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“We don’t bullshit” says Chef Sanjana Patel, who’s shaped India’s answer to Willy Wonka

What's the secret sauce to staying relevant? La Folie's chef spills the cacao beans in an exclusive feature with The Lab Mag.
Chef Sanjana Patel

“I’m very traditional in the way I do things. So 10 is just a number for me,” says Chef Sanjana Patel before we part after an hour-long interview last week. It’s odd to start writing a piece with a statement that she said at the very end of our chat. But I could not have got a better opening because these words reveal lot more about chef Patel.

Ahead of La Folie’s 10th anniversary, we found ourselves excited to visit The Classroom by La Folie—their chocolate factory and workshop space in Mahalaxmi. The minute we entered, we were taken aback by a strong whiff of chocolate and we saw the process of how the beans are sorted, churned, how the melted chocolate is smoothened to get that silky texture, tempered and put down in moulds with the required topping. Later, the moulds pass through a vibrating surface to ensure there are no air bubbles and finally pass a tunnel where they are frozen to get the chocolate we love.

We crossed La Folie’s classroom where Chef Patel hosts master classes and workshops and were guided to another section of the factory. As we saw fresh sourdough loaves rise in the oven, executive chef Hemant Gadam tells us, “On average, we bake 200 loaves a day.” The pastry section had pictures of five desserts they made as reference for the chefs in that section.

La Folie's pastry, chef sanjana patel

Photos: Chef Sanjana Patel

A visit to the farms

After this tour, we went back to their café-like space to sit down with Chef Patel who looked tired but excited to talk about her 10-year-old brand. As she put on her chef’s coat, chef Patel is quite candid and is telling us about her cacao farm visit, “It’s harvest season. I’m at the farm for almost six months in a year,” she says; and her face lights up when asked how her trip was. “We wanted to take them [the team] around one or two farms we work with; so we took them to Mangalore to understand how bean-to-bar chocolate is made,” the chef says. “Some of them had never been to a cacao farm or didn’t even know what a cacao pod looks like. But this was from the point of view of post-harvesting which is basically how the cacao tree looks, how the cacao pod is harvested, how it’s fermented and dried.” Chef Patel’s way of celebrating her brand turning 10 is to celebrate the people of La Folie. While her farm visit was educational for the team, it was also a way to relax in what one could easily tell is the chef’s happy place.

Chef Patel travels extensively to source her cacao. Her favourite memory is from an international farm. “It is the trip I took down to Belize in Central America. We had to kayak to go across the river to Belize and the farms that we visited were in the Amazon area, making it very inaccessible,” she says. Chef Parel reminisces a Mayan cacao drink and a cacao ceremony-like experience from the farm. “They welcome chocolatiers from outside into their area with this ceremonial drink, followed by a performance ceremony which is a dance and they serve us food. Later, they show us the process of the farm. For me, this was very intriguing and interesting,” she adds.

Chef Sanjana Patel at cacao farm

Photo: Chef Sanjana Patel

Hearing chef Patel’s stories, we are reminded of a first-person account we read by consultant Mallika Chandra about her experience of visiting the cacao farm with chef Parel. The article mentions a cacao juice – essentially, the juice that is drained from the pulp of the beans – and other things they tried and we were eager to know more. Upon gentle probing, chef Patel opens up about her visit to the Chempotty Estate in Mysore as well. “I was blown away with the way Mr. Thankachan [Chempotty] and his wife [who manage the farm] greeted and showed us around.” She recalls eating a meal which was made from ingredients grown in the farm on a banana leaf. “In the end, they gave us this rum cake and a cacao ladoo, which was ground cacao beans mixed with a little bit of jaggery and some fruit pulp of the cacao.” Describing the cacao juice, chef Patel says, “It was fresh and tasted like lychee, [had] some floral notes and it had a little of custard apple, pineapple and banana notes.” She informs that locals also make cacao wine and vinegar.

Feeling a little sombre, she tells us that there are bad memories from farms too, but she was in no mood to get political. So, we steered the conversation to talk more about her decade-long brand, and how they have managed to stay relevant in the chocolate market in India.

The need for La Folie

Chef Patel admits that after coming back from France where she studied at the École Grégoire Ferrandi in Pari, she had no intention of starting La Folie. But she noticed, “Nobody was taking a creative approach in dessert and chocolate making including entremets [French layered pastry]. So, my immediate goal was to start a goal. I never wanted to be a home baker. I’m a risk-taker and so I didn’t want to take it slow.” Chef Patel is confident when it comes to her skill and approach. Perhaps, that is why she is touted as the Pastry Queen of India.

La Folie chocolates and pastries

Photos: Chef Sanjana Patel

Thus, 10 years ago, the chef dived head-first into an industry in India which was still nascent and took a creative angle. “For example, I would make my version of the French Opera Cake or an Ispahan [a delicate French macaron-based dessert].” She admits that people didn’t know what she was doing 10 years ago and believes that La Folie was a game changer. “I would say the revolution of French entremet cakes started because of us.”

Chef Patel knows that she is one of the best in the industry and doesn’t need someone telling this to her. She has a sense of confidence in the way she speaks about herself and her brand, but isn’t arrogant. This would explain the annual revenue of La Folie according to Tracxn, a global startup data platform to be $670K as of March 31, 2022.

Then v/s now: the gradual change in the industry

Speaking about how the industry has transformed since she first opened, chef Patel believes that the mentality of most pastry chefs and chocolatiers wanting to work abroad has changed. Many, now feel confident to start a business here. “Some of us have pushed the boundaries by being accepted better internationally as chefs, showcasing our talent creatively by doing international shows and being featured in international magazines and even teaching.”

Another factor that has led to the change is the pandemic. “People have become more confident in practising their skills and now made their hobby a career. The consumer has also now become well-travelled and well-aware of their taste, making it challenging for us chefs to come up with something more creative and new.” The onset of a ‘healthy’ lifestyle amongst the consumer adds pressure on pastry chefs. “Pastry and chocolate can never become healthy. It can only become healthier,” she says.


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What if she opened La Folie now?

Chef Patel is candid about admitting what works, where she could improve, and what she would have done differently if she got the opportunity now. “I will always believe in giving an experience to the consumer,” says the veteran pastry chef. “If I had to restart La Folie now, I think, I would go into backward integration where I will incorporate the experiences of the farmers, taking the consumers to the farms, explain the process and give them a live experience—be it in the form of a workshop or a tour—to not only make it inclusive but to also tell our story.”

Another focus would be on giving educational information not just about their products but also about chocolate and pastry. For someone well aware of her quality and kind of products, Chef Patel doesn’t mind admitting that the brand needs to be more approachable.

Ethical is the way forward

The chef loves sharing information. In an older interview, she busted the myth that bean-to-bar is not an exclusive concept, but merely a process mass chocolate brands could be practising too. But what sets craft chocolate brands like La Folie apart is that acquire better quality beans by working directly with local farmers, trade ethically, and work with farmer partners to grow better quality beans while also conducting regular quality checks.

Chef Patel had a sense of pride (and rightfully so) when she mentioned that La Folie is as ethical as possible. “I will be transparent with you,” she says, “In our industry, people often pay the farmers around two or three months after buying the beans from the farmers. Not only do we pay them immediately but we also have an ongoing account with them where we pay them in advance for beans we would buy in the future. For instance, if commercial and other brands are buying beans at ₹250-300 via middlemen, we eliminate that process and directly reach out to these farmers and pay at ₹500 but we ensure our quality is the best.” The brand also ensures that farms they work with also employ women to empower them, and they don’t work with farmers who employ children.

Chef Sanjana Patel at cacao farm

Photo: Chef Sanjana Patel

The quest to find a new flavour

As bean-to-bar is the truest form of the chocolate, it makes sense that La Folie is careful about maintaining the quality at the farm level itself. What we can’t wrap our head around is their unique flavour profiles.

“Our flavours are modern Indian. The Indian diaspora and internationally, people are looking for unique concoctions and flavours but at the same time they are looking at their cultural heritage. A flavour like saffron kahwa would be loved because it has the spice and masala but is still global.”

Speaking about how she finds new flavours, chef Patel reveals that her travels and nostalgia contribute a lot while conceptualising a new flavour. She elaborates, “A lot of my inspiration comes from my childhood and the time I spent with my grandmother,” says Chef Patel. “She was a baker, she would make her pickles and also had a kitchen garden!”. But now, flavours are also campaign-forward: For Diwali, Christmas and other festivals, they come up with flavours that would complement the celebrations.

Chef Sanjana Patel

Photo: Chef Sanjana Patel

Translating a memory into a piece of edible art and ensuring the consumer also knows the idea is a tricky path. “If it’s a memory then what was the story and inspiration behind it? How is that memory translated into your ingredients and flavours?” she questions. She gives an example of one of her flavours inspired by the first time she had a single malt whiskey.  “So we collaborated with Amrut, got their barrel and stored the cocoa beans in it for a year. So, there’s no whiskey in the chocolate but it’s just the smokey flavour,” she explains. “I try to revive my memories so a lot of my flavours come from there.”

It seems like experimenting along with storytelling is the way to go. That is how La Folie has won an award for their Green Mango and Naga Chilli bar and their Silk Route flavour.

Cracking the Indian market

After spending a decade in the industry, Chef Patel has managed to crack the code for Indian markets. “The thing with India is that everything comes in small bites and they love it—it’s like a treat.” She also feels that the concept of artisanal mithai has made a comeback. “So the key is to pack up flavours in a treat format. Something like a Ferrero Rocher works because it is crunchy and acts like a snack.” Having something that works across age groups is what works best for Indian families. “[Chocolate] bars are individualistic,” she says. “Whereas boxes of chocolates, bonbons, ganache, and snacking chocolates like coated nuts are something which a family can enjoy. That’s where you need to understand what your consumer as a group is enjoying.”

Speaking more on what consumers like, chef Patel believes that brick-and-mortar chocolate shops don’t make sense. “The economics don’t work,” she states as a matter of fact. “The problem is that people don’t want to buy chocolate. People are going to find you online because the marketplace has become delivery-oriented. What experiences are these stores selling?”

She admits that even La Folie’s Kala Ghoda stall is similar to this and that would like her shops to have an experience—be it in the form of a ‘make your chocolate bar’, a small curated menu, a little cacao ceremony, some wine, cheese and chocolate tasting or even some storytelling. She feels that brands need to their communication skills in terms of storytelling and provide some experience.

Chef Sanjana Patel

Photos: Chef Sanjana Patel

The secret to staying relevant

Despite it all, La Folie has managed to stay relevant for a decade and chef Patel believes it’s because they are consistent in their quality and what they do. “We don’t bullshit,” she states. “We keep coming up with seasonal products and we don’t over innovate or get over creative. We try to understand what the consumer wants and deviate around 10-15% which is appreciated.”

It is mainly through word of mouth that they are still holding top ranks in the industry. “We have built a kind of trust, love, and quality and each year we keep making improvements in our sustainability by growing trees and publishing our transparency reports which is appreciated by our consumers.” Chef Patel believes that the brand name is enough to open doors for them now.

La Folie is now dreaming about sailing abroad in the next four to five years. “We also see ourselves having our fermentation stations with farms, opening a chocolate factory in the south and scaling up our chocolate operations,” she adds.

She hopes and wishes to sell off the company in the next 10 years if it does well and retire. “I planned to not do this forever,” she says, “I want to do things such as writing books, teaching and getting into the academy as a chef,” she concludes.