Over the last few years, Dipesh has transitioned from his IT career to hospitality. He is a passionate, self-taught baker, cook and photographer. Apart from working as a hospitality consultant, he is now the Chief Baking Officer and Bread Coach at The Enthu Bakers teaching people to bake artisan breads. When not in the kitchen, you will find him travelling on his motorcycle looking for a muse for his camera.
Editors Note: Dipesh’s journey has had stops in several cities around the world. In this column he shares with us his unique interpretation of them through his special lens tinted with the colours of food, redolent with the aroma of adventure.
I had worked the wood-fired oven and churned out pizzas till we ran out of dough. It was an open kitchen with the wood-fired oven as the centerpiece. There was a constant curious crowd around it. I overheard someone say – “Bhaisaab, when we went to Italy last year and this is exactly how they do it there. Now our Bikaner too has authentic Italian food”. He was munching on a slice of Paneer Tikka Pizza.
Sitting in the dark under a tree across the street I watched the staff wrap up after the opening night of my new café. It was late, 11:45pm on the 14th of December 2014. There is little nightlife in a small town; maybe late-night walks to your favorite paan-wala to catch up on gossip. The market was deserted. The only light was the glowing bright orange signage – “Sammy’s Pizza Café – The Best Pizza in Town”. Technically, it was the only pizza place in town. I could hear the guys urge each other to hurry so they could go home. This was day one and I was dead tired. This was not going to be easy.
Two thoughts ran through my head as I sat in contemplation. First, be careful what you wish for. I had spent the last 20 years moving from one big city to another – Bangalore, Philadelphia, New York, Detroit, Chennai, and Delhi. Often, the pseudo idealist in me wished to move to a small town, open up a small quaint café and “live the life”. Like a typical NRI I never did anything towards making that happen.
Suddenly here I was in a small town with my own cafe. A year-and-a-half earlier my father was diagnosed with a terminal illness and the doctors had given him 6 months to live. He wanted to spend his last days in Bikaner, so I left the US to come take care of my parents. The move to the city where he and Mom had romanced in college did him good. He had his grand daughter by his side; he shunned all medication and went on to live a comfortable 4 years.
People tell me that I single-handedly changed Bikaner’s restaurant scene. I don’t think I made that big an impact but I would like to believe that I had a small role to play.
The who’s who of Bikaner had come for the opening – doctors, businessmen and army officers. I had worked the wood-fired oven and churned out pizzas till we ran out of dough. It was an open kitchen with the wood-fired oven as the centerpiece. There was a constant curious crowd around it. I overheard someone say – “Bhaisaab, when we went to Italy last year and this is exactly how they do it there. Now our Bikaner too has authentic Italian food”. He was munching on a slice of Paneer Tikka Pizza.
That brings me to the second thought running through my head that night. While I was pursuing my MBA in Philadelphia in 1998-99, I worked at a pizzeria on campus for rent money. We were to research and write about business models for an assignment. My professor and mentor suggested I do my assignment on the pizzeria. I wanted to write about Dell or FedEx. Powelton Pizza was a small local pizzeria and the job was menial, paying $2 an hour to work in the kitchen and delivering pizzas, I argued.
‘If it pays the bills, respect it”, he said. “Whatever job you do, learn it well and try to be the best at it. Knowledge is never wasted, I can assure you.” Heeding his advice, I completed my assignment on the pizzeria and aced it. In the next year I learned everything about the pizza business. I went on to top my MBA and be the best pizza cook and delivery guy at Powelton.
That advice stuck with me and has seen me through many difficult times. “Knowledge is never wasted’ is why Sammy’s Pizza Café’ was born. A senior IT professional has no job options in Bikaner. There were no malls, multiplexes, bars or restaurants. My savings were depleting fast. I needed to be absolutely sure of where I would invest my time and money. One thing was certain; I could not leave my parents. The only other thing I knew well was pizza.
The secret of great pizza is in the flavor of the dough and that’s why you spend the most time and effort on it. Yet, when people make or order a pizza they layer that good fermented dough with lots of sauce and load it with cheese and a variety of toppings. You can’t taste the dough anymore. Treat everything you put on your pizza base as a topping, including the cheese. Just a little bit of everything and not more then couple of veggies or meat on top so you get a distinct flavor in every bite. It will also cook well. That’s what we did at Sammy’s.
Within the next two years in Bikaner, we were celebrities. People would shake hands and talk to us wherever we went. My parents’ friends would praise the cafe and they were proud of me. We were one of the first cafés in Bikaner. Soon Dominos set up shop and a host of youngsters started their food ventures. Food bloggers followed suit and #instabikaner was born on Instagram. Now there’s Zomato and Swiggy delivering from over 200 restaurants. What an amazing transformation of a city in just three years. People tell me that I single-handedly changed Bikaner’s restaurant scene. I don’t think I made that big an impact but I would like to believe that I had a small role to play.
I went on to build a pizza chain in Mumbai called ‘PizzAah! District’, with four outlets in the suburbs. I am now a hospitality professional helping people realize their entrepreneurial ambitions of creating their dream café, bar, restaurant or resort. I’ve always been helping people learn to bake breads at home, which I am doing online now with ‘The Enthu Bakers’. It is one of the most satisfying projects I’ve undertaken. I call it Bread Therapy. You can find me having bread conversations on Twitter and Instagram.