A Day In The Life Of Pastry Chef Heena Punwani

By Sanjana Subramanian November 23, 2018
Pastry Chef Heena Punwani

When you step into a restaurant, you go in with a couple of expectations. We’d all like for the restaurant to be neat and clean. We’d like the staff to be polite. And great ambience is just an added bonus. But more than anything else, we always, always want the food to be delicious. 

Whipping up these delicious meals that we millennials term ‘Instagrammable’, are the super chefs of our city. Have you ever wondered what a day in the life of a chef is really like? They breeze through the kitchens, chopping, slicing, cooking and baking, all in an effort to give us an unforgettable experience. So, we decided to bring you their story. Each month, we’re going to try to speak to chefs, bartenders and other culinary maestros who generally hulk in the background, to come tell us how it’s done. 

This time, we got chatting with the well-known Chef Heena Punwani, the pastry chef at The Bombay Canteen and O Pedro. This talented young chef dubs her journey as ‘pretty convoluted’. You see, the woman who is today cooking up a storm in two of the city’s most popular kitchens, was working as a software engineer for six years! Who would have ever thought that she would one day find comfort and solace in the world of food? 

When asked about what led her to choosing this field, she said, “I was based in Toronto when the tsunami struck Japan. I was racking my brain on how I could help and the answer came in the form of a long cherished passion of mine: pastry. My friend and I organised a bake sale, which brought together hundreds of people in Toronto and raised $30,000 for the Red Cross. This was the turning point when I realised how much power food had in bringing together an entire community, and I decided to pursue a career that held more meaning for me. I interned at restaurants during my spare time on weekends, took part-time culinary courses before I finally quit my job and used all my savings to enroll in Ferrandi, Paris. I studied and worked in Paris for more than a year before making my way home.”

Previously, Chef Heena has worked at Ellipsis and today, she is behind the mouth-watering baked goodies that you will find at both The Bombay Canteen and O Pedro. So, what exactly does a day in her life look like? Well, like most people, Chef Heena’s day begins with a steaming cup of coffee. She reveals that even her husband knows that she ought not to be disturbed before she’s taken that one heavenly sip! Before heading into work, she likes to practice a bit of yoga as she feels that it centers and grounds her. “I try to practice at least thrice a week,” she admits.

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Every time I make rice pudding on a stove, the wafting aroma transports me back to my mother’s kitchen. It’s a comforting dessert from my childhood that evokes a joyous nostalgia. It’s not surprising that rice pudding finds its place in so many cultures. ‘Arroz Doce’ or Portuguese sweet rice is traditionally made by cooking down milk, sugar and rice till thick and finished with egg (that finds its place in most Portuguese desserts). In this rendition for the new #monsoonspecial dessert @opedromumbai, I’ve folded the rice pudding with creme anglaise and whipped cream for a really light version. It’s then layered with salted caramel mousse for some decadence and rice puff and nut nougatine for texture. The caramelised, brûléed top adds an extra layer of flavour and crunch to finish. Comfort and indulgence in a bowl while it pours outside. Come get your monsoon fix! #monsooninspired #grainsandrains #ricepudding #portuguese #arrozdoce #monsoonspecial #saltedcaramel #nougatine

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After that, it’s work, work, work! “The menus at both the restaurants change quite frequently, so as the day begins, you’ll probably find me hashing out ideas with the chefs – the inspiration could be a seasonal ingredient, a festival or a nostalgic memory from childhood. What I love is that every single thing on the menu has a context and a story behind it. I then distill those ideas into different components for a dessert, and start working on recipes. Next is the testing phase- sometimes we get it right in a day, sometimes it takes weeks tinkering with recipes. You’ll find me training the team at this point (I’m a nerd, so a lot of science lessons inevitably take place on why we’re doing something a particular way). Once the dishes are finalised, you might find me perched on a high step-ladder outside the restaurant taking photographs – stop by and say hi!”

After spending such a grueling day inside the kitchen, Chef Heena likes to unwind on her way back home with the latest read that she’s got in her bag. She absolutely loves books.

Apart from baking, she enjoys traveling, photography and board games. When we asked her what her average ‘off’ day is like, she said, “I’ve outgrown wanting to go to the latest trending restaurant or “it” spot, but I have a few favourite places – small cafes and unassuming restaurants that I love to revisit on my day off. I tend to hoard my off days, and then take small trips even if it’s just a day spent trekking in the hills around Bombay. Beers and board games with friends (yes, I’m old! But don’t knock it – a game of Risk can get pretty intense!), and on the days you’re too tired to move – Netflix and chill.”

As exciting and fun as an average working day in her life sounds, there is also a flip-side to it. The pastry chef also admitted that working in the kitchen is a tough job, and nothing like the glamorous life that sometimes gets depicted on TV. She signs off, “The hours are long, and physically demanding, and it can take a toll on your health. It’s why you have to really, really love this job to be able to make it.” 

Does reading about this have you hooked already? Stay tuned, because we’re going to bring you intriguing stories from all your favourite chefs, every month.