s disco with smoke everywhere!
One dessert you love and one you loathe whipping up?
Anything with caramel, it’s so versatile – caramel sauce, soft french caramels, brittle, praline, the list goes on. I don’t bake things I don’t like, that’s the good thing about being your own boss!
Your most intriguing food experience till date?
Snails in parsley butter, dinners at Frenchie restasurant in Paris, and the sugar cured egg yolk dessert at Le Chateaubriand in Paris (I later learnt it’s a traditional Spanish sweet called Tocino De Cielo).
Your favourite dessert at Smitten?
At the moment anything with choux pastry, specially our Paris Brest
Top 3 restaurants in Delhi?
Maa Tara, for really home-like Bengali food, Artusi for the pastas, and Cosy Restaurant, opposite Aurobindo market – their tandoori chicken, kali dal, and keema parantha have been my constant companions for many years now.
Your go-to comfort food?
Aloo Bhate, it’s a Bengali meal. You boil dal, carrots, pumpkin, rice, eggs, tomatoes and mash them all up. Add a little ghee, salt, and eat with green chilli. It’s addictive!
If DSSC were to invest Rs 10 crores in Brand Smitten, how will you utilise it?
Run away with it – to an non-extradition country.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this feature are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of DSSC & its affiliates.
Featured Image Courtesy: Nayantara Parikh for Nicobar