In October 2020, Jheel Datta decided to bake her own birthday cake, experimenting with a floral cake. The family loved it. Soon, the baker from Silchar, Assam, started getting requests for cakes, mainly through word of mouth. She launched a venture, Bake You Smile, and by June 2021, was delivering two-three cakes every day. On Valentine’s Day this year, she managed to complete 17 orders, all by herself. The icing on the cake, quite literally, is that Datta is self-taught.
She’s not the only one. Home baking became quite a thing during the pandemic. In the North-East, anecdotal data suggests many took the plunge without any formal training, finding their way through trial and error. Some have gone a step further, hosting classes, even setting up pastry outlets. Their foremost inspiration, and boost, comes from social media: YouTube, Pinterest, WhatsApp and Instagram. “I absolutely love to follow Bake with Shivesh’s tutorials on YouTube,” says Datta, 17, referring to the Gurugram, Haryana-based self-taught baker, food stylist and cookbook author.
It’s a thriving ecosystem. For the younger lot, like students, it is a paying hobby. For others, it has grown into a full-time business.
A cake is the centrepiece of any celebration. Home bakers understood this quickly when shops had to shut down owing to rising cases of covid-19. “It is probably the only business that didn’t get affected as no one really stopped celebrating milestones. Come to think of it, the market continues to thrive as each one of us is a consumer at all times,” says Guwahati-based baker and trainer Mitali G. Dutta of BatterLives (formerly Food Sutra by Mitali).
As someone who has been helping bakers to launch businesses since 2015, she mentors around 1,000 students every month through virtual workshops. Dutta says most of her students are scattered across the North-East, except Sikkim, and belong to the 25-45 age group.
“Home baking has caught on as it achieves faster results and offers room for customisation, unlike chain cake shops that run on standardised menus,” she notes. But it can be a struggle if you don’t have professional training. “There is a thin line between self-employment and entrepreneurship. The battle for them usually involves issues such as confidence building and scalability, which only come with some sort of hand-holding. In the end, they take more time to hone their skills and up their game,” she says.
Time, finance, even health, seem to be the primary hurdles for such bakers, who choose to fall back on YouTube for learning. For Aprile Medo, a baking course didn’t seem feasible initially. “I had time constraints, plus financial problems. However, I do wish to enrol someday,” says the Dimapur-based baker, whose venture Mello Bake specialises in minimalistic cakes. Her Russian medovik, a laborious, multilayered honey and sour cream cake, has a loyal fanbase. “There are umpteen recipes of medovik on YouTube that make the task easier, although I mastered it through trial and error and came up with my own version,” she adds. Two years ago, Medo created an Instagram account, which has helped her average four orders a day.
Social media platforms play a significant role in their journey, from sourcing recipes to understanding techniques. In Shillong, full-time home baker Nazarene Diengdoh of Naco Bakes remembers bingeing on American YouTube tutorials by Man About Cake and How To Cake It. As someone with long-term disability, living away from family to pursue a course was not an option. “I believe things that people who went to pastry school would know easily, we would learn slowly and after making a lot of mistakes,” she says.
When Vini Swu started Sweet Infusion in Kohima, before the pandemic, she would take six-eight hours to finish one cake. Today, she takes about four hours. Being self-taught allows her to learn, unlearn, and relearn. Swu, who has a government job, runs the home business on weekends, making about 50 cakes a month. She hosts workshops too and hopes to pursue a course someday at Bengaluru’s Lavonne Academy, considered one of the top institutes for pastry arts.
Some have taken the next step and opened physical outlets. “At first I was nervous but then I noticed I was no longer dependent on pre-orders, which typically is the case with a home-based business,” says Monika Khangembam, a human rights activist who launched the all-women Chaakubi Bakery in Imphal in 2020 to empower women affected by armed conflict in Manipur.
Khangembam, who still functions out of her home kitchen, now has a five-women team for baking, logistics, delivery and marketing. She has no technical knowledge of baking, and draws inspiration mainly from Korean and Japanese pastel themes. She also goes all out to champion local produce: Her cakes get their flavours from passion fruit and pineapples. Most popular, perhaps, are her banana cake, bakes made of perilla seeds, and the geographical indication tagged chak-hao, the state’s famed black rice. “Troubleshooting is my biggest challenge and most of the time the internet has no answers for technical failures,” she says.
These bakers have digested one lesson, though. As Diengdoh puts it, “Making mistakes is not necessarily a bad thing.”
Rituparna Roy is a Mumbai-based writer.