It all began with the love for good produce and good food. When Ambika Seth and Alice Helme came together in 2014 to form CAARA (Culinary Arts and Research Academy), no one imagined a catering company to spark a culinary revolution. Too tall a claim? Wait till the end of this story to conclude.
When I spoke with them two years back, there was a nervous excitement about the praise their work was receiving and taking it forward, though still exploring where and how. Today the excitement remains, but the nervousness is gone. “The ethos of what we started and what it is today remains the same…it’s only gotten better in all honesty,” says Seth. “Ambika’s become very interested in European food, and I in Indian food,” Helme laughs as we discuss how things have moved with time.
Back in 2014, Helme was catering independently and Seth ran Farmlove, her organic farm. “I was growing stuff that she wanted and she was using that for creating amazing food,” Seth says, and that’s how the partnership began. Helme adds, “One thing I knew was that your cooking is only as good as the produce and you can’t create something great if your produce is mediocre. So, CAARA was founded with me being the chef and Ambika being heading operations and growing the veggies [Farmlove].” Over time, CAARA has diversified into restaurants, cookery schools, delivery, and merchandising.
Their brick & mortar spaces have come up at some of Delhi’s top culture and fashion names such as The British Council, Ogaan, and Nicobar. The cookery school is run out of the main kitchen in Saidulajab and has all kinds of classes—vegan, baking, for kids, training domestic staff, and across varied cuisines. They now also retail their creations like dips, Buddha bowls, pastas, bread and bakes, and more. And lastly, Easy Dining is their short-format catering service.
“When people don’t want the frills of catering but still want the service of our food, they can have that in a smaller format. With Easy Dining, you have freshly prepared food delivered for just Rs 20,000, which is easy when hosting 10-15 people. You get a properly trained, presentable CAARA chef who sets everything and trains your staff before leaving,” shares Seth. Their endeavour to put quality ingredients and good food on the table hasn’t gone unnoticed, as seen at the recent Bhane Halloween party hosted by Sonam Kapoor and Anand Ahuja, and have worked with Hermes and Paro by Goodearth amongst others.
While CAARA can serve any cuisine you like, be it Japanese or Peruvian, Indian is something they’re looking to tap now, especially for weddings. “Our Indian is not a typical Dal Makhni. Recently we did an Indian spread, Aloo Gobhi was made into a casserole; traditionally the taste is same but the presentation was very different. If you want your traditional Paneer Tikkas, then still don’t come to us, but if you want Indian food with class, taste, presentation, then you try us,” says Seth. Along with weddings, they’re also looking to expand beyond Delhi. “We have two models, cafe, and coffee counter, the latter is very easy to plug & play, so we’re looking to open few of those. We’re also planning a very big format café in Delhi by March 2020. Once we achieve that here, we will then look to Bombay and Bangalore.”
They may have started with a niche market for their product, but over time it has grown, and Seth shares that experience. “People are more educated now, they’ve experienced and travelled a lot. We’re dealing with a much more evolved clientele.” As for the industry, while she appreciates the influx of standalone restaurants and chef entrepreneurs, the scene is not as bright at the training end. “I don’t think there’s a good enough affordable institute in India. In terms of both chefs and service staff, their base has been so raw that the experience that they got is thanks to their employers. The education is not strong enough for them to graduate and come and be confident on the floor; the curriculum teaches things taught 40 years back, then they join a hotel for a 12-18 month induction programme to become Commis 3 (lowest level), to become Chef de Partie will take 10-15 years.”
That being a concern for most of the folks I speak within the industry, it’s great news that CAARA intends to start training classes for staff. “Our idea is to open up a stricter culinary school, where a Commis 2 can come in, get the hotel to pay (invest) for you, and we teach the basics you should’ve learnt from day one, and you’re put back into the hotel as a Demi Chef de Partie. It will be a three-month advanced programme.” When it comes to produce, one of their main focuses, Helme recognises the change. “India’s at a very exciting moment right now. When I started, I was hungry for good vegetables. Now that’s all changed with hydroponic farming and different cheeses coming in. Focus on produce has expanded so much and quality is improving every day.”
Growing the catering, taking restaurants to other cities, and starting more courses at cookery school, there’s surely a lot on the CAARA ladies’ plate. However, that doesn’t take away from their keen eye for quality. “To date, for all our catering events, we have some sort of involvement. If the client chooses a menu and I think it doesn’t work, I’ll make them change it. I want to know what the occasion is, who are the people, and why they decided to do the party. I want to understand the clientele and ensure the menu is one that they’ll enjoy,” Seth says. At the same time, everyone knows that no product does well without a sound team behind it. “It all boils down to having a good team and I’m super proud of them.”
As CAARA grows, so do the two women. “I have personally become more educated, in terms of the materials used, people I’ve worked with…definitely an upward journey in terms of being stronger, less sensitive, and not taking everything to heart. Initially, you just want to please everybody, and I’d become so dejected if something went wrong but ultimately have to deal with it and just strive to do better,” Seth shares, and the last four words describe their CAARA journey perfectly.