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Verve People
August 21, 2018

When Pastry Chef Pooja Dhingra Took A Pottery Class

Text by Sadaf Shaikh. Photographs by Shweta Desai. Styling by Ojas Kolvankar. Location Courtesy: The Pottery Lab at Temperance, Mumbai

Ceramic artist Rekha Goyal tries to find out if the Le 15 founder can work her magic on clay the way she does with batter

A cab ride in the bylanes of Bandra has me staring introspectively at my hands, wondering if they could ever produce objects of beauty. My musings are not of the metaphysical kind — I haven’t been gripped by some fervent need to create — but perhaps have more to do with the two women I am on my way to meet. Ceramic artist Rekha Goyal and pastry chef Pooja Dhingra await my presence at the rather idyllic Temperance, a multilevel fitness studio-cum-activity centre where the former conducts pottery classes for the uninitiated. It takes me some time to locate the venue, enveloped as it is by verdant foliage. I wonder if Goyal has deliberately chosen this location to set up The Pottery Lab — a creative space where amateurs can get acquainted with clay sculpting — seeing how a sense of quiet and isolation galvanises those with artistic inclinations.

Today, the sculptor has veered away from her regular practice of taking a batch of seven students per session; instead she allows her complete attention to be commanded by Dhingra, her apprentice for the day. But can the pastry chef’s dexterity with cakes translate onto ceramics is something that everyone is secretly wondering. Dhingra examines the fresh moulds that have been created by Goyal’s students, taking particular interest in the handmade cups. Her inspection is interrupted by the artist who asks if anything specific catches her fancy which is when the Le 15 Café owner admits to harbouring a penchant for crockery — trivia you would know if you’ve been to the eatery in Colaba and sipped hot chocolate out of their grey-blue cups. An instant camaraderie is sparked between the two women and before we know it, they are talking nineteen to the dozen about pots and pans and everything in between.

We learn that Goyal’s first brush with pottery was the age of 12 as an after-school activity which ended up having so much of an impact on her that she decided to pursue it as a career. “As a professional artist, the decision to specialise in ceramics has taken me from the community kilns in Dharavi to rural potters’ homes in the deserts of the Kutch; from creating artworks for luxury hotels to working with children with special needs,” she declares. Dhingra, on the other hand, had her first tryst with baking when her aunt invited the then six-year-old into what was essentially considered adult territory at the time — the kitchen — to bake brownies. “I think it was the magical transformation of taking basic ingredients and watching them change into something else entirely. I baked through school and college and kept getting better at it. I pursued law for a very brief two weeks since my first week in law school made me realise I was not cut out for it. Running my own cafe was something I had always dreamt of doing as a child so I moved to Switzerland to study hospitality. Working in the kitchens there I realised that I had an inclination towards the pastry section. I then moved to Paris to study at Le Cordon Bleu and worked there for a while, but I was keen on starting something of my own. I returned to Mumbai when I was 22 and set up Le 15 Café soon after — it’s been eight years since and it was the best decision I ever made.”

As a loyal patron of Le 15, I see Dhingra at the café almost every other day, making sure that things are in order and on the days that she isn’t in, her Instagram stories are a testament to the fact that new dishes are constantly being whipped up in the kitchen. Goyal also prefers a certain method to her madness; she splits her time between the studio — where she works — and the lab, where she conducts workshops. “I would love to be able to say that, as an artist, I work when I’m so inclined, but that would be far from the truth. In reality, I don numerous hats — I am a thinker when I’m working on a new concept or artwork, a teacher when I am at The Pottery Lab and a manager when I am operationally handling the enquiries for new work. At the end of the day, I’m absolutely spent both physically and creatively.”

I watch Goyal and Dhingra trade some more titbits about their trades as the studio is readied for an experiment with the pastry whizz. Could all those years of glazing and shaping cakes have triggered any sort of adroitness with regard to clay? We have to wait for but a few moments to find out.

In the meantime, I steer the conversation towards a much more philosophical line of questioning — what does ‘art’ mean to the two women who are so deeply ensconced in their respective crafts? Goyal is animated in her response, “To me, art is life as it gives me the wisdom to understand myself, my emotions and the world around me. It makes individuals, as well as communities, more sensitive and open-minded. Working with my hands and sweating it out at the studio is exhausting in a very satisfying way as it is a space that demands complete honesty and dedication.” Dhingra echoes her sentiments when she pipes in: “Art is all about fishing out an idea from some cranny in your brain and working towards making it come to life. If I’m travelling to Japan and I come across matcha, then I’ll begin thinking of ways to infuse it into my desserts. The process begins with pre-empting what the fusion will taste like when combined; then I move on to imagining how my customers will experience it — what’s the first flavour they’ll taste, what textures they are expecting and how it will feel on their palate. All these thoughts and so much brainstorming between team members make up a single spoon of the desserts we serve at Le 15 and it is amazing to watch people’s faces and hear their little squeals of happiness when they take their first bite of pastry. It humbles me to be able to spread happiness with something that I’ve created with my very own hands.”

The sculpting paraphernalia is in place and the wheel is, quite literally, set in motion. The clamour at the shoot reduces to a muted buzz as everybody’s eyes are on Goyal and Dhingra — who have now assumed the roles of teacher and pupil. The two women begin kneading the clay and Dhingra breaks into a slight smile as she notices that it is quite similar to readying pastry dough, the realisation boosting her confidence. Goyal then proceeds to centre the clay as it rotates on the wheel and a mould begins to take shape. She beckons Dhingra to follow suit. This is when all semblance of the artistic flair that we were hoping she would exhibit goes out the window. For no sooner does Dhingra take charge of the mould than it flies right off the wheel as if possessed by a malevolent spirit. She smiles apologetically and Goyal brushes off the gaffe, stating that beginners take some time to get acquainted with the process before they perfect it. Encouraging Dhingra to take another shot at the wheel, Goyal centres the clay once more but the mould seems to have a mind of its own as it sails through the air yet again, landing on the floor in a soft thud. Both artist and chef burst into peals of laughter as they stare amusedly at the limp clay at their feet.

Their personalities are reflected in their work — Goyal’s designs are an expression of her understated emotions while Dhingra’s confections aim to impress in both taste and appearance. The artist explains, “I like making art that is beautiful and serene. There is dynamism in simplicity and that is the ethos of my work.” The chef adds, “I like to stay in touch with my customers through social media, especially with my latest initiative called The Sunday Baking Club as it helps me connect with aspiring bakers all over the country. For instance, one of my followers from Hyderabad will message me panicking about not being able to source cream cheese and I’ll placate them by suggesting an alternative. It’s nice to have everyone on one platform so we can help each other.”

By now, the chef has cheekily gotten Goyal to complete the mould on her own and they get down to pulling the clay with their fingers to give it a human touch. This, Dhingra is reasonably good at, accustomed as she is to salvaging cakes that don’t reconcile with her original vision. The form of a little teacup reveals itself and we heave a sigh of relief as both master and student are pleased with the results. I have one parting question for the two women as they seem anxious to return to their respective areas of expertise — what is the best compliment they have received as ‘creators’? Goyal’s eyes light up as she says, “Therapists recommend my pottery classes to clinically depressed people and it’s amazing to watch them completely transform during the two hours they spend at the studio.” Dhingra, who is looking at launching her confectionery shop in a novel format called The Petite Café — a mini version of the cafe in Colaba — besides having a book on eggless baking in the works, adds, “It warms my heart when people leave notes for me on tissue papers after eating at the cafe. Many a time, patrons of Le 15 as well as my Instagram followers send me gifts that they’ve made themselves. And since they know that I like to read, they send across titles that they think I would enjoy. All the love is so overwhelming!” On that note, the day’s activities are at an end and both artist and chef take one last look at their combined handiwork before walking out of the studio as if to say ‘Mischief managed’. Can’t say we disagree.

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