Talented. Passionate. Driven. And very creative. These are some of the epithets I use to describe our next guest in the Woman of Substance series. Not only does she embody all these qualities fully, she does so with her trademark grace and humility. This is Avanti Mathur, pastry chef & owner of Sweet Nothings, a pastry shop in New Delhi, India.
Computer Engineer to Pastry Chef. How would you describe this very unusual transition from a left-brained analyst to a right-brained artiste?
AM : I think its sounds more unusual than it really is – I think at the end of the day everything just develops you as a person in both thinking and actions and it finds a different way to manifest itself throughout in life. The things closest to my heart in my software days were analysis, design and Quality Assurance – and all of those are so relevant even as a Pastry Chef!
How was your time at the Culinary Institute of America? What would you say were the top three skills you learned while you were there?
AM : To put it succinctly, they were two of the best years of my life! From shaping me as a person I think my time there added a totally new dimension and layer to my personality and attitude. The three most important skills I think I learnt there were the importance of mental mise en place, striving for nothing short of perfection and the basics of and science behind pastry and baking.
What was the first thing that surprised you about creating pastries?
AM : What surprised me the most was that even though pastry and baking is often seen as a very creative, visually appealing and tastebud tantalizing creation which is a work of art, it is actually very logical and scientific like a chemical reaction. Every action, temperature and treatment of ingredients affects the nature of the finished product!
Who is your role model? Is there anyone in particular who influenced you, when you were interning at various restaurants in the country?
AM : I would say my mom and grandfather have been big role models for me. Chef Randy Gehman, who was the Executive Pastry Chef at the Four Seasons at Dallas whom I interned with and Chef Dieter Schorner, Chef Fransisco Migoya and Chef Weber at the Culinary Institute of America were big influences in my culinary journey.
What is your baking aesthetic? Where do you get your ideas for your creations?
AM : I believe in classical techniques and honest food which nourishes the body and satisfies the soul. I believe that the magic lies in using the best quality ingredients one can lay their hands on. I think my travels, memories and exposure to different cultures, people, foods influences my creativity the most. I also love talking to our guests and understand what they had in mind or get some information from them which would make their orders more meaningful to them!
Do you think a chef could do your job? What would happen?!
AM : I think a chef could do the job 🙂 I’ve come across chefs who could whip up some pretty mean desserts too!
What is the strangest dessert you have ever made? Or a cake perhaps that had very unique ingredients?
AM : Haha! Well, I worked for an Indian Latin fusion restaurant as a consulting Pastry Chef and I did some wacky stuff for them. One of my personal favorites was a Chanaa Chor Garam Brittle I did – Chanaa Chor garam is a savory, spicy street food which is pounded and flattened and heavily spiced. I love a dessert with a touch of salt to it with the complexity of the spice added to it, it soon became my favorites.
Worst kitchen disaster?
AM : One of the kitchen staff lost their balance while putting a 3 tier cake in the car and trying to save the cake and plunged his fingers into the cake. Not a very fun day!
What is your signature dish? Or favorite pastry to make and eat?
AM : Our signature dish is Salty Pistachio Buttercrunch. If I were to make dessert for myself it would be Chocolate Eclairs or Lemon Tarts.
Do you have late night cravings like most of us ?! What comforts your sweet tooth then?!
AM : I love eating as much as I love baking and I have an insatiable sweet tooth! I constantly get late night cravings – I love all sorts of desserts and living in India after a long time spent abroad I especially enjoy Indian desserts and mithai. Freshly baked homemade banana bread to Sooji ki kesar kheer (Saffron Semolina Cream) which are both quick to make are my frequent saviors!
Tell us about the journey from student to pastry shop owner. How did you establish yourself?
AM : Student to Shop owner has been quite a journey including moving cities, countries and having a baby in between! However, I think it was much smoother than most people would have had it for the simple fact that I have been very fortunate working with the top chefs who teach you so much more than just executing recipes, which I think is the easiest part of being a Pastry Chef. The chefs I worked with constantly reinforced the concept that your food should talk for itself. Starting my bakeshop in Delhi was quite an experience and I was told repeatedly that in Delhi I would be nothing if I did not have a great PR and marketing initiative behind me. However, with no PR and marketing firm, Delhi has been very kind to me and I have let the food talk for itself.
What is your favorite ingredient to work with?
AM : Citrus is my favorite ingredient which I find can convert any mundane thing to something spectacular whether it’s a simple sugar cookie dough to a confection.
What three pieces of pastry equipment must every baker have?
AM : Whisk, Microplane, Weighing Scale
What are the challenges of being an entrepreneur (and a woman) in India?
AM : What I find most challenging is the attitude of the masses towards women, especially women chefs. A lot of people find it very hard to take instructions from a woman in this male dominated industry. However, I see that changing, slowly yet surely, with more young, dynamic women chefs in the industry.
If you were still in the U.S. which restaurant/hotel would you have liked to work for?
AM : I think more than a particular restaurant or hotel chain, there are chefs I would have loved to work with. Chef Fransisco Migoya and Chef Weber will always be some of the chefs on the top of my list!
How do you handle the stress that comes with owning a business? Do you have an outlet?
AM : I listen to music, read, travel solo and recently have discovered that yoga and walking are therapeutic for me. Also I am extremely blessed with family and friends who are by my side no matter what!
Any advice for our readers who may be amateur bakers?!
AM : Follow your dreams! Use the best ingredients and do what you love!
Thank you so much for your time Avanti! Happy Holidays and wish you a very successful 2018!