HomePeopleVinesh Johny: The Makings of a Pastry Pioneer

Vinesh Johny: The Makings of a Pastry Pioneer

(This recipe appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)

He co-founded India’s first pastry and baking academy in Bangalore at the age of 24, a time when most pastry chefs are lining up internships or honing their skills by working at a succession of restaurants.  Since then, pastry chef and entrepreneur Vinesh Johny has continued his quest to elevate his country’s pastry scene, a mission that was validated when India scored a surprise silver medal in the global WorldSkills competition in 2017. Chef Johny has appeared on the first-ever ‘Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia’ list in the Arts category, and was chosen by the Government of India to be the Chief Expert for WorldSkills International, in charge of the pastry part of the competition for the entire world. We caught up with the 32-year-old pastry chef recently to talk about how he came upon his vocation, the challenges he’s faced along the way, and what the future might hold for him.

What made you decide to pursue a culinary education? 

While I was not the most academically-oriented student, I’ve always wanted to pursue something that is skill-based, something that was more hands-on. As a child, I’ve always loved being in the kitchen, helping out with basic cutting and chopping. It was not until I met a friend who was attending culinary school, who told me about the Hotel Management program at Christ University. I absolutely loved the sound of it and was so happy to have found a course that was perfect for me. And that’s how I ended up in culinary school.

It was not just baking or cooking, it’s also front office, housekeeping, food and beverage service and lots more. You’re shown all the other things that are part of a hotel. As a matter of fact, for the first couple of years, I was very interested in beverages. I really enjoyed learning all about wines, spirits and mixology. I even did a few bartending gigs at cricket matches, fashion shows and clubs to make some extra pocket money. This was indeed a lot of fun, while it lasted.

Eventually, I got busy with my internship. I was put into a bakery by chance, and that’s when I found my real passion. I was like, “This is just so amazing, everything is so precise, there is nothing left to chance.” You can really pull off a great recipe the first time, if you just follow the processes. I really enjoyed my time in the bakery. In a matter of time, I was spending a lot of time in the bakery and made some amazing recipes. It was also super exciting to see customers with a big smile when they saw and tasted our desserts. So, all of this culminated into me taking up bakery and pastry professionally in the year 2009.

India doesn’t have a strong cultural history of pastry, but you decided to start a baking and pastry academy there eight years ago. How did you make it a success? 

Actually, the culture of Indian ‘mithai’ is absolutely incredible. There is just so much to it, that I’m still trying to scratch the surface to understand the depth of the entire Indian mithai sweets tradition. In a diverse and multifaceted country like India, every state and region have its own unique cultures, traditions, languages and cuisines. And each one of them have different forms of making mithais and desserts. We tend to generalize Indian sweets to be just a couple of things that are more famous across the world, but the reality is very different.

When I started doing bakery and pastry – which was much more French-oriented – during my college days, I got very interested and wanted to pursue that further and learn a lot more. And while I was looking out for schools to further enhance my studies, there were none in India. The only option was to either go to France or Australia. Although they were great programs, at the time they were very expensive for me. If you have to study in France, it’s definitely going to cost you. And honestly, I wasn’t prepared and didn’t have the financial support to be able to do that.

While there were some amazing Indian chefs in hotels who were making good desserts, there was no professional program at all for students like me in the country. That’s when I realized that we really need an amazing pastry school in India for students like me to learn how to make world-class pastries and desserts. So, that’s how Lavonne happened. We were the very first internationally recognized pastry school in India, back in 2012. Over the last eight years, we’ve done some incredible things at Lavonne. More than anything, I’m glad we’ve laid the foundation as pioneers of pastry education in the country.

More than anything, I’m glad we’ve laid the foundation as pioneers of pastry education in the country.

You spoke about your interest in traditional Indian sweets, mithai. Tell me about that.

I think a lot of Indian sweets were originally created in the royal homes of the Maharajas. So, a lot of the desserts were either milk-based or nut-based and extremely rich. And to be honest, the level of sweetness in some of the mithais is a little bit off the charts. However, the skills and techniques used in making Indian sweets are extremely complex, and I’m so intrigued by them. Knowing the recipe is not enough. There’s a certain way of making them that only happens through years of experience. Just by seeing the milk, they’ll know at what point to stop cooking, by intuition. None of that is written down or documented. So, you don’t know exactly what the fat percentage of the cream is, or what the temperature of the milk is. It just happens with sheer experience. I was in Kolkata last week, and although I’ve had some their traditional mithais so many times before, they are so different from what you’d get here in Bangalore. Just texturally, so different. Even the sweetness level, the freshness, the kind of sugars that they use, are completely different to what you get in the south of India.

It’s extremely complex, which is why I’m tempted to explore these sweets in depth. But at the same time, I do know that if it will take me 10 to 12 years to master the craft. But I definitely want to understand it so that I can utilize the skills that I have from modern pastry, to see if those techniques can be standardized alongside Indian mithais. If those recipes can be made in any kitchen to the specification where you can say, “You know what? Let’s cook the milk to this temperature,” for example. In a pastry kitchen, you are exposed to many more types of sweeteners, such as dextrose, trehalose, the invert sugars, and any of these sugars will be replaced from the standard sucrose that’s used in Indian sweets.

You named your school Lavonne Academy of Baking Science and Pastry Arts. What’s the significance of ‘Lavonne’?

Lavonne is a name that’s derived from the yew tree. It’s a symbol of immortality, longevity and regeneration. And we wanted to make clear that we are providing students with an education that’s creative and ever evolving. You’re always learning something, and you have to give it back. That’s the only way you can keep growing. Right? As a matter of fact, I’m also still learning. Every day I want to better myself by seeking out and learning something new. And every time we learn something new, we immediately share that knowledge. And that sincerely comes from the desire to immortalize the science and art of baking and pastry.

Every time we learn something new, we immediately share that knowledge. And that sincerely comes from the desire to immortalize the science and art of baking and pastry.

What are some of the programs and courses you offer at Lavonne?

We have a flagship program that’s called “Diploma de Patisserie” which is certified by City & Guilds, London. We’ve recently gotten recognized by the Government of India under the certification by the ‘Travel and Hospitality Skill Council’ (THSC) and also the ‘National Skill Development Corporation’ (NSDC). We’re also now recognized by the government as the ‘Center for Excellence’, as well.

Our Diploma de Patisserie program covers everything from the basics of baking all the way up to advanced skills, which include things like wedding cakes, chocolate sculpture, royal icing, among other things. The uniqueness of the program is that we’ve built the course to try and train our students to become future entrepreneurs. Therefore, we have something called the ‘Lavonne Practice School’ where the students are not doing their regular course, but are also part of the Lavonne Café production team. What happens in a real-time kitchen environment? How different it is when you’re making the same cake into 500 cakes? It’s completely different when you’re trying to do one single cake at the school, versus being part of large-scale production. Apart from this, we have three cafes across Bangalore, called the ‘Lavonne Studio Café’, that are part of the Lavonne brand. And as part of the program, the students get a chance to work at the cafe, while they also learn how to run the whole production. It teaches you various aspects of running the show. How to keep your guests happy? How do you deal with guest complaints or food allergies? How are orders taken and what’s the best way to provide service? How do you just generally go about using a POS System? Or even using the coffee machine to make great coffee. The Lavonne Practice School and the Lavonne Studio Café, are both meant to integrate the complexity and understanding of the real-world environment.

Apart from our flagship program, we also have a Six-Week Certificate program that is perfect for home bakers or just about anyone who lacks the time to do our Diploma program. We also run a whole range of online classes for students across the globe who cannot make it to Lavonne Academy in Bangalore. Our hands-on weekend classes are perfect for anyone who is brand new to baking or wants to learn something new over the weekend. Chef Joonie Tan takes care of our Sugar Art and Cake Design classes that happen every week at Lavonne. Other than this, each year, we host about four international chefs who share their knowledge and skills through various types of Masterclasses and demo classes. We try and see who is doing something unique and bring them over so that it’s not just the students, but also the chefs at Lavonne who can benefit from them. Chef Antonio Bachour was supposed to be here last April, but then the pandemic happened, so we’re going to reschedule that to 2021. 

What kind of opportunities do your students have after graduating from Lavonne?

We have spent the time to build Lavonne as a brand that is now known for the quality of education. So, our students get plenty of opportunities both in India and around the world. We are associated with agencies that help students get internships and job placements outside of India. Also, most hotels in India are always excited about having a student from Lavonne be part of their establishment, because they absolutely understand the value they bring to the table.

If you ask one of our students, “Hey, can you scale this recipe and then make pastry cream?” They’re not confused – they know exactly how to go about it. Having said that, the eventual goal is that we give them an environment to bring out their creative best along with originality. I feel that’s something that is very important for any chef – to be real and original. We always encourage our students to try and bring out their own uniqueness in whatever they do. We tell them: “Don’t try and replicate anything, else because you have a mind of your own. And there are things that inspire you, and thoughts that make you who you are, and you should bring that out in your creations. And we’ve seen that with a lot of our students who’ve gone back to their hometown and created something completely unique. And those success stories are the ones that excite us the most.

We always encourage our students to try and bring out their own uniqueness in whatever they do. We tell them: “Don’t try and replicate anything, else because you have a mind of your own.

How has COVID-19 affected your school?

The lockdown in Bangalore happened on March 23rd, and when they announced it, they said, “Lockdown is for three weeks.” And I was actually quite happy with the first lockdown. I said, “This is great, three weeks off!” I wasn’t going to feel guilty about taking time off, cause I surely needed it after eight years of hustling. So, we shut down operations. We said, “You know what? Let’s use this time to take a break and spend time at home with family.” It was a great time with my wife at home, we were cooking every day, trying to do things that we never did for these eight years. But the lockdown just kept going on until the point where we were in mid-May, with the lockdown still in place. That’s when it started to get a little scary, because bills won’t get paid by just chilling at home. We didn’t have any kind of support that was going to help us pay our employees. So, we had to rethink what we were going to do, and that’s when we switched to starting our Online Baking Workshops.

We initially said, “You know what? Let’s just try to do a class online. We’ll take in 20 students and see what happens.” We had never explored the online space ever before, because we believed that pastry needs to be a hands-on program. But as soon as we announced the first class, I was shocked. We had over a thousand people inquiring for those 20 seats. Now it’s not just Bangalore anymore. It is students from across India and different parts of the world. Students would wake up in the middle of the night in countries like Canada and the United States to be part of the online class at Lavonne. We did multiple sessions of over 50 subjects and over a period of four months, trained over 14,000 students online. The entire team was involved in doing classes for the next four months online. Finally, on November 2nd, we started our hands-on classes once again, with necessary protocols in place – everyone wears masks, we do temperature checks, we have sanitizers all around – the usual things that need to be done. And generally making sure that the students are healthy. If anybody feels sick, we ask them to go back home.

Have you seen an increased interest in the pastry arts in India in general in the past decade or so?

I think in the beginning, the entire concept of French pastry was still a little bit mysterious. People knew about it, also there was that curiosity amongst people. Now everybody knows what a macaron is, but 10 years ago people were like, “Ok, why is this tiny thing so expensive?” I’m going to give a lot of credit to TV shows like MasterChef Australia – everybody was so excited to watch people cook at that level on a TV show. Another factor that has influenced this is the fact that the average Indian is well travelled and understands world cuisines. And, of course, the internet has given people more access to what’s going around in the world. So, it’s easier for us to put out anything on a menu, and there is something for everybody.

I know you have a strong commitment to the environment and finding sustainability. Is this mission something that you feel is important to ingrain in your students? And if so, how do you achieve that?

Now, this is a little tricky for pastry chefs, because pastry chefs mostly cook out of boxes. Chocolate is in a box. Butter is in a box. And so are purees. These are the brands that you want to use. Apart from fresh fruit, it is hard to find local ingredients to do pastry. I don’t get the best quality butter locally yet. I don’t get the best quality chocolate yet. But if I did have an option of getting the best quality chocolate that’s grown locally, I would have switched without giving it a second thought. I think it’s easier for a culinary chef to get into that format because it’s always great to use local tomatoes, local carrots, herbs, grains or any homegrown produce. There are specific ingredients that you need in the pastry industry which makes this difficult.

With flour, for example, sometimes you may need to get a certain percentage of protein to be able to achieve a specific result. And as educators, we try and explain to our students that this is the difference when you make a croissant with T55 flour as compared to the local flour. Do you want the most beautiful looking croissant with French butter? Or do you want a good quality croissant using local butter and local flour? But it’s important that they know the difference, because I think that’s where we are at this point in time.

I think the people who are involved in manufacturing products have realized the importance of special ingredients, and they’re trying to solve those issues. I know that our flour maker is taking samples of every flour that we import to try and see how he can achieve that quality flour. It is an exciting time for us in India, because I can see that the manufacturers are not saying, “Okay, we have this flour and that’s all you’re going to get.” They want to do more. They want to be part of the change. They want to be part of everything that’s going to talk about their quality as well, compared to how it used to be. Before they used to be like, “This is what I have and if you don’t like it, I have a million other people who are going to buy my product. I don’t need to try and make something special for only you.” It’s changing, and I am very happy about that. 

We had never explored the online space ever before, because we believed that pastry needs to be a hands-on program. But as soon as we announced the first class, I was shocked. We had over a thousand people inquiring for those 20 seats.

You have achieved success with your academy at a very young age. Do you have any other goals you’re working towards?

For us, the real vision for Lavonne was to see how we can uplift the standards of baking and pastry for the entire nation. With that in mind, we became involved in WorldSkills, which is a global competition that happens once every two years. It’s under the Ministry of Skills and Entrepreneurship and over 80 countries come to participate across various skills. It’s definitely one of the biggest competitions in the world. They don’t just cover pastry, they do every skill there is in the world, from carpentry, hairdressing, aircraft maintenance, plumbing, brick laying, etc. Among them are the hospitality skills, which includes, cooking, bakery, confectionery and even F&B service.

So, for this competition, an entire year goes into selecting the final candidate, followed by one year of upskilling and training the candidate. It’s pretty much like the Olympics for skills. In Korea, they choose their candidate almost four years before the final competition. So, for example, if the competition is happening 2022, you probably know in 2018 that you’re going to compete in WorldSkills 2022. That’s how intense this competition is. When we took on WorldSkills, we did start with discussing it with the Government of India. We said, “You know what, let’s, train the competitors and see what happens.” And that year in 2017, to everyone’s surprise we won the silver medal! It was unbelievable and everyone was shocked. We beat the big boys! We beat the countries from Europe as well as Japan. Countries that have always been known for pastry. Winning Silver while pastry is not even a traditional skill in India was truly a very big deal.

For us the real vision for Lavonne was to see how we can uplift the standards of baking and pastry for the entire nation

After this, a lot of importance was being given to pastry arts in India. This is one of the reasons why Lavonne Academy received the recognition of Center for Excellence. In 2019 again, when we participated in WorldSkills Kazan in Russia, we won the Medallion of Excellence, which placed us, sixth or seventh in the world. Although we didn’t win Silver or Gold, this was indeed a major accomplishment for all of us. Soon after, through an electoral system, I was voted to become the Chief Expert for WorldSkills International. This means that I’m no longer just training a candidate, but I control the competition globally. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, the WorldSkills 2021 competition has been postponed by a year. But I’ll see you all at WorldSkills Shanghai in 2022.

Tish Boyle
Tish Boyle
Tish Boyle is managing editor of Pastry Arts Magazine and an experienced food writer, cookbook author, pastry chef, and recipe developer. Her previous books include Chocolate Passion, Diner Desserts, The Good Cookie, and The Cake Book