Women On The Cloud: How Manjari Chowdhury Rustles Up Exquisite Masterpieces

Women On The Cloud: How Manjari Chowdhury Rustles Up Exquisite Masterpieces
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She has lived in Mumbai, Delhi, and South Africa. Now settled in Kolkata, she runs a gourmet food service whose dishes will have you swooning

Piyali Sen
March 10 , 2022
12 Min Read

Manjari Chowdhury began her relationship with food in 2019, even though she had been wanting to do it for quite some time after participating in a "baking sort of a fest and not contest". Somehow it worked out well as she got to know that she had a passion for creating works of art in her magnificent dishes. She also found the right place to set up her cloud kitchen in - Kolkata, a city which has a market for it. You can WhatsApp on 8017509773 for ordering her dishes. 

We caught up with her after sampling some of her exquisite food.

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You have quite a repertoire, from Middle Eastern dishes to lamb in wine jus and Southeast Asian comfort food. Have you trained ever professionally?

No, I have not trained professionally, but I have invested in a lot of books. These are not just merely cookbooks, many of the books in my collection are used in culinary schools. The other thing is - I get very bored with my dishes or working on one cuisine, so I usually would prepare for my cloud kitchen whatever I would prepare for myself.

One thing I don’t like is the phrase 'home chef', it’s almost saying like my entire career in market research is home market research. It’s a cloud kitchen, as I charge people hefty amounts - as much as restaurants would - and people do pay me for it. Also, there is an entire debate about home, and how mothers should not be taken for granted, but mine couldn’t be taken for granted and didn’t cook either. So, I do this professionally and people pay me because they think I deserve it. I am not a chef because a chef is supposed to be able to instruct a bunch of people to cook in the kitchen and I don’t have that skill because I didn’t go to a culinary school. At the same time, I am not a home chef. I have a home, I’m lucky enough that the kitchen is large enough that I can cook for 15 people every day if I want to. 

You mentioned that it had once taken you a whole night to perfect a dish - you did about eight tries, right? 

The good thing about food is that you have a basic sense of it. The cake has got to be soft, it's got to be spongy. And then, of course, it depends on how well you understand food. So to me, it just did not turn out well. It did not the first two times. So I carried on till I got it right. And today, with the amount of information you can have over the Internet, anything is possible, honestly. But, yes, your basics have to be very right. Technique is technique, and you have to work at it till you get it right. You cannot skip - skip one of the steps or try to use some electronic device for it, and you will not get the same effect. I learned it by doing it with my hands, because I was doing it for myself. I think that's when your base becomes very strong. I mean I learnt it that way without using any electric tools and the thing is, you don't need that unless you're doing it in volume. But when you learn to do it with your hands, you understand why the cake rises. And once you understand the reasons behind it, then your technique kind of falls in place as well.

I do use tools, but these are tools that are traditional tools used by bakers. One of the first things I remember I invested in was a huge balloon whisk. For some of these cakes, you do need a proper balloon whisk, which is very central. I mean, balloon whisks also have types, the size matters, basically to build up the air. 

A lot of  people just put everything in an electric tool and that's it. In modern times, a lot of people get interested in cooking, but you just can't put everything in a blender and have a cake come out that is tasting good. Baking is science. Once you understand the basics, you are good to go. It's a process for which you don't need all the tools in the world to learn things. Honestly, you need the most basic tools. 

When I lived in South Africa, it was strange because the entire gas there was electronic. You don't have any home way of cooking! So in India, traditionally, because we don't have ovens - kitchens don't come with an inbuilt oven, you have to buy an OTG. I remember we had the most amazing oven growing up in Delhi. This was from the brand called Racold, but they don't make them anymore. My mom and dad used to cook and used to make the most amazing pork roast in that. Nothing very dressy, but basic. Pineapple upside down and all, but amazing. Well, memories of food do that to you. They just open new windows down your memory lane.

 
 
 
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Tell us about the ingredients you like to use.

Whatever is freshly available, I use nothing processed. There’s no processed cheese or anything in my dishes. I have handpicked my dealers, and have been working with a few that have been with me for years. Now it’s a part of my researched data as well. Another thing is that I am as environmentally cautious as one can be, so I would use callebaut (chocolate) which is used by most bakers. For coffee you don’t need to use Columbian coffee; you can use it but it’s not environmentally sustainable. We have a variety of great coffees coming in from Southern India. We have a lot of local brands for ingredients and I was really surprised as the quality is at par with the best brands. I have made this shift recently from callebaut/ to these local brands but they are equally expensive - you are not paying for the brand’s name, but for the excellent quality. If I taste something with compound chocolate - sadly compound chocolate is used in most cafes in Calcutta - I would just understand that this is of poorer quality. 

I was very happy with South Africa in terms of food as everything was very fresh, the population is quite less and hence, everything is locally sourced and sustainable. However, I did not start a business there so I don’t know how that functions there, but in general, there was access to fresher food. Here in India, I would have to charge a premium for anything that has dairy cream because the most commonly available cream here is non-dairy. And it does also contribute to plastic packaging. I take these things very seriously as I was surrounded by people involved in solar energy, so I became cautious of not adding to the plastic waste around.  

Also, I must mention that my delivery person also helps me tremendously in getting hold of ingredients as well - Sajad Hussain. I am lucky to have him.

 
 
 
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Tell us more about the pop-ups you do.

The pop-ups happen because for some of these dishes, it is impossible to take just one order and go ahead. For example, for the dish with roast pork, I need to prepare chicken stock in bulk. You can’t do it in smaller amounts because it needs to be for four to five hours on the stove. So, in those cases what I do is that I do a pop-up. Many people ask me if I want to open my restaurant, but I like doing everything on my own and setting up a nice table. Even though I enjoy the good restaurants, there’s something about a well-set table in a homely setting that makes the food much more cosy and warm. You know where are you ordering from, so you can trust that even if there’s a heavy meal, you won’t have any digestive problems. So, sometimes I plan pop-ups, and other times they just happen. One of my customers would request something and I would put up a post about me preparing it, and other customers would also join in on the request.

Can you deconstruct some of your dishes? How do you get that perfect balance and taste? 

I tend to pick an element from all the food I have eaten. Thus, the congee I make can be called a cumulation of all the congees in Southeast Asia I have had, while being my unique creation. I get influenced from here and there but then the dishes are where I put it all together. For dishes like Lamb Hummus, Quiche Lorraine, Walnut Arguilla Blue Cheese Salad, or Lemon Tart, I try to make it from scratch - using no packaged purry or sauce and very rare use of any readymade condiments. It simply shocks me to see the packaged and artificial alternatives being so widely used here. I like to make it all on my own and I can also customise it. For example, with the blue cheese salad, if your kids don’t like blue cheese, I can switch it with some other cheese. And for the lemon tart, how else would you make it, if not from scratch - the lemon curd. Once you make the lemon curd, you bake it in the shell and that is why it is so good. Hence, it’s all about the technique, ingredients, and recipes that come from the books which they don’t usually use in restaurants. 

I had a Bengali food pop-up with ghee bhaat, and all,  and I prepared it with proper ghee and in the right amount. Thus, it was not overflowing with oils but has that richness to it. Also, I love Kashmiri cuisine, so I make rogan josh sometimes because a lot of people around me like it. But in rogan josh, you cannot use tomatoes. I use the cockscomb flower which I take a lot of pain in procuring, otherwise there is no point in making it. I do have a few southern Indian dishes in my menu in terms of mutton but I focus on what I know the best, and that is northern Indian dishes. 

Your food has a certain subtlety that makes it stand out from everyone else on the table. Where did your initial encounters with food and cooking come from? 

Well, the thing is my mom was one of the few working women in Calcutta in her time, and she absolutely had no interest in cooking whatsoever. My father was in performing arts, and a mountaineer. Hence, both my parents showcased how one can be extremely passionate about what they want from their lives. So, as my school lunchbox was a very regular one, it inspired me to indulge in cooking early on. My father used to get me ingredients but I had to use them and cook on my own as I was not allowed to bother the family cook with my special requests. Because I grew up in a place, where being passionate about something was always given more importance than monetary returns, I became so passionate about cooking. 

Who was your inspiration? 

So there is this French chef named Raymond Blanc whose show used to come on BBC and he had a different kind of warmth with which he talked about dishes. For instance, on a Valentine's Day special, he said you have to love someone so so much just to make this dish for them. It might seem simple, but that stuck with me because that’s what food is about - bringing and gathering people together around that dining table. Another chef would be Rick Stein - because he travels through the globe and tries cuisines so that he could make something inspired by it and provides alternative ingredients to as closely imitate the authentic dish as one possibly can. What is important is that it shows how much he respects other cuisines. You know when a foreigner tries to make Indian dishes and butchers it, I absolutely hate it but with him, it shows if you respect your own cuisine you will respect others as well.


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