Meet Pastry Chef Pooja Dhingra, popularly known as Macaron Queen whose patisserie is now a landmark in Mumbai’s dessert scene. She is the force behind the immensely popular chain, Le15 Patisserie that specialises in macarons and a host of other french desserts.
The feisty chef’s decision to make macarons mainstream changed the pastry industry in India.
In a space dominated by men, Pooja has not only earned fame as a successful chef but also become one of India’s most prominent young women entrepreneurs.
She dons multiple hats with such finesse, as if she was born to be in the world of sugar, cakes and chocolate. She has been featured in national dailies & is a regular in fashion and lifestyle glossies not just for her abilities in the kitchen, but also as a dynamic businesswoman and inspiration to women. She was selected by Forbes India for ’30 under 30’ achievers list for 2014 and the Forbes 30 under 30 Asia list.
“I've been fascinated by baking for as long as I can remember. My earliest baking memory is of making brownies with my aunt when I was 6 years old.”
Pooja Dhingra was born into a family interested in Gastronomy. However, she thought she wanted to be a lawyer and joined Law School. That only lasted for exactly 2 weeks. She realized that law wasn’t for her and moved to Switzerland to study hospitality management at Cesar Ritz Colleges. She has always been amazed at how simple ingredients like eggs, butter, flour and sugar could create something so delicious and magical. Three years later, at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu, Paris, she learnt how the same 'magic ingredients' can be used to achieve a vast variety of treats.
“I tried my first macaron in Paris and knew instantly that this would be the piece of Paris I would bring back to India with me.”
When she returned, she was clear on one thing, that she wanted to recreate a piece of of her life in Paris. To make wonderful desserts, using the best ingredients she could find and serve happiness in a box. But stand-alone pastry shops in India were not a thing back then. She wanted to bring that culture to India. And that is how ‘Le15’ was born.
As a young woman entrepreneur, Pooja Dhingra’s biggest challenge was to get people to take her seriously. “If I’d show up to a landlord as a young 23-year-old girl and ask to rent kitchen space, they’d say ‘where is your father?’ It’s today that I realise what was happening, but back then, I would just ask my father to show up.” These weren’t the things Pooja ever thought
she would have to encounter.
"For me, I was a passionate chef and I wanted to create a brand. So I was really into the product and the marketing. I wasn’t so good at numbers or looking at the business plan so I let that slide. But later you realise how important that is. In the last three years, I’ve been a completely different person.”
But the hardest lesson that she learnt, which she advises all women entrepreneurs is to really get involved with the finances from the start.
A lot of women aren’t taught to talk about money from a young age, so that’s a hurdle faced by them when it comes to business. Pooja Dhingra believes “that the nature of all businesses is to generate money, and as much passion as you may have, eventually you have to figure out how you’re going to monetise it. And I think that’s a very, very important skill for all women to have.”
“It may look glamorous on the outside, but every day brings its own struggle.”
The kinds of challenges she faces today differ from day to day. When she first started out, she was struggling to find the right team and spread the word. Now challenges are about scale and quality control.
However, Pooja isn’t afraid of putting in the hard work. She adds, “I don’t have a normal day. The day can start whenever and end whenever. The kitchen opens at 6 am. My last shop closes at 12 am.”
To her, baking is the only thing that makes perfect sense in a world that is chaotically imperfect. The kitchen at Le15 Patisserie is her favourite place. she is at peace with the buzz of whisking and the aroma of baking. Pooja says “I have to confess it still surprises me how much I feel at home in a kitchen”.
Within 10 months of launching, Le15 was breaking even. And she even ended up adding three outlets in Mumbai, and earning high brand recall in the gourmet dessert business. Started ten years ago with only three employees and a very small kitchen, today Le15 is a team of 100+ and works out of a huge central kitchen.
She is so happy that her bright-hued macaron boxes have turned into dependable gifting options, featuring all-season favourites like passion fruit, Nutella sea-salt & French vanilla alongside offbeat options like rose, paan & pistachio. Requests for customized wedding desserts such as macarons with henna designs and cupcakes matching bridal colours,
have also increased in the past few years.
They also started nationwide shipping, which was a very proud moment for them. The response to their e-commerce venture has been overwhelming. Surat has been exceptional for them. She was a bit apprehensive because macarons have egg in them, so she thought Gujarat won’t perform as well and now they have so many messages saying ‘why are you not delivering to my city’? They’re trying to add more pin codes as they go in. However, to cater to the vegetarian audience, they’ve introduced eggless macarons too!
Pooja is very active on social media, and has many celebrity friends. But her focus is always on the product. Her sales have always been through word of mouth.
“I think people forget that the important thing is the product. My focus was to make the product be the best I can” says Pooja, who apart from creating delectable desserts, also creates drool-worthy Instagram posts.
Today, the she is a force to reckon with in the influencer space, and states that she never takes for granted the feedback from the audience.”
She has now become a counsellor for those who want to pursue a career in food. She is the author of ‘The Big Book Of Treats’ and can be heard in her podcast ‘No Sugar Coat’.
Pooja says “The one goal I believe we should all work towards is to end world hunger. This is a big claim, however, I try to contribute in any manner towards it. We have collaborated with Save the Children India, so that we contribute towards the meals of kids from the sales of Le 15 cakes. Additionally, ‘The Plated Project’ is a unique new initiative that we have tied up with, where the profits from the sale of plates made by local artists, available at our Colaba Cafe, will be going to Save the Children India.”