We love chatting to people who are excelling in their particular fields, and so when we had the chance to interview Pooja Srinivasan, we leapt at it! Read on to learn more about this pastry chef who loves experimenting with flavours.
If you grew up in Chennai, chances are that freshly baked goodies from Cakewalk feature in your childhood memories. This Chennai institution – which has now expanded to Bangalore – first opened its doors in 1990, and has been supplying the city with a steady stream of birthday cakes, pastries, and savoury snacks ever since.
For Pooja Srinivasan, whose father started the restaurant, Cakewalk has always been the source of many happy memories. She says, “It was my second home, my dad used to take us to work with him, and he never made it feel like a burden or a strict place of work. How can you when you’re around desserts all the time? It always felt like such a happy place to be, and when I went away to college and came back, I just appreciated it so much more!”
The Road To Success
It’s hard to believe that Pooja’s life plans initially didn’t include the food industry at all. She studied Management at the University of Melbourne and when she returned to India, she found herself trying to find her niche. She explains, “When I graduated I wanted to start something on my own. Unfortunately, due to a lack of knowledge, experience, and dedication, it didn’t see the light of day. I decided to apply for jobs, and that was a disappointment because ultimately your degree is just seen as what it stands for, not where you studied or your experience.”
Disheartened, Pooja found herself contemplating her options. She elaborates, “One day I decided to go to Cakewalk and just take a breather. And while I was there – drowning my sorrows very pitifully in a chocolate cake – I was just looking around and actually observed how the store functioned. I suppose as an adult I noticed more than just the desserts, I noticed how it operates and I thought to myself – this is what I want to do. Why am I looking everywhere else when the experience I want to gain is right under my nose?”
Choosing A Different Path
She began working at Cakewalk and over time her goals changed, “Now, during this time I still wanted to pursue my MBA; so I kept telling myself it’s just for a short time – until I finish my GMAT and apply to colleges. That changed over the course of a year for several reasons. One, I loved going into work and I realised you couldn’t take it for granted so I wanted to continue with Cakewalk, and that led to my second realisation – I was only going to be seen as my dad’s daughter and that wasn’t going to change unless I had enough qualifications to overshadow that. So I changed course and it was the best decision of my life!”
Pooja’s time at Le Cordon Bleu, Sydney, one of the world’s premier hospitality institutions, was a life-changing experience, “It was magical! I was petrified! I kept thinking – this wasn’t my original plan, how am I going to make this work? And I used to bake occasionally at home but this wasn’t a hobby! And many, many such thoughts kept running through my mind, but it turned out to be magical!”
The Confidence To Start Making Changes
It’s not easy to make changes to an already smoothly running operation. It’s a risk that many entrepreneurs hesitate to take. But Pooja, who had spent time working at Max Brenner (a reputed global chain of chocolate restaurants), was ready to give it a shot.
She says, “Post LCB, I felt most comfortable in the kitchen. I also worked at Adriano Zumbo and Max Brenner’s while studying so that experience gave me the confidence to implement what I wanted to. With regard to the menu – I wanted to update it. Even now the idea with the menu at Cakewalk is that no confectionery is off limits or ‘too exclusive’, so we boast of a very wide range of flavours.”
While making waves at Cakewalk, Pooja was also working on another project – her first foray into restauranteering – Crisp Cafe. She says, “The cafe culture was just kickstarting and when I was given the opportunity of a blank canvas, I wanted to create a space that was casual and quirky, and just plain relaxed without any pretence and ‘Crisp’ was born from that. We (my sister had a very big role in helping me start it) had an incredible support system. That helped, but it was still a little scary to take on that kind of responsibility.”
She reflects, “I must emphasise on the great support system I had. I’m sure my journey was a little less challenging than most people. Starting something new always comes with its challenges and I think the most challenging was constantly having to go up against how things were already done. It was a new concept – a new thought process that was added to a 25-year-old recipe that worked.”
The Joys Of Being ‘Second Best’
Today, Crisp Cafe is thriving in two very different locations – Chennai and Dubai. The welcoming space is everything she wanted it to be and reflects Pooja’s love for experimentation. Between the delicious food and the lovely interiors, it’s easy to gloss over the people working tirelessly behind the scenes.
But for Pooja, the real joy is in the small things. She says, “My favourite part of the job is when a new creation is at the counter, and you see a curious customer trying it and coming back the next time for more!”
She says, “My dad has always said to me that we have the second best job in the world – people come to Cakewalk for an occasion, we are lucky that we get to deal with customers looking to celebrate. That’s always stuck with me. If you’re wondering why ours is the second best job in the world, the first is reserved for people whose job is to travel the world and experiment with food!”
Well, with a philosophy like that, are you surprised that Cakewalk continues to move from strength to strength; and that Crisp Cafe remains a favourite with food lovers? We certainly aren’t!
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