Chef Aditi Handa On Her Sourdough Dreams For India

Baking is known to be therapeutic, and we agree. But baking bread is nothing short of an art, and Chef Aditi Handa - the founder of The Baker’s Dozen, who has spearheaded the sourdough bread narrative in India - knows that very well. Aditi understands the power of patience for an idea to ferment to perfection. Perhaps, that is why when she started the artisan bakery in 2013 in order to draw attention back to the goodness of sourdough bread, she knew she was up against the obsession of Indians for white bread. And that would take time. 

After all, making customers pick a sourdough over white and brown bread was no easy feat, and so to make it approachable, Aditi first introduced India to Sourdough Pav, a take on the Mumbai Ladi Pav, followed by adding the spicy version of Masala Pav to the menu. Aditi’s Sourdough umbrella also included products like Fourgrain, Blueberry Cranberry, Walnut Raisin, Baguette, and Pizza Base.  

Explaining her obsession with sourdough bread, Aditi says that it is just a handful of ingredients creating magic. “Four ingredients - flour, water, salt, and yeast - and the magic of microorganisms literally out of thin air sets the premise for bread that is gentle on the gut and an excellent metabolism booster,” the chef elaborates. We got down with Chef Aditi to understand her motivation, story with sourdough, future plans, and more. Excerpts: 

1. When and where did you start learning to bake?  

I decided to learn baking to pursue and build my career in favour of my passion. I joined a well-renowned institute in Bengaluru, and realised that I would not learn the right skills in India, since at that time they didn’t pay much importance to the techniques of baking. I knew, then, that I had to choose a dedicated bread-baking programme, which led me to join The International Culinary Centre in New York. I completed my diploma in ‘International Bread Baking’ at International Culinary Institute in New York and then did a diploma in ‘Patisserie’ at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. 

2. A food memory that’s from your childhood? 

My mom used to always say that one’s state of mind has a profound impact on the food we make. When I was around 13 years old, I wanted to bake a cake, just like that on no occasion. I turned on some Bryan Adams music and baked my first cake. At least, the first of what I remember. It turned out wonderful. Since then, whenever I cook or bake, I try to be in a good frame of mind. And if not, Bryan Adams is always there. 

3. Do you recall a time when you had a dish planned in your head, but it ended up becoming something else?  

When I was at the university, I came across a pasta maker and I got very excited by the prospect of hand rolling my own pasta. A friend of mine and I spent a few hours getting our dough right, figuring out the pasta maker and getting the pasta sheets just right. It took us so long and we got so tired by the end of it that we decided to skip making the sauce and just had it with melted butter. 

4. What was your debut dish in the kitchen and how did it turn out? 

As a teenager, my best friend and I used to love experimenting in the kitchen making different types of rotis and I think our first successful roti (or what we thought to be successful) was a rumali roti. 

5. How did your journey with sourdough bread start?  

Our premise for starting The Baker’s Dozen was very simple: “India me achi bread nahi milti (we don’t get good bread in India)”. In 2012, if one had to find an authentic loaf of bread, it was a hunt and very selected bakeries provided that. India is a bread-consuming nation, whether this is in our kid’s school tiffin or quick evening snacks. The way I look at bread is an easy, quick meal which we consume at various points of the day. With such high consumption it only made sense that the bread we eat be authentic, healthy, and hygienic. We started this business in Mumbai, a city which is very embracing of new and different items, a city that loves experimenting. 

6. Would you say that food inspires other aspects of your life? If yes, how? 

To me, food is all about love and joy whether doing it myself or with my friends and family. It always reminds and helps me to prioritise what really matters in life. 

7. Any particular event that defined your career path? 

I think it was when in March 2012, when we were clear that we wanted to start a bakery. I was shaping one of my first sourdough, a French Pain Aux Cereales, while working with my dough, and I knew in that exact moment that baking bread was the purpose of my life, and that changed everything for me.

8. Tell us about the greatest challenge you faced while learning how to bake

By far the greatest challenge that I experienced was when I moved back to Mumbai after learning how to bake bread in New York. I realised how the difference in weather conditions and ingredients made it so challenging and I couldn’t replicate the recipes I had worked on there. They had to adapt significantly to Mumbai weather conditions. I think this is when I realised that baking is more of a science than an art. 

9. How has the pandemic treated you and your work?  

The pandemic has surely been a topsy-turvy situation for all but for us as a D2C brand, I personally feel it made our industry a better place. Besides, with a shift in buying habits with a food-safety-first mentality and mindful consumption, we all worked on bettering ourselves to stay still and strong in the case of future contingency, and simultaneously continue to deliver our customers what they expect. 

Adding to that, the bakery has accelerated the learning curve and has witnessed some phenomenal success rate by owning the sourdough narrative in the country. 2020 was also a year of strengthening our online presence through our own app, whereas 2021 was a year of expanding our customer base with experiential stores across India followed by some great digital initiatives. 

10. What’s that one unpopular food opinion that you strongly believe in? 

I have always liked food with very few ingredients, and possibly 1-2 herbs and no spices. 

11. Your favourites - chef and cuisine 

Japanese cuisine and Chef Yotam Ottolenghi 

12. Your favourite baked treat 

My chilli cheese bread. 

13. Future goals? 

My aim is to put sourdough in every Indian home. Someday, I would like the bakery to be not just known for the best sourdough, but also the best training ground for young, enthusiastic people who otherwise wouldn’t have received this opportunity.