Meet Indian masterchefs who have cooked up some sweet American
AN icecream maker on sale was all it took for Smita Vasant to embark on a journey that has only brought her sweet deals. After 15 years in the health insurance industry, the mother of two decided to venture into unchartered territory: making icecreams. "In 2001, I started experimenting at home with different flavours starting with, of course, kesar pista icecream. Friends who came over were always treated to my icecream concoctions and one of them suggested I supply it to Indian restaurants. I thought it was a great idea and started exploring it," recalls the California-based Vasant.
In April that year, Vasant launched a company called Neemo's Exotic Ice Creams after her two daughters Nikita and Monica. "We started with four flavours, including our signature flavour — Saffron Silk — which still remains the most popular. In August 2005, we opened Saffron Spot as a retail location and added other dessert and snack items," says Vasant, who grew up in Mumbai and moved to the US at the age of 23.
The fact that Vasant's Saffron Spot was on LA Weekly's list of '99 Things to Eat in Los Angeles Before You Die' points to the success and popularity of her venture. Women like Vasant are rediscovering food in a different way — taking off from traditional cooking duties, they are exploring food as a profitable avenue and turning it to their advantage.
Take Divya Gugnani, who launched Behind the Burner, a culinary media brand that packages expert tips, tricks and techniques in areas like food, wine, nutrition and mixology, and presents them in a variety of forms: videos, articles, blogs, TV appearances and expert interviews. "I had grown up cooking throughout my life, and I went to culinary school after college to learn more. I never thought I would make a career of it. But I started thinking about the possibilities of blending my passion for business with my TV experience and love for all things culinary when I felt an entire generation of hip food and wine enthusiasts were not being served by the current media offerings both on TV and online," explains Gugnani, who grew up in a Punjabi household in Springfield, Illinois. "We also give our readers exclusive discounts on products and ingredients that chefs swear by. Readers can also keep up with the latest culinary trends by subscribing to our blog, where we review a new dish, drink or product every day," she adds.
The 34-year-old now lives in Manhattan, New York, with her husband but says she owes a lot to her Indian roots. "My grandmother was an outstanding cook and she expressed her warmth and love through her food. Being Indian definitely influenced my food philosophy, but my travels have given my recipes a very worldly lens. I always love to use the ingredients and techniques I learn from different countries and cultures."
Vasant gives due credit to her Indian-ness for the success of her business. "Being of Indian origin, I feel that I understand the flavours and textures better — how something should look and taste to get an authentic flavour. I occasionally get requests to try something that's not Indian or not something I grew up with and I just don't have a good 'feel' for it. Although I may enjoy it if I ate it somewhere else - my palate is distinctively Indian. I will not use an ingredient that is from another country if it does not taste 'Indian' enough for me," she points out, maintaining that her flavours are meant to be loved by all, including Indo-Americans. "We have customers of all nationalities that visit us for our 'Indian' flavours - American, Russian, Chinese, Filipino, Mexican and others."
Both women continue to add new elements to their businesses while keeping an eye on the most important aspect - good food. "Our ice cream, kulfi and falooda are the best offering. The icecream is lower in fat content than most gourmet ice cream and rich on flavour. We do not skimp on any ingredients or processes with the dollar in mind. We just create the best and hope that people will come and enjoy my creations. Although some of our products contain flavours, I use real ingredients as far as possible, which distinguishes the taste of our products," emphasises Vasant.
Behind the Burner, too, is a booming venture, and Gugnani stays on top of things. "We continue to grow and build our content and talent with each coming day. We have expanded our presence and filmed in locations nationwide as well as internationally. As a small business, we track different metrics, including the number of views each video on our site receives as well as on other online media properties such as YouTube, DailyMotion and BravoTV.com," she says.
Meanwhile, Vasant is hoping to take Saffron Spot to a whole new level. "I would hope that Saffron Spot would be a franchise at some point. We already get constant requests for it; I would also like to see it in mainstream grocery stores," says the ice-cream maker, who has mentored a businesswoman from Rwanda who is into ice creams. "She was with me for one week and we went through all of the aspects: From making ice cream to marketing it," explains Vasant, exemplifying how an interest can lead to a business venture. As she says, "Like most Indian women, I just happened to be cooking for my family and loved doing it." — WFS