If you haven’t heard of Le 15 Cafe in Mumbai and watched it take over Instagram with drool-inducing food photography, eating is probably not one of your big loves. The parent Le 15 Patisserie was opened by Cordon Bleu-trained Pooja Dhingra a decade ago and it introduced macarons to the country.
And after seven years of success, she ventured into the cafe space with her Colombian friend Chef Pablo Naranjo Agular, opening the first Le 15 Cafe in Colaba in 2016. In three years, the cafe has won over the maximum city with its fun menu and dishes like Parmesan and truffle pasta, ‘Pooja’s Omelette’, and ‘Pablo’s Waffle’ done to perfection.
Half-Colombian half-Hungarian, born and raised in Bogota, studied at Le Cordon Bleu Paris and worked in the city for 10 years, and in India to run a cafe — Chef Pablo quite literally brought the world to the table, and that’s exactly why people keep returning to Le 15 Cafe. His innovative and experimental cuisine was at the heart of the cafe.
“Of course, I have a very strong French structure in my cuisine, but I just blend everything I love. I love experimenting. I love creating new flavours. I don’t like calling it fusion cuisine because for me all the food in the world is fusion — chocolate was discovered in Latin America and it was nothing before they discovered America; Italians are known for pasta but it actually comes from China — so I just enjoy exploring the cultures and cooking.”
His kitchen at Le 15 Cafe worked strongly on the idea of ‘cravings’, with a change in menu every six to twelve months. “I like to work with local produce that is available throughout the year, for a matter of consistency and availability. I try not to bring in imported products as much as I can, the only two imported things on my menu are parmesan and truffle oil from Italy.”
All this worked towards putting Le 15 Cafe on the food map. And even as he moved on, and travelled through Asia before he finally returns home to Colombia after 13 years, he is clear about the vision for his food, perhaps not surprising for someone who knew at age 14 what he wanted to do with his life.
“I grew up with the power of food. Both my grandmothers brought families together on lunches and dinners, and probably the best childhood memories are of eating good food with family around a table, so that made me fall in love with it,” shares the chef who packed his bags and left for France at 18 to study cooking. “I decided to study where the greatest chefs and an obsession for food is. Food made me leave behind the things that I love the most in life, which is my family, and that’s why I say I’m more committed to food than anything else. Everyone says that was very brave of me, but actually I was very naive…I didn’t know it was going to be that hard, I was like ‘Hey I want to go to France, I can go, I will go’!”
What followed was working under Michelin-starred chefs, starting his own restaurant in Paris, meeting Pooja when they were both at Le Cordon Bleu, and sparking the friendship that would years later lead to their collaboration in Mumbai. Seasonal, local produce, and a daily changing menu was the ethos of his Parisian restaurant, which gained traction quickly.
What then brought the chef to India? “A really big fallout with my best friend. So at that time, it made sense to take a break.” Pooja had been calling him to India to work with her, and it seemed like the right time to answer to do that. “I told Pooja I’d come, but want to go back to Paris after a month and to start my own thing. I’d found a place and was already building my business plan.”
However, that’s not what fate had in store. Few months turned into a few years, many kitchen wins, and a great number of Instagram tales. “The minute I landed in India I realised that maybe I was trying to tell myself I was happy and successful in Paris but had to work on myself a little bit. I wasn’t as happy as I thought, wasn’t as accomplished, wasn’t at peace with myself, and I saw the possibility of exploring more of that here.”
Other than finding himself, what made Pablo stay back was the drive to see his cafe running in the best possible way. “Pooja suggested we take a holiday to see how the team does without me. We went to Japan, and when we came back, it was not exactly as I left them, and I got really, really worried. Pooja suggested I stay back, and it took me half an hour to say that I’m staying!” Pooja and Pablo have a camaraderie that can brighten up any room, and the two friends are examples of how to run a business together.
His advice for anyone looking to start in the food industry is to, “Know what you want, what really moves you as a chef, what you stand for, and the most important — be ready to work like a motherf****. For 10 years that I lived in France, the least amount of work I did was 15 hours a day.”
He also wishes for more time to be devoted to staff training, and abrupt restaurant opening and shutdowns to be averted. “Everyone thinks they’re a restaurateur now. A restaurant isn’t built (only) on passion. It has so many other aspects. Before you risk launching into the restaurant business, just make sure you’re ready to commit to it.”
While India in itself has not been a challenge for him, “India has given me a challenge every single day — hygiene, consistency, punctuality, being passionate about your work, sourcing products, licensing, garbage management, security, even having a proper WiFi connection!” he says. What enamoured him about the country was that though there may not be logic to all the hows and whys, somehow it all comes together and manages to function well regardless of the chaos.
“Even though I didn’t want it to be my home, now I can comfortably say that I love this country. India for me is…there’s no logic to it. India is like picking up a Swiss watch, which is a symbol of perfection, imagine you open it and remove half of the pieces and you replace those by broken pieces, rubble, plastics, and close it, and you don’t know how but the watch still works to perfection. There’s are a lot of things that don’t make sense, and you don’t know how, why, or who does not care enough to change it, but somehow it works.”
Producer, director, editor: Pranav Bhasin
Hair and makeup: Jean-Claude Biguine
Concept: Megha Uppal
This article was originally published on May 13, 2019, and has been updated since.