Ode To Abu

Monday, 4 February 2013

A Smash Hit Showcase & A Humane HBG

So at last, the much-awaited 'sweetest' event in the city arrived - the day of the Baker Showcase Edition 3! Cars and crowds converged at the airy & spacious venue - the school auditorium of Asan Memorial School, Anderson Road, Egmore.

The first couple of participants arrived just before 1pm - Karthika Shravanthi, Shivangi Daga (both bakers) & Uma Krishnan (chocolatier) began to set up their wares and decorate their tables. By 1.30pm there were quite a few customers walking around and ready to buy while the rest of the bakers were still halfway through setting up! The event's timings were 2pm - 6pm. It was sheer torture for volunteers, bloggers & photographers to wait through that pre-event time where you can only 'see, touch, but cannot bite'! By 330pm, most of the tables were almost empty, thanks to Chennai's gastronomic addicts generously loosening their purse strings! 

Needless to say, the show was a stupendous success that far surpassed earlier showcases in terms of sheer number of customers, visitors, photographers and even sponsors. As mentioned in my 1st post about the event, it was indeed a grand gala of gargantuan proportions! What added to making it even more interesting was the sheer variety on display. This time, biryanis and badams shared elbow space with bagels and brownies! The debate on FB rages on about which ones were more popular. Innovative items on the menus this time made a lot of news - Hummingbird Cupcakes, Gajar Halwa Cupcakes, Bourneville Mint Brownie Sandwich, Nolen Gur Sandesh, Zaffrani Badam ka Meetha, Noorjehani Lauz Khajoor, Meen Pathiri, Chicken Lasagne, Oreo Cheesecake Cookies, Baklava, Fruit Flavoured Chocolates & Iced Teas, Pickles and much more!

Zaffrani Badam ka Meetha
(Photo Credits: Shyma Mathai - The Inconsistent Chef)

The school staff that were helping to arrange tables, clean up etc., were quite excited to see a different kind of event at their premises compared to the usual school related stuff. They even said there should have been TV crews and channels to cover the crazy cake carnival that had stormed the place in a span of under 2 hours! :-)

Banana Butterscotch Trifle
(Photo Credits: Shyma Mathai - The Inconsistent Chef)

More than the high of having a sold out success of an event, with obvious profit margins having created records and marketing skills having succeeded all around, my observations here are about something else. Many a moment popped up that warmed the cockles of my heart and brought a smile to my face. People-watching is a great education and an eye-opener. So here's my take on the humane aspect of the event - the people behind the scenes. Some, quite literally.

Lebanese Lavash & Burnt Garlic Hummus Dip
(Photo Credits: Shyma Mathai - The Inconsistent Chef)

KP Balakumar, HBG cofounder and one who runs a fairly tight ship at the HBG forum is not a stock analyst for nothing. The man knows his bulls and bears well and is also as well-informed about baked goodies and the bakers who bake them! He sure knows how to take the whole thing by its horns, if need be ;-), and turn it into yet another feather in his cap. With an eye on the promotion of the event as well as the logistics, he looks out for the bakers (the whole reason he started HBG in the 1st place!). Tweaking the popular adage a bit - HBG's Baker Showcase success proves that behind a bunch of successful women there can also be a man!!

I saw him offer a generous amount of money to the helpers (sweepers, cleaners, watchmen) at the school venue at the end of the day. Here's a man with a large heart in more ways than one. Nothing new there - it's an established fact now considering the forum and the showcase have been practically free of cost for aspiring home-bakers since it began. Many home-baking businesses have sky-rocketed since participating in earlier Showcases and via their presence on the FB forum. The HBG forum has offered the home-bakers plenty of visibility. It was started as a platform wherein they could receive support, learning, growth, improve their skills thanks to the healthy competition, ask queries, learn new recipes and share their baking know-how and expertise. 

In turn, they also benefitted from the promotion of their FB pages and websites and photographs of their baked creations. They enjoyed retail opportunities via the Bake for Sandy's contestfree marketing and publicity during the Showcase events via newspaper articles, blog write ups, radio shows and the works!!! These women are so fortunate to have all this given to them practically on a gem(s)-encrusted platter! The Baker Showcase event goes leaps and bounds ahead of the forum itself. This event gives them a fantastic opportunity, experience, an opportunity to meet and understand their customer base, let people know who they are by distributing their business cards and brochures etc. Earlier Showcases were sellouts too and this has probably raised their expectations. In their excitement, some go overboard and bring too much stock. If everything does not get picked up, they are disappointed!! (Could this be a case of having your cake and eating it too? ;-)) The Baker Showcase is a professional space where bakers get to showcase their talents and compete with at least 15-20 other people in the same field, and YET experience a sell out of a sale! Can it get any better than this?! 

Hainanese Chicken Pastry Pie, Citrus Drizzle Cake & Nankhatai Biscuits
(Photo Credits: Shyma Mathai - The Inconsistent Chef)

Participating in the Baker Showcase is no small feat. One is competing with some of the best and most experienced bakers and chefs. It is not a school fete or mela where there are games and food stalls and one of which is a dessert stall, which naturally gets eyeballs and hence gets sold out. The Baker Showcase event is a very professional platform. The skills under scrutiny are also of table decor, presentation, and packaging. Even so, there is nothing to beat the quality of the goods per se, and ultimately, the way the customer is treated. This is where it goes beyond being a business where the work speaks for itself. After all, the person behind the table is the one who makes an impression on a customer, however fancy the background banners and pretty tables look.

Jay Behera's artwork from the upcoming By Hand, From The Heart exhibition (8th & 9th Feb)

This is even more significant in light of what I'm about to mention, which might seem a bit unsavoury to the palate. I spoke to a few visitors to get a feel of their opinion. They are not members of HBG and many are not even on FB. Some are housewives with plenty of baking/cooking experience down the years and considered expert chefs in their homes. They had turned up thanks to the press coverage in the The Hindu. Some had seen banners around town. They remarked with wonder on the many young bakers and their creations. However, I also heard an incident where a baker kept someone waiting for nearly 20 minutes to serve a slice of cake! The customer waited patiently and repeated her request a couple of times and even stood aside. The baker in question was aware of this and yet continued to serve others who came to her table later, since they were probably placing more than one order! Not the best impression to create while on a public platform. Tsk!

Which brings me to The Soul Food Sisters. This threesome were at one table. Already a force to reckon with in terms of their experience and quality of desserts, Sara Koshy, Girija Menon and Tasneem Ayub are the shyest, sweetest, humblest and most generous-hearted among all the bakers. This is being emphasised also because the present generation has a lot to learn from these Hot Mommas (they are such gorgeous looking women!), and we are not even talking baking skills here. These ladies are in a league of their own. They can well break into a jig, shake a leg and croon 'You Can't Touch This' MC-Hammer style!! But guess what...they won't! They will simply blush and graciously say "Let the younger ones take the stage, they are all soooo good!" That was probably their initial reaction when KP suggested they join the Showcase as one combined team. Brilliant marketing strategy, by the way, KP!! So they actually had to be cajoled into participating. They did it with style, and how! No prizes for guessing whose goodies are the most talked about in town! 

The Soul Food Sisters
(Photo Credits: Photostrophe)

It was lovely to see a far more confident Sara strutting her stuff, receiving compliments galore, and enjoying being there. This is as opposed to her usual shying away stance! Was deeply touched when Girija thanked me many times and said "Bless you", when all I did was cut out her business cards and arrange them. I found her running to her daughter Nanditha's table more often than minding her own stall. Typical mommy :-) As for Tasneem aunty, she was busy handing out free samples of her ultra-delicious Indian exotica, which is so rich to eat, so much work to make, and the ingredients alone cost a bomb. She even brought a batch of Colostrum Pudding to be freely distributed to kids who came that day! I could wax eloquent on each of these women for a few blogposts more but they might stop talking to me altogether :-) Rather publicity shy, they are an endearing bunch indeed.

Mini Cheesecakes with Exotic Berries
(Photo Credits: Karthik Ganapathy)

Coming back to the rest of the bakers, 'service with a smile' and a cool head while dealing with the monies, is what I noticed about Shivangi Daga, a first-time participant. Veena Sakthi and Karthika Shravanthi, also first-timers and the youngest, were  confident and courteous. Ayeesha Riaz, another first-timer, struck me with her soft-spoken, shy demeanour. Suzie Naga refused to let me pick up her caramel pannacotta because it was almost melting in the heat by then. Good to see this young college student giving more importance to customer satisfaction than selling off the remnants of her goods. Having recently opened a cafe, she certainly knows her bread from her butter! :-) Ever-smiling Gazeenasulu's food was truly soul food - it seems apparent that she goes all out while cooking in her kitchen. Her gooey desserts were loaded with nuts, cream & chocolate syrup and her cheesecakes had tons of whole berries stacked on top - a testament to her generous heart. 

Blueberry Cheesecakes

Cheshta Malik's stall was one of the most colourful with a rainbow umbrella and a rainbow cake to match! Her spread was vast & varied, and the theme of her table perfectly matched the name of her business venture - A Sweet Story. Books & novels were stacked up amidst desserts and savouries. The theme was her husband's idea. Most of the bakers had their husbands, siblings and even children helping out at their stalls.

A Sweet Story indeed!

Uma Krishnan, wise with age and experience, was friendly and humble. So eager to interact with her customers, she stood right in front of her table the whole time. When I pointed out that she could stand at the side since she was covering her own posters (how else would people see her banners), she said she wanted to meet people, chat with them and address their queries to the best of her ability. Uma also gave each volunteer a big fat box of chocs! When KP's eyebrows went up to his hairline (in a manner of speaking of course! :-D) on seeing her humungous goodie bag, she remarked to me: "When you give, give well!" Kudos to you for that thought and generous gesture, Uma!

Heart-shaped Chocolates
(Photo Credits: Karthik Ganapathy)

Nanditha Sashidharan, cofounder of HBG rattled off a host of tips for newbie bakers (as well as the better known ones, who could still learn a thing or two...after all isn't life an ever-learning experience? :-)). I think she ought to publish a book, or at the very least hold a tutorial class! Of noteworthy mention in the same context are also Rashmee Gopalan and Maaria Kulsum Tanveer who zapped me with their nonstop learnings and suggestions when I contacted them for the post - Event Tips for Bakers, by Bakers. Amazing to see the large-heartedness of these successful cupcake queens in sharing their trade secrets so freely!

Vanilla Cupcakes with Gajar Halwa as centre filling
(Photo Credits: Karthik Ganapathy)

Rashmi Ramakrishnan, one of the volunteers who I met for the very first time, came across as a warm person. Her cute & multi-talented 8-year-old daughter Nayonika, has written such a nice article covering the Showcase, on her own blog! I rued the fact that I did not click some pictures I had wanted, hoping that the group of photographers would do their bit with their fancy cameras. The beautiful photographs used in this post are by talented photographers Shyma, Raghu and Karthik. However, I have yet to see some images my eyes had noticed, and I'm surprised none of the photographers caught some of those images. But was happy to see that li'l Nayonika had captured one of my fave images - Sara Koshy's eye-catching black boxes with bright orange labels. Good job, Nayonika!

Cinnamon Cupcakes with Cream
(Photo Credits: Photostrophe)

Another cute moment was when my mom kept herself busy feeding everyone else, although she hadn't had lunch herself! She waited for me all day with much patience for which I am grateful. Towards the end of the evening, I spotted her picking up some eats from the stall manned by Asan school students and giving them to the helpers and the security guy's little son.

Mushroom Olive & Zucchini Onion Mini Pizzas
(Photo Credits: Karthik Ganapathy)

Many other incidents occurred that day. Meeting friends from other forums after a long while was lovely. Quite a few people came up to tell me they enjoyed reading the Baker Brigade series of profile write-ups on each baker. The best part was new people whom I'd never met (but we might have seen each other's names on FB forums) appreciating the stories and telling me what they liked reading in them. It felt good and I was rather touched. :-)

Strawberry Chocolate Tarts
(Photo Credits: Photostrophe)

Passionate Baking, one of the co-sponsors, had a stall that brought out the child in every baker and the baker in every child! :-) Cute moulds, tools and toppers caught everyone's eye. The picture below shows edible cake toppers made by Shiranee; sale proceeds of which go to People for Animals (PFA). Another co-sponsor, the organic superstore, Gormei Market gave away bags and discount vouchers. 

Edible Cake Toppers
(Photo Credits: Photostrophe)

And last but not the least humane face of HBG & the Baker Showcase is that sponsorship fees and part collections of the day will go towards a good cause. Or two, or more. The organizations that will receive the funds are being shortlisted and will be announced soon. 

(Photo Credits: Photostrophe)

Pic above has the bakers and volunteers. Families, friends and many other people behind the scenes are not forgotten. :-)

All in all, a very satisfying day. The next Baker Showcase would tally with HBG's 1st anniversary. Can't wait! Three cheers to the entire group that made it all happen. Hip Hip Hurray and hope HBG continues to stay humane and humble all the way!


  1. What a comprehensive review. You sure had your eyes and ears open!

  2. What a detailed write-up... Photos by professionals make a difference, doesn't it? I need to learn how to take good photos of items very close. I guess there should be a setting in my camera that could be used for it.

    I think, the baker showcase should have its own site offering all required details to visitors. The FB group is a closed one and I didn't want to join in it just for getting some details.

    I thought some of the items were overpriced (of course, I was there) but it's ok, considering the uniqueness of the event. I also think that a bakers event should be focused on related items. Chocolates are fine, but biriyani?

    Every item displayed could have had its price written next to it along with basic ingredients. Some of the bakers followed this, and it was easier for me to decide (in their stalls) on what I wanted to eat. It's difficult for people to talk to each baker on what a particular item is composed of, when they are already busy packing/collecting money, etc.

    The event itself was well organized and the space sufficient to hold so many visitors. The cloth bags offered by one of the sponsors and the vegetable carvings by asan team were excellent gestures.

    There could have been a board at the exit like 'See you next by May 2013 @ Asan', etc. I am sure most of the people would want to return, and hence they might as well know when (if not where) next baker showcase is held.

    Destination Infinity

  3. Thank sumitha. You made my day. As said there should be a grace when giving and i dont believe in small (except in my pricing ). Thanks a lot again I enjoyed myself utterly in the show.

  4. Wow Sumi thats a real comprehensive and wonderful review,thanks so much for the mention....

  5. What a detailed and yummylicious post! The pictures made me drool over and over but thanks to the writing in between which distracted me. I like the personal and intimate way this narrative flowed. You write very well, Sumita. Along with treat of the delectable goodies, it was a pleasure to read what you had written. Cheers.

    Joy always,

  6. @ Sara Koshy, Thank you :) Good to see you here!

    @ Destination Infinity, thank you so much for your detailed comment and for reading through this one :)

    I hear there are food photography workshops being planned by CBC, so you could probably check those out.

    Good idea about HBG having their own site, but its not really a for-profit venture for the people who started it. Understand you would not want to be part of the bakers forum, but you could take a look at this page that they've recently started instead: https://www.facebook.com/TheBakerShowcase. This has info on the Baker Showcases past, present and of course will cover the future events as well.

    This was the 1st time non-baked desserts and other dishes were part of the Baker Showcase. Almost all the bakers are also good cooks and specialize in some unique items that are handed down from the elders in their family, which most of us might never get to sample if they are not commercially available. Hence a bit of variety was introduced to also spice up the sugared palate. These novel dishes got sold out too!!

    As for the prices, agreed that some items are on the higher scale. Baking ingredients are a costly affair. Some bakers like JoAnne (http://suetospeak.blogspot.in/2012/10/baker-brigade-joanne-saldanha.html) and Divya (http://suetospeak.blogspot.in/2012/10/baker-brigade-divya-ninan-eapen.html) make their own preserves, cream, mascarpone etc, so there is a lot of labour involved too. But I agree that at a Showcase, it would be good to have moderately priced items so that the most visitors would at least venture to try out the delicacies rather than be put off by high pricing. One baker Karthika certainly had the customer in mind...she priced her goodies according to sizes - small, medium, large etc. Good for sampling and trying out as well. Like ordering a pizza :P

    On your next point, I agree, and did point this out to some bakers when they were setting up their tables. We immediately cut up some labels on the spot. Most bakers did have a menu with prices on it and items labelled.

    Thanks for all the feedback, am sure the bakers and the Guild members have read it and shall take note of your points.

  7. Uma & Tasneem aunty, thank you so much for coming by and taking the time to comment :)

  8. Dear Susan, your comment was indeed a very joyous moment of my day! And still is each time I read it :) Thank you so so much for the support and encouragement :)