Zeba Kohli did not head home like other children did after school. She went instead to her grandfather's chocolate shop in Marine Lines. As her grandfather and her mother went about their business of making and selling chocolates from the first 'Fantasie Chocolate', she sat in the office and finished her homework. Maybe she didn't want to become a chocolatier at first - she mentions that she studied Physics. But it was at an early age that Zeba took over the reins of the family business and not much later that she became a chocolatier extraordinaire, creating sweet treats that are synonymous with artisan chocolate in Mumbai.
The transition could not have been easy. After all, Zeba was not trained as a chef. But her inquisitive nature kicked in when she joined the business and she added to all the chocolate knowledge she had absorbed from her family by going to training courses around the world. "My grandfather will call one of his pastry chef friends in France and I will go intern with them for a month", she recalls. Well trained and back in India, Zeba also had to learn finance and accounting and everything else that goes into running a business. "I believe in doing everything well" says Zeba and she really did well as she upgraded her chocolate factory and expanded the franchise to what are now six shops scattered all over Mumbai.
When I go to meet Zeba at the original Marine Lines store her grandfather first opened in 1946, her energy and passion is palpable. Even as we are talking about her life story, she keeps a lookout for any customer who needs a suggestion or little bits out of place that her staff needs to know about. Treating her staff like family is another thing Zeba learned from her grandfather. No wonder then that she bucks the industry trend of high employee turnover - her store manager tells me he's been there for more than a decade.
Fantasie sells the most chocolate during Diwali - I get their almond clusters as gift pretty much every year - and they are just gearing up for the next rush over Christmas and New Year as I visit. Zeba tells me that milk chocolate and almond clusters (or anything with nuts really) continue to remain her bestsellers. That hasn't stopped Zeba from experimenting though. She was a brand ambassador for Barry Callebaut and a judge for the World Chocolate Masters Championship for many years running. At her store, Zeba offers everything from 100% chocolate to unique flavours like wasabi for some of her discerning, well travelled customers. I also spot a chocolate game she has created for kids, while a video shows super creative chocolate projects Zeba has done over the years.
I always ask sugarcrafters if they tire of all the sweets around them. But Zeba, I don't have to ask. As she offers me a taste of her 100% chocolate sweetened only by date slivers, she pops in a couple herself, clearly enjoying the experience. We try her christmas special of chocolate dipped candied orange peel together and then move on to macarons and cookies Zeba has recently added to the menu. I ask her if the bakery is a new addition and she corrects me, telling about the bakery her grandfather ran at the same place the Marine Lines store is at now, and the macaroons he used to make. I don't think Zeba could have found a better way to continue his legacy.
So now that Zeba has met her goals of building a better manufacturing plant and more outlets for her chocolate brand, what's next for Fantasie? Zeba tells me how much she loves teaching and while she no longer mentors the contestants for world chocolate championship, a chocolate academy is very much on the cards. She's already been doing chocolate pairings and gazillion of workshops at Starbucks and Kala Ghoda Festival and what not but soon you might be able to learn chocolate making from her at her Marine Lines store or her Andheri chocolate factory.
I wonder what Zeba's favourite chocolate is, but she refuses to pick one, showing equal affection for the bitter dark and the sweet white chocolate. It must be hard to pick when you are surrounded by such beautiful creations. The ones I'm leaving you with are the specials she's made for christmas this year. Did Zeba share one of these Christmas recipes for me to make at home? Just wait until next post to find out.