Pooja Srinivasan is more than just a pastry chef. Growing up with the family business, Cake Walk, which was started in 1990, Pooja discovered her love for all things pastry and eventually found her happy place in Crisp Cafe, a beautiful spot in Chennai that serves the most comforting food and dreamy, delectable desserts. Earlier this week, we paid a little visit to this humble, and happy place to have a lovely chat with Pooja, who owns the Cafe and is responsible for the dreamiest dessert concoctions that you simply cannot say ‘no’ to!
Tell us a little bit about your culinary journey and how it all began.
“If I look at it from a very sentimental way, I can say that it started when I was two, then. I’ve been part of a family that’s involved with the pastry side of things. I grew up with Cake Walk around and it was always exciting. I got to see the other side of it, because my dad would bring me to Cake Walk whenever there’s an occasion and especially during our holidays, so it was like an extended home for me with more fun, and yummy desserts around.
When I went to study management, I came back and I was extremely lost and quite frustrated because I didn’t know what I wanted to do and I was trying to work out something. So one day I just decided to go to work with dad. I told him I just wanted to go to Cake Walk with him and not think about work. So, I just wanted to go there and see how it is. And then I started going more often and I really liked it. I started to take more interest in all the other aspects of it, and dad told me that if I was actually interested to get serious about it and study. He said, “Be the best you can, and see where it takes you.”
I was really resistant with the idea at first because I thought, I’m not a baker, I don’t know how to do this, I can just eat all of it. But then it just happened.”
What was the experience like and how did that help after coming back here?
“School was amazing, because from basic to superior, they just teach you everything, and when you’re interested in learning, they go all out. It was an amazing experience. I still miss school sometimes, I look back at some pictures and think, I wish I was there. But, it was great, and part of the program that I did had me working for six months, I worked for three months at Zumbo’s while I was in school and that was interesting experience. And where I really learnt was at Max Brenner’s Factory, where we didn’t have a head chef so it was basically learning on the job, learning everything you could learn about the kitchen. It was a fast track experience that still helps me every day. Hands on kitchen experience will help you anywhere you go, and it was incredible. Over time hours, weekends, no breaks as such, it was really good.”
“I studied further after that and got my hospitality management degree which teaches you the other side of the restaurant and not just the kitchen side. I decided to come back after that. We had just opened a Cake Walk on Kothari Road then. We had one outlet in Egmore already so we had just opened this branch then and it was a great point in time where I could just introduce a lot of products which Cake Walk didn’t have, and it was always known for particular products. So there was choosing and editing some of the products that we could work with and it started with that. I was very nervous but at the same time it was exciting. Crisp happened after that, and with Crisp, because it was a little more hands on, I was more confident about what I wanted to do and introduce here. We’re a lot more experimental here.”
How did Crisp Café come into being?
“Crisp Café. Well, the space was available and I had just graduated from school then and come back to India. Dad was in the process of starting something new and he asked me to take this space and do what I want, and take it as an opportunity to do what I like, with no restrictions at all. And then it just happened!”
“I just wanted a place that was easy and comfortable and welcoming, a place that you’d miss. This is that happy place. That’s the idea behind Crisp and the idea behind all the products at Crisp. Crisp was just an idea that just happened. I wouldn’t say it’s something that’s been planned since forever, because it just kind of came into being from an idea. The place has such a vibe that you’d just have to open up to, with no restrictions.”
“Ultimately, food is about sharing. It is a form of just relating to one another, that’s how I see it. One of the things that dad told me a long time ago while starting this was that it’s a place where people come with a happy emotion, coming here to celebrate, coming here because they’re happy. And I’ve just always seen food like that, the thought has always stayed with me. ”
Did you always know this was what you wanted?
“Yes. I always focused on the pastry side of things, because that’s what I studied and that’s what I focused on. When this happened it was very new for me, like a new territory and everything. Because I had never been too focused on the cuisine part previously. I would mostly be around things that are sugary, sweet, and so on. So even if you look at most of our products on the menu, they are dessert focused, with the menu being very limited but these are the ones we do best and that’s what I want to offer here at Crisp. I guess I’ve always known, because this feeling came to me once I graduated from University, and I haven’t looked back since because this just felt perfect.”
Crisp Café got popular quite fast, soon after it opened. Did you expect that immediately?
“Not really. We didn’t do any promotions for it, we didn’t do anything big or have it out there because that’s not the vibe of Crisp, and it’s not who I am. It’s always been through walk-ins and word of mouth, and I think genuinely word of mouth is the best sort of promotion, and I wanted the café to just speak for itself. So whatever we had to offer, it was there for people to decide what they wanted from it and whether they would come back. The place also attracts the younger crowd and word does spread fast, good or bad.”
You’re a female restaurateur, which is pretty rare. Why is it that female restaurateurs aren’t as prominent as male ones?
“It’s really funny, right, because you keep hearing about how women can be the most amazing cooks ever, but when it comes to the kitchen, it’s a very frustrating double standard. I actually made a video quite similar to that. The point is, it’s still a male dominated world. Cooking – anyone can do it. We have things like Junior Masterchef now, so do we start discriminating against the children? Societal pressure exists, and ultimately it’s like, “It’s great, you can do this, have fun with it, but when it comes down to serious stuff, just do it at home.” And that’s quite insulting because to many people to do these at home, like home bakers, that’s their job, that’s their profession, and they’re doing the same things, just in a different atmosphere. But it’s a field that’s changing slowly. There are a lot of women restaurateurs coming up, so hopefully soon, this idea will change.”
Being a passionate lover of food, how would you describe a good meal?
“A nice warm and cheesy pasta, and a chocolate-loaded dessert after, on a rainy day. It has to be raining!”
Do you have a personal favourite or two from your own menu at Crisp Café?
“Yes. The sweet potato fries. Actually, all of them. They’ve gone through many trials and I’ve tasted them all many times, it’s hard to pick.”
What do you do in your free time?
“I’m always experimenting in the kitchen, coming up with new desserts and crazy ideas.”
You have a blog and a YouTube channel, The Sarcastic Pastry Chef. What inspires it?
“The Sarcastic Pastry Chef is basically an online platform of everything I Iove about pastry. So, it looks at two things which is the recipe side of things and also the other side of food which is the eating, the environment, and everything involved with enjoying the food that you make.”
“At the beginning of this year, I started thinking about food in the digital space, also as another way of getting messages across. Ultimately, all this is about getting what you want to say out there, and I just needed a platform to do it. It started off really well and it’s great fun because I get to try all these really quirky recipes, and I get to be extremely sarcastic, so that’s great. It started off in the kitchens where there were a lot of things I wanted to tell my chefs and head chefs but couldn’t tell because I just had to do what I had to do.”
“The YouTube channel is just about bringing people together. If you look at the kind of videos, recipe videos are one kind, and then the other side is about the kind of community that you build when it comes to food and the kind of reactions, situations, and emotions involved. It’s all about the senses that you feel, and that’s the idea behind those videos.”
What advice would you give to a young cook just starting out their career?
“I’d say, just go with it, if this is something you want to do. Don’t hold back, and see where that takes you.”