Tempering chocolate involves time, precision, practice and hard work, but if done well it gives the finished product a shiny surface and ensures that the chocolate emits that wonderful snap when it is broken; these are the hallmarks of truly good chocolate.
Like her gorgeous confections, Lal Majid, owner and master chocolatier at Lal’s Chocolates has been through some tempering of her own. For years she trained in schools and kitchens from Karachi to Canada working all hours to learn the tricks of her trade. Now at the pinnacle of her career, she has a shop and chocolate café in Karachi, two shops in Lahore, a cooking show on Masala (All About Chocolates) and most recently a chocolate cookbook titled Deliciously Yours, published by Markings. Her chocolate café, Lal’s Patisserie (the venue of our interview) is easy on the eyes; the décor is simple and has the effect of making the real stars of the place – the gold and silver packaged chocolates, the jewel coloured gelatos, the baked-to-perfection specialty macarons and various other delectable desserts – stand out and vie for share of eye and stomach.
Sitting among her creations, Majid explains that her love affair with chocolate began as a child when she lived in her hometown, Peshawar. Her father had business links with Kabul and was therefore able to secure imported chocolates like Cadbury, not otherwise widely available in Pakistan at the time.
While chocolates and confections still remind her of Grimm’s fairytale Hansel and Gretel, Majid’s childhood (and her school life in particular) was probably no fairytale as she suffered from dyslexia. In the introduction to her book, she says that her father worried about what she would do in terms of a career considering that she was barely able to finish her Matriculation. But Majid obviously has not been held back in any way and when I ask her about the dyslexia she responds with: “When God creates someone with a problem, he usually compensates by making them excellent at something else. Reading and writing is a problem for me but I am very good at practical work and I have worked hard to excel.”
Her hard work began shortly after she married and moved to Karachi where she started the first of the many, many courses and trainings that would make her good at what she does. She enrolled at the Rangoonwala Institute for a class in flower making. Many years later, she followed this up with a floral degree in Canada and then started her own business called Floral Design by Lal Majid. It was while she was making bouquets and wrapping people’s gifts that she noticed how many people were giving their loved ones mithai and imported chocolate for their birthdays, anniversaries and weddings. This realisation was combined with her son urging her to start making her own chocolate.
Not one to do things the amateur way, Majid first did a basic chocolate training but soon realised that knowledge of the art of pastry (baking, confectionary, etc.,) was essential and she went to the International Centre for Culinary Arts (ICCA) in Dubai for pastry training, followed up by three pastry courses in Canada. Back in Pakistan, she disguised her true identity and went to hotel kitchens to learn the tricks of the trade.
In spite of her skill set, getting people interested in chocolate eight years ago (when the first Lal’s Chocolate was established in Karachi) was not easy and she “literally had to feed people my chocolate and explain the difference between good chocolate and compound chocolate.” Otherwise, however, she had no newbie jitters about setting up her own business. (“I did it impulsively without thinking about it – this is how I approach most things”).
“My office is the kitchen; the bakers can be a bit negligent and we simply cannot afford that so I check everything. The product is important to me, even more important than my children.”
In contrast, eight years and three chocolate shops later, she explains that she was very nervous about opening Lal’s Patisserie “because it is so difficult to open and run a café; now when people ask me, ‘Lal, are you busy?’ I tell them I have just learned what it really means to be busy!”
It is not the business and marketing end of the enterprise she’s busy with; those areas are handled by her daughter Madiha of whom she is extremely proud of (“80% of our success is due to Madiha’s hard work”). No, Majid is busy developing new recipes, designing packaging decorations for corporate and other custom orders, quality checking the baked goods, scaling the mix of the gelato, making the batter for the macarons (every morning) and making small batches of truffles and nut based chocolates (her own personal favourites) among other things.
“My office is the kitchen; the bakers can be a bit negligent and we simply cannot afford that so I check everything. The product is important to me, even more important than my children,” she laughs. While speaking to me, Majid shares her excitement about the chocolate packaging she has recently been decorating for someone’s wedding. She asks one of her staff to get a few of them from the cold room to show them to me. When the man comes back holding a few chocolates in his hand, he receives a gentle but firm rebuke from Majid who explains that chocolates should never be handled by warm human hands for too long – putting them on a plate instead is the right thing to do. This small interaction leads me to ask whether she is a tough boss. Majid think about it for a minute and says, “I do get angry but I am not tough.”
When I ask whether her daughter is the tough one, she doesn’t need to think about it… “Ohh yes, Madiha’s tough! But she is also very good to the staff.”
So what’s next for the master chocolatier? A lot apparently! Majid is eager to serve her province of Khyber-Paktunkhwa by training women there with pastry skills, she eventually wants to open a pastry school in Pakistan along the lines of the ICCA in Dubai, establish more outlets and she is also considering a franchise for Lal’s.
Is it going to be hard to manage all these things? Her answer is a laugh and a story.
“I was working at the Marriott at one point and one day one of the chefs remarked that maybe I was a bit crazy? That I worked 12 hours there and then went home and reproduced what I had learned! In the same way my staff here thinks I am a bit crazy about baking and confection.”
The answer then, it would seem, is that yes, she is a bit crazy. She’s crazy about chocolate, but that is not a bad thing considering the result.