An MBA in finance, a diploma in culinary arts – Chef Suman Lodha’s intriguing career moves

Written by: Minal Nirmala Khona

(April 28, 2024) Born into a family of doctors – her mother is a gynaecologist, her father an orthopaedic surgeon, and her brother, a radiologist – Chef Suman Lodha spent her childhood in Udaipur and later, in Dubai. She had no taste for medicine as a career and preferred numbers instead. In an exclusive with Global Indian, Suman recalls, “With both my parents at work when we were in Dubai, I used to get really hungry after school. Once, I made some papdi chaat for the first time on my own. I was so happy that it turned out well and that my parents liked it too. After that my mother started teaching me basic cooking as a life skill.”

Dubai and Beyond

Dubai was a great experience for Suman to learn about different cuisines. She says, “We are Jains and my mother always fed us healthy food. She didn’t even know how to fry a puri! We’d never had potato chips or samosas or soft drinks at home. In Dubai I got to learn about hummus and tabbouleh and other Mediterranean dishes. Whereas in Udaipur, even pizzas were served with cabbage and cucumber as toppings!”

A love for numbers led Suman to get a commerce degree, and she got a job with Aditya Birla Finance Ltd., which brought her to Mumbai. She’d bake brownies and cakes in a pressure cooker in her free time and share them with her colleagues, who loved the desserts. However, she felt something was amiss despite the great salary and challenging work. “I furthered my education with an MBA specialising in finance and a minor in marketing from the prestigious Symbiosis Centre of Management and Human Resource Development, in Pune.”

After her MBA she got a job with Citibank but the feeling that something was still missing, and the pressures of targets, pushed her into quitting her job. She recalls, “At that time I was reading a book called Moong over Microgreens by Venkat Iyer and was fascinated by organic farming. I wanted to start my own farm on a piece of land we owned on the outskirts, but water scarcity made me drop the idea.”

The Eureka Moment

She started growing her own herbs and vegetables at home in a kitchen garden of sorts – peppers, jalapenos, habaneros etc. Observing how happy she seemed with cooking, her brother suggested she attend a baking workshop being held at the Whisk Culinary Institute in Mumbai. “I attended a workshop on cheesecakes and it was love at first sight. I realised this is what I wanted to do and after that, I attended all their subsequent courses over a month – biscuits, breads, and cookies. My parents were still in Dubai and they suggested I come there as I hadn’t lived with them for quite a while. In Dubai, I joined the International Centre of Culinary Arts and did a six-month course in baking and patisserie. I got an internship with the St Regis Hotel, where the Executive Chef was a Filipino lady. For the first two weeks, she asked me to cut the fruit for the buffet. So, for three hours, I would only be chopping melons. She saw that I did not complain even once and moved me to croissants after that. I enjoyed the internship and was even offered a job, but I didn’t want to stay on in Dubai. To date, we are in touch and her job offer still stands.”

Moving back to Pune, Suman joined a little patisserie called Wild Sugar. Here she learnt that she didn’t have the luxury of time to perfectly glaze a cake. “The staff there was making 80 cakes a day and I had to speed up. But, as an intern the pay was less and I was struggling. I went back to the corporate world because I wanted to build up a corpus fund that would help me start my own venture. I joined Bajaj Finance and had to look after 31 branches across three cities. That job taught me how to understand consumer behaviour. Then Covid struck and it was a bad phase with deaths in the family and comorbidity. We all were back in Udaipur and though I worked remotely, I wanted to do something of my own.”

Suman started a little patisserie started from a small room in her family home. “I named it Mokaya and the eggless desserts were a big hit as Udaipur is a predominantly Jain market, and no one was making desserts in this segment. Within three months I was making profits and people were going crazy over the eggless tiramisu and cheesecakes I made. The Paan Cold Cheesecake with fennel inserts flew off the counter, when I served them at a wedding. As did the Pink Cheesecake I made with the pink dragon fruit – it had no sugar or additives. Even the sourdough breads I made were quite popular. Soon I needed to hire someone as I was getting so many orders. I hired a girl called Prem, who had only studied till the eighth standard and could not speak English. But she was a quick learner and learnt how to make butter cream, asked for books to read and watched videos. We opened a little café after Covid outside with two tables, and I even had uniforms stitched for us. She cried when she saw her chef’s coat because she had never seen her name on anything but her Aadhar card. We then took on two more interns who worked under her.”

A Passion for Teaching

Life though had other plans for Suman. A feeling that she was stagnating, and marriage brought her back to Pune where she managed the café long distance with frequent visits to Udaipur. Things didn’t go smoothly however, and she decided to close it down. She currently works at the Symbiosis Institute as a Culinary Demonstrator, where she teaches bakery and patisserie, marketing, costing, digital marketing and event management. She clocked over 200 hours of teaching last semester but enjoys what she does.

Ask her which ingredients she loves to work with the best and she says, “Anthony.” Then clarifies saying, “Anthony is the name of my sourdough starter and he is my favourite. He is four years old and I use him across the spectrum to bake cookies, and breads including a gut-friendly, gluten-free one which has no yeast. I also like working with dark chocolate as it is versatile and a very forgiving ingredient. I make focaccias with it, and am currently working on bringing sweet elements into bread.”

While she wants to start a family soon, Suman believes in not making too many plans, given the many twists her own career has seen. With the unending support of her husband, Ketan, through her career shifts, she would like to start a larger version of Mokaya in Pune some time in the near future. Till then, she plans to stick with her passion for teaching and baking, with Anthony in the foreground helping her create baked goodies.

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