Once a creative director with an ad agency, Suresh Babu has now taken to his new love, baking
I am distracted by the peanut cookies. Conducting an interview in the kitchen throws up unique problems. Wanting to snack mid-way through your subject’s story is just one of them. Then there was the time I inadvertently sat on a hot stove while watching a chef demo his signature pasta. And let’s not even get started on the hair-nets, compulsory head gear in five-star kitchens, and guaranteed to make even Angelina Jolie look like a frumpy old lunch lady.
Nevertheless, appearances must be maintained. Even with a hair net on. (Though fortunately this particular interview, conducted in a guerrilla makeshift kitchen doesn’t require one.) So I ask my questions, and try to ignore the three trays of still warm cookies, lined up with regimental precision, which have evidently just been taken out of the oven. “Try a cookie,” urges baker Suresh Babu, finally pushing a tray towards me.
Yes! I lean over, carefully select the brownest cookie in the batch and bite in. It’s delightfully crumbly, packed with crushed, roasted peanuts. I then resume studying Suresh, languid in a beat up old T-shirt and jeans. Take another look at his tiny kitchen, meticulously stacked with pans, trays and jars. And then I glance around his little ‘café’ — a room haphazardly furnished with three tables, a business-like fridge and oversized wind chimes — with renewed curiosity. There’s got to be a story here.
A few weeks ago ‘Warm Brown’ hoisted its sign on a tree-lined street in CIT colony. I follow my nose to find the space, like a well-trained golden retriever. The scent of cookies makes its way out of the café’s open doors, snaking out of the compound and onto the street. Walking in, I’m startled by the space — it’s less café, more college canteen, with three big tables pushed together and mismatched chairs.
The décor is absent minded: yellow tea pots here, an over-sized mirror there, and above it all an unblinking model of a rather flashy gecko, reminiscent of Spanish artist-architect Gaudi. Suresh Babu comes out of the kitchen to say hello, before taking me back in to show me his miniature oven, an OTG, and those cookies. When we settle down at the main table, where a chocolate and orange chiffon cake are cooling, he cuts me a slice of each, then pushes over a cup of sweet filter coffee.
A former creative director with O&M, he left the firm in 2012 to start working on ad films. “But that didn’t really keep me busy. I was freelancing, and suddenly found I had a lot of free time,” he says, adding that he gradually began baking. He began with cookies, moved on to quiches, and then learnt how to make bread. “I started practising at home, and found my kids were enjoying what I baked — and it was much better than what was commercially available. I realised the difference was ingredients; I use only butter — no margarine. No preservatives. And as far as possible, no artificial flavouring,” he says, pointing at the last few crumbs of orange chiffon cake on my plate. “That cake, for example, it’s flavoured with nothing but orange juice and orange zest.”
The cake is spongy and fragrant, an ideal ambassador. While his chocolate cake is less striking (“but it’ll change character with ganache”), he also makes a vanilla-flavoured teacake. This is not fancy baking. It’s not even unusual. It’s just basic cakes, cookies and tarts done right. Where Warm Brown scores is in its ability to offer home-baked flavours in a professional setting. Additionally, since one man does all the work, and he’s meticulous about measurements, the products are standardised.
Besides, it’s undeniably fascinating to see a one-man show run with this kind of single-minded determination. “I found this space. I climbed on a stool and painted the walls. See those lamps — I made them with crushed paper. Look at the table — I made it with reclaimed wood.” As my jaw drops, he continues, “The sign outside? I made it — bending the cane myself.” He adds, “I painted signboards in Kerala in my teens. I took a carpentry class in my 20s. I learnt cooking in my 30s and baking in my 40s. Now I use all those skills.”
As I leave, after buying packets of arrowroot biscuits, which are surprisingly good despite their faintly chalky texture, crisp raisin-oats cookies and a chicken sandwich (which turns out to be overwhelmed by rather average bread), he takes down a roll of brown paper and a pair of scissors. “You like the labels? I do them too.”