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Bittersweet
The essence of boutique brand Ether Atelier Chocolat is rooted in the founder Prateek Bakhtiani’s lived experiences and the stories of the earth that begat the bean. Disarming Ranjabati Das with his candour, the chocolatier and chemistry savant expounds on the intense interaction between his two passions

He kick-starts the conversation by apologising for the state of his hair, although I can’t tell that it’s dishevelled. “Sorry, it’s a bit of a mess. It’s been a mad morning,” he says unassumingly, over a video call. “We are making our first wedding cake,” he confesses. “I have a friend who’s refusing to get married until I make the wedding cake so I’m going against myself in saying I’ll never make a wedding cake to now frantically making a wedding cake,” he finishes in a single breath. At 26, Prateek Bakhtiani has been termed something of a prodigy in the Indian chocolate- and pastry-making circuit. How does he react to this, I ask him. Although momentarily taken aback, he regains his composure swiftly. “Badly,” he smiles, shyly. “I’m a millennial, and we are really not adept at taking compliments, although I’m happy with the response.” And then I catch a glimpse of that other prized millennial trait — individualism — along with a whiff of the piquancy that will season the rest of our chat: “Even if people really hate what I do, I’d still come back and do it tomorrow; I do what I do for me”.

It took a detour for Bakhtiani to find his true calling. After some coaxing, he reveals reluctantly, “I graduated in chemistry from Washington University at 20. I was sort of intrinsically good at it so I could rush through a lot of the semesters. And I was lucky enough to skip a few courses because I tested out of them. Since I managed to get some more coursework done while I was working for a research lab over summer, I graduated early…. The university had offered me a teaching job that I had applied for while I was an undergraduate student myself. I had to break down how my peers learn, which is different from how I learn. That experience really helps me now that I have chefs working under me.”

Bakhtiani was in the process of writing his master’s thesis when the head of the lab inspired him to take a year off “to pursue anything I liked”. The opportunity to expand his horizons was accompanied by a loss of equilibrium, although the unfamiliar territory he was stepping into would eventually hold him in good stead. “When I took my gap year, I realised I didn’t have any hobbies; I was just a ‘good Indian boy’ studying chemistry. I hear a lot about chefs who hated their previous jobs and gave it all up to be a chef, but that’s not my story at all. I loved chemistry. I thought, ‘I enjoy drinking alcohol, maybe

I’ll go study wine’,” he jokes. And so, Bakhtiani found his way to the pioneering Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland to study viticulture. “The school is located on an organic farm, and the students there are really involved with the farming process. It helped me reinvent the way I live my life and contextualise what I feel about food. And I fell deeper in love with wine.” His teacher, celebrity chef Rachel Allen, spotted his potential as a pastry chef and recommended he move to Paris. “I studied wine and pastry at Le Cordon Bleu and as I had this predisposition towards chemistry, chocolate caught my eye because it is fundamentally technical. It’s very precise and it fit into the way in which I was already used to processing information. Subsequently, I studied in Italy and Mexico, and worked in Vancouver, Belgium and Vegas, before returning to Mumbai in 2017 to launch my brand, which I did in early 2019.”

Excerpts from a conversation...

Why would a consumer choose Ether over other brands and who is your ideal taker? Your brand of chocolate is a bit like fine wine….

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December 2019 - January 2020