Rachel Goenka© Rachel Goenka

Rachel Goenka On Taking The ‘Sassy’ Way Into The Restaurant World

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Shraddha Chowdhury

For a decade now, she’s added a ‘sassy’ touch to the culinary space of Mumbai and Pune. The restaurateur, chef and award-winning author shares the idea behind her innovative gastronomical concept and surprising patrons with twists in her menus.

HELLO!: You expanded The Chocolate Spoon Company to over 15 outlets and two central kitchens in Mumbai and Pune — all within a decade! How did you go about this mammoth task?

Rachel Goenka: It’s been quite the journey! It’s funny because when I first registered the company name, the idea was always to be patisserie specific. Restaurants were never part of the plan. But once I saw the property that became The Sassy Spoon in Nariman Point, Mumbai, I knew I wanted to create something that married food and dessert. I was hooked! It’s a highly energetic field where you’re constantly learning and unlearning and encouraged to think out of the box. It’s been a combination of passion, creativity, ambition, a little bit of madness and an appetite for risk. For people like me who get bored easily, I can’t think of a better profession to be in!

H: How did you come up with the ‘sassy’ concept?

RG: ‘Sassy’ has always been an honest concept. The idea was to serve my personality on a plate, rather than try to mimic others. It’s amazing how today, almost everyone calls me Ms. Sassy and says the brand was aptly named after me. I guess when you stay true to who you are, it reflects in other things. The brand’s evolved over time, reflecting how I’ve grown as a person.

H: TCSC completes 10 years this year. Describe your climb up the hospitality ladder. 

RG: Competition is imperative to success. So I’m glad I started my career in a city like Mumbai. Baptism by fire, if you may. I learned a tremendous lot over the past decade, like to be less naïve and trusting and take things with a fistful of salt. The pandemic taught me resilience, perseverance, the importance of teamwork and sacrifices. The only reason we survived as a business is because of the amazing team I have.

H: Any moments in your culinary journey that stand out?

 RG: There are so many! That feeling the first time we turned a profit, the late nights with my team after a busy night, eating anda bhurji with pao, deboning 5kg of lamb because we didn’t have a butcher, crying with my team when restaurants shut down during the pandemic, strategising with them on ways to survive, the relief when business started picking up again... There are numerous such moments, many of which involve my team, for I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.

H: How did you make the switch to F&B from journalism and advertising?

RG: To be honest, I don’t think I ever did. Both journalism and advertising are integral to what I do. I write all the time for newspapers and magazines and even had my own column with The Economic Times. My journalism background even helped when it came to writing my book, Adventures With Mithai.

H: How do world cuisines influence what we find on your menus?

 RG: Our motto at Sassy is “Travel the world on a plate”. While we may not serve a traditional Italian lasagna, since we like to add a ‘sassy’ twist to all our fare, you will find a lasagna with creamed leeks, mushrooms, sweet potato and cheddar. Our menus have such influences from across the globe.

H: How receptive do you think Indian patrons are to European and other world cuisine? 

RG: People are far more experimental today. Everyone wants an experience, especially when it comes to dining out. They are better travelled, and shows like MasterChef exposed them to different cuisines and techniques, making them more receptive to new ideas. Things changed a lot in the past 10 years. The pandemic also taught people so much about food because almost everyone took up cooking as a hobby.

H: Your favourite places to wine and dine. 

RG: In Mumbai, you can find me at Slink & Bardot, Saz or PCO. Overseas, I love Zuma, as cliché as it sounds! I’m a Dubai baby, and I used to be there almost every weekend! Some of my other favourites are in London, like Clay, Chiltern Firehouse for their lobster rolls, Richoux for breakfast, Barrafina, and Amaya for their venison seekh.

H: The chefs you admire the most. 

RG: Overseas, my favourite chefs are Amaury Guichon (everything he does is a work of art!); Paul A Young (he’s one of my mentors and combines the wackiest of flavours); Alain Ducasse; and Grant Achatz (the man’s a food magician!). In India, I love Chef Avinash Martins (he’s uber talented, and I love his passion towards reviving the lost techniques of Goan cuisine). On the European front, Hanoze Shroff is one of my favourites (he’s extremely technique-driven, creative and also one of the nicest people I know!).

H: What’s comfort food to you?

 RG: I love Japanese cuisine, but I’m a sucker for home food. In my profession, we eat out so often and conduct food trials, etc, so home food becomes a luxury.

H: Have you faced any challenges in what’s considered a heavily male-dominated industry?

 RG: This perception needs to change. I’m lucky our industry recognises talent and passion rather than whether you’re a woman or a man. I don’t think that should even be a criterion for being a success. Hard work and dedication is what should make you stand out.

H: Any plans to expand to the rest of India? 

RG: Absolutely. Just prior to the lockdown, we had done extensive work on taking our brands to NCR. Since the pandemic threw a spanner into our ideas, we continued to go deeper into our existing markets, Mumbai and Pune. We are currently scaling our patisserie, Sassy Teaspoon, and have already signed three new locations in Mumbai. New projects in the pipeline include more outlets of our bar brand, Baraza, in Pune and Mumbai, as well as a new Indo-Portuguese concept in the works!

This story has been adapted for the website from a story that was originally published in Hello! India’s September 2022 issue. Get your hands on the latest issue right here!