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Sanjana Patel: Sweet Subversion

A Steadfast Champion of Craft Chocolate, Sanjana Patel is also a Game-Changing Source of Hope and Inspiration

The girl’s eyes foretold her future. With her taste buds heightened by curiosity, discovery and possibility, the eyes grew wider at each of her first bites of chocolate. “What is this?” Sanjana Patel asked her grandmother. “It’s yummy.”

The grandmother took the enthusiasm as an invitation to deputize Sanjana, her nine-year-old granddaughter, as her sous in the kitchen. “My grandmother used to grow carrots in the yard and we used to make carrot sweet meat for the house,” Patel recalls. “She mixed ingredients in a little kettle over a double boiler, and they just became sweeter. That got me interested in how ingredients transform.”

Maternal guidance was customary in the Patel kitchen, in the Indian metropolis of Mumbai, just as it was in the homes of many cultures. Granddaughters helped grandmothers. Fine. But they weren’t to become life transformers, themselves.

Sanjana thought differently. A new light flickered when she took an online course about chocolate-making at age 11. And the light grew brighter during a family holiday in France where the Patels toured a Valrhona factory and saw the entire process of making bon bons and ganaches. Sanjana was enchanted. “I fell in love with everything,” she recalls. “I knew I wanted to do something in the field of either being a chocolatier or a chef.” It was an unlikely pursuit for a girl whose parents sometimes kept her from excessive sweets because she was overweight.

Sanjana was a natural. Her father, Sushil, a bank manager, brought chocolate bars back from Switzerland and Belgium as an occasional treat. The daughter didn’t merely savor them; she compared and critiqued them in small bites, marking mental subdivisions of taste, texture, mouthfeel and aftertaste. She was the chocolate equal of the math prodigy who instinctively thought in advanced calculus when others just saw numbers. Distinctions, combinations, applications, infusions . . . Sanjana could imagine them on her tongue, clearing her throat for an impromptu tasting the way a concert pianist might warm up by stretching his fingers.

Sanjana held tastings of bon bons and ganaches for friends. She spoke of the future, but was often drowned out by the reverb. “It’s a very denied aspect for women to get out of their homes and become chefs in the hospitality industry,” she explains. “I put that idea to my parents and they said, ‘No, that’s not possible. Have a hobby.’ But I was very enterprising when I was younger. Whatever I learned, I started making at home . . . It was a little bit of a rebellious attitude that I had towards my family in order to become what I wanted to become: a chocolatier.

I knew I wanted to do something in the field of either being a chocolatier or a chef.

Patel studied at Le Cordon Bleu in the U.K., becoming known among classmates as the party host with the best food. In 2006, she married Parthesh, a childhood sweetheart and mechanical engineer who soon became her business partner and de facto equipment designer, later fabricating a coffee roaster to roast cacao beans and a dosa maker to grind them.

The couple moved to France two years later so Sanjana could earn a Masters from Ecole Gregoire Ferrandi in Paris. There, she toiled with an all-star cast that included Camille Lesecq, Jean-Charles Rochoux and Olivier Bajard, and later worked for Christophe Michalak and Alain Ducasse at the Hotel Plaza Athenee. Michalak encouraged her experimentation, while Pierre Herme encouraged minimalism and discouraged the lure of trends. Her eyes still roll when she recalls a ganache that Patrick Roger made with citron and basil.

Patel lived in a sea of great bakeries and shops, but she couldn’t resist the opportunity to bring that back home. “Back then, patisseries [in India] were a part of hotels,” she says. “People knew cupcakes and brownies, but nobody knew what entremets were. I did a visit in 2012, and I couldn’t find any macarons, bon bons or ganaches. It was surprising because I was doing those things when I was younger and doing fairs. I didn’t see that translation happening. So I said, Okay, there is an audience that’s travelling. There is also a movement of people appreciating wine, cheese and coffee. So why not start?”

I was very enterprising when I was younger. Whatever I learned, I started making at home.

In 2014, she moved back to India to open her own pastry shop in the Mumbai neighborhood of Kala Ghoda, known for residents who travel and appreciate art. Now she just needed a name. “I came up with my patisserie, La Folie,” she says, “because I remember la folie ringing a bell. Chef Michalak saw me plating a desert and he said “C’est folie c’est magnifique.” I spoke broken French and he told me it means something out of the world, crazy, madness.” To some, the name suited her life choices as much as her confections.

In Frostian terms, she saw a fork in the road and took the path less traveled. “I lot of people who go to pastry school in India then start baking from home,” she says. “That’s the traditional way for women to do business in India, because they’re not allowed by their family, by their husbands or their fathers, to get out there and be enterprising about their craft. I told myself I’m going to do things differently. This is what I love, what I know best.”

The confections at La Folie were a welcome addition to a burgeoning Indian food scene. But by offering pastries, bon bons, sourdough bread, plated confections and even all-day breakfast. Patel was spreading herself as thin as a watery sauce.

What’s more, her health was betraying her. Even before her two bouts with Covid, Patel endured diabetes, a thyroid-cancer diagnosis in 2016 and a fall in 2017 that left her in a wheelchair for six months. During her recovery, Patel felt compelled to pivot and she explains that recovery period “got me retracing and asking: What am I doing? Why am I not following what I’m truly passionate about? I told myself I know the science behind chocolate making. I understand the creative aspect, so how about I re-steer my ship?”

Patel saw chocolate-making as more of a worthy and artful craft than an exercise in mass production. She contacted farms in South and Central America and began visiting them while she was still on crutches in order to learn the harvesting and post-harvesting life of cacao. In India, Patel witnessed a broken network of cacao farms whose lifespans were based on an exploitive dominion that took, but didn’t teach. “I saw a lot of farmers actually burning their cacao trees because they didn’t fetch good income for their families,” she says.

Patel learned the finer points of fermentation and drying, of extending what could be a generous metabolism in the right hands. She committed to making chocolate with beans from targeted farms and no longer took chocolate from mass producers. Her ambitions were lofty. “My first goal was to save the farms,” she says. “I wanted to improve conditions and opportunities for women. I wanted to encourage not just sustainable farming, but regenerative farming that would be good to the farmers and the farms.”

Many farmers in India planted what they knew only as Cadbury trees, because the sole beneficiary of the trees’ harvests was a multinational corporation. She saw some trees left overlooked and others left to die. She saw cacao pods strewn along roads because, surely, they must have been useless once the visiting Cadburys came and went.

“That really affected me,” Patel recalls. “The farmers had such little education. I talked to 20 farmers who told me the government was giving them grants to grow other crops like nutmeg, but nothing for cacao. Somebody had to make a difference for these people.”

Patel didn’t have a revolutionary pedigree. Yet surrounded on all sides by conformity, patriarchy, health scares and Colonial behaviors that grudgingly adapt at a glacial pace, she stared down the mountain of obstacles blocking her path to fulfillment and bulldozed them with a truck.

“I come from the space that says if you have something wonderful. You should save it,” she explains. “They’re very conservative here, especially the farmers down South. It becomes very difficult for me to convince them as a woman. I go as a visitor asking to visit the farm. Then I start talking about what they’re doing wrong. Some farmers have trees that are as old as 80 to 100, even though cacao trees don’t last beyond 65 years. We’ve helped farmers improve the soil. We’ve helped them change their fermentation practices because they normally sun dry the beans. They don’t know what to do with the pods. We actually make a fermentary on the base with them. Then we create recipes that they can sell so they can earn a better income.”

After each of the dozen trips she has made to farms in Central America, South America and Africa, Patel has returned to India ever emboldened to improve lives and put people before profit. She has become a lifeline for both soil and souls.

I wanted to encourage not just sustainable farming, but regenerative farming that would be good to the farmers and the farms.

“I’ll tell farmers, ‘What if I come and teach you about post harvesting? What if we create a small fermentary? We’ll still give you a better price.’ There’s been nothing like fair trade practices back home. I told the farmers I’d buy their beans. I didn’t even have a business plan then, but I felt sad for them. I don’t want them to get rid of what they’ve grown. It takes six or seven years to grow one cacao tree.”

Patel tells the story of visiting a farm near the large Indian city of Bangalore, where she met owners who were about to abandon farming altogether. Then they welcomed her with a glass of cacao juice, the nectar released from freshly opened beans, and the drink opened her own creative juices. “They didn’t know what to do with it,” she recalls, “so I said ‘why don’t we save this juice. Let’s harvest it. Let’s make vinegar. Let’s make a jam. Let’s make wine.’ And then they started doing that with the other fruits as well. The parents had almost lost hope. And we helped them create this process where the son is now in charge. He didn’t want to farm. Now they do so many other things with their beans.”

Patel helped farms recycle the shells of the beans in order to make furniture. Others sold the husks to craft beer companies and began using the proceeds for the farm.

“Sustainability for me is a process,” she says. “It’s about impact and giving people a vision. I support the farms not just because I want beans every year, but so the farmers see value in what they’re doing. I feel really great about what I do. It’s beyond passion for me; It’s a way of life. This is not really work; this is my way of service.”

And that is especially helpful for women, traditionally marginalized by the farming hierarchy. “Some part of a sale at La Folie goes to actually growing cacao trees;” Patel says, “some goes back as a percentage to the farmer. We wanted to support the women who actually run the cooperatives. We told the guys, ‘you can farm what you want. We will use the women in your community and create a fermentary and let them earn a daily wage.’”

It’s beyond passion for me; It’s a way of life. This is not really work; this is my way of service.

Thanks to Patel’s initiatives, La Folie now sources roughly two-thirds of its beans domestically. Though her guidance is most essential on underserved Indian farms, she applies many of the same strategies when she goes abroad on scouting missions for other beans. At each farm, she performs cut tests on the beans, checking for imperfections and nuances in both the beans and the terroir that allow her to create a profile from the chocolate at its origin. She chooses new samples each year and allows them to guide her creations. Last year she chose beans from Peru, India and Madagascar. “That process is very dear to me,” she says.

The attention to detail has also helped her debunk the common perception that a bean is inextricably bound to the characteristics bestowed by its surroundings.

“We’re educated that Madagascar is fruity; Peru is floral; Ecuador is smoky,” she says, “but that’s not how it is; it’s literally about the terroir, how the farmer actually works on the post-harvest. So I wanted to get some beans from Madagascar, but I made it clear I didn’t want a red berry fruity flavor which is very much found in Madagascar. I wanted to get some spice notes. So we found some beans that actually had citrus notes with pepper. It’s very interesting not to explore how a farmer is an artisan and how he or she can actually influence the taste.”

These days, with two wildly popular stores in Mumbai, La Folie is no less ambitious, but better focused, than at its inception, with a chocolate-centric menu for in-person and online sales. Options include bon bons, bars, ganaches, 11 cakes, hot chocolate, coated dragee nuts, macarons and sable cookies. Her Buche de Noel cake features 70% raspberry dark chocolate single origin Madagascar mousse encasing, rose tea-infused wine bisquit almond, lychee raspberry rose tea compote and crème tonka bean. Chocolate bar flavors include Mulled Wine, Spiced Tea Latte, Green Mango and Naga Chili, Creamy Coconut Milk, and Single Malt Cask Aged Chocolate. One offering might feature de-hydrated jackfruit chocolate with jaggery (palm sugar) caramel or freeze-dried fruit powders in place of cane sugar. Several options are vegan.

Patel pays tribute to her grandmother with Grandma’s Carrot Patch, one of her signature cakes that has remained since the original menu at La Folie. “[My grandmother] made carrots in different forms.” Patel explains. “So I made this cake with pickled carrot and mandarin, with baby carrots paired with black lime curd. Black lime is very available back home. It tastes very umami, very smoky. I wanted to do all of that within the cake and dedicate it to the fond memory of my grandmother. Something has to spark for me – a journey, a nostalgia. That was the first cake she ever taught me. It was about her garden. It was about her.”

As Patel once noted that the fragrance of fermenting cacao smelled like lychee and apple, she meshed those flavors with cacao juices to mimic those tastes in a honey. She added smoke air to give customers the sensation of being on a farm.

In 2016, Patel was chosen Pastry Queen of India in the country’s first such national competition. Travel & Leisure Asia named her Pastry Chef of the Year in 2023. One national publication listed her among the most influential entrepreneurs in a country of 1.35 billion people, noting her impact on the rapidly evolving industry and on women in business.

But this was only supposed to be a hobby.

So what’s next? Though she claims discomfort in front of a camera, Patel teaches sessions online and would like to earn a PhD someday that would help her further share her knowledge. She pushes for government grants and sponsors to improve sustainable crop fertility. “Of course, I want to be able to have consumers enjoy more real quality in chocolate and its creations,” she says. “But I also want to be a social enterpriser. It’s about doing right or wrong. You need to have some level of integrity and ethics in whatever you do. I want to be able to impact more lives through this.”

As Patel’s star keeps rising, her best infusions will be the bursts of energy she confers on re-energized farmers and young women empowered to reach for their goals. Her greatest creations will neither be found on a plate, nor in a package, but rather in the eyes of those who follow her lead.

(This article appeared in the Winter 2024 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)

Brian Cazeneuve
Brian Cazeneuve
Brian Cazeneuve is a former staff writer at Sports Illustrated, and freelance writer with works appearing in numerous national publications, including Time, People, the New York Times, Washington Post, NBC Sports, and others. He lives in New York City.