Goa's Spirited Online Weekly Magazine.

Just desserts

September 2-8, 2013

Pushpa Iyengar

MelissaHer warmth and word of mouth have been Melissa’s two secret weapons that have helped her evolve from baking cakes at home 20 years ago to cooking up a storm (five snacks and 12 main courses) when St Theresa’s School in Vasco celebrated its golden jubilee in 2008 and 1,000 students, former students, teachers and former teachers descended (on the school) to help celebrate the milestone.

"There was a time some years ago I managed a 2,000 cupcake order and it covered virtually every inch of the house, it was unmanageable,” she laughs explaining why she opened her workshop in 2000 on the ground floor of the block of flats where she lives in Vasco.  The workshop has a heavy duty oven, grinder and gas cooker apart from two big refrigerators to store her orders.  Her repertoire includes cakes (Mississippi mud pie, serradura, soufflés, mousses, fresh cream gateaux..), snacks (beef croquets, prawns rissois, vegetable forminhas, chicken tikka …) and main course (Goan, Indian, Chinese or Continental style).  Renees Goodies is what she calls her business, and it now has nearly 100 dishes to choose from, largely Goan, Indian and Chinese, but also Continental and Italian for those who have the yen to tease the palate with European cuisines.

Moveover law because here comes the cook

Melissa had an epiphany when she was studying for her first year law.  She was always quizzing her mother about what ingredient went into this or that dish and till one day she baked a cake and voila it was a hit.  Initially, she started baking for her friends and would bask in the praise the lip-smacking treat earned her and the trickle of orders started from people she knew.  “I quit studying (law college) and started baking cakes,” she says about her realization that she was born to cook.

Gradually, the requests (orders) started pouring in and soon she graduated to making snacks and from there the leap to drumming up meals was natural.  The five year gap between her marriage to Dexter Martins and the birth of her daughter, Renee, now in her second year of graduation, was the time she spent making the transition from a hobby cook to a career cook.

Now she has become a “we” as in, she employs two permanent staff who help with the cleaning, chopping, and also outsources some of the bigger other chores; and this well-oiled machine chugs along, sometimes taking orders from as far as Mapusa, Panjim, Margao.  And yet she manages to continue catering to food orders for people closer home.  But “I don’t do deliveries,” she says agreeing to occasionally being flexible when someone wants to pick up a cake late or very early in the morning.

Your order, you pick up

 “I don’t do counter sales,” says Melissa who can cook for a small group of 10 -20, which is what she does mostly during the monsoon months when outdoor events are out – to big parties.  Although she bakes wedding cakes, or themed cakes for kids’ birthday (think Ultimate cake-off on TLC), she stays clear of catering for weddings.  Although, she has spread her talents to include other cuisines, Goans prefer traditional, “but I have observed that even Catholics have cut down drastically on red meat for health reasons.”

She also conducts classes during the lean months - it could just be a week-end for housewives who want to learn Italian, complicated Indian, Chinese, Continental or it could be kids whose parents want them to be gainfully employed in the long summer holidays.  “I think of fun stuff that does not involve lighting a fire or chopping,” she says of her little potential master chefs (cost: Rs 2,000 for two days) who are taught to make different sandwiches, decorating a cake, making icing, etc.

“I’ve designed my own business model and it works for me,” Melissa says about all the nuggets of advice she keeps getting to expand.  But having said that, Christmas is rarely family time because orders come in a rush and she feels like a chicken with its head cut off trying to fulfill the rash of requests for a cake, food or pudding (dessert).

Cookbooks can wait

At one time she thought she would pen a cook book but the library of recipes on the net not to mention the myriad books on cooking floating around, has made her shelve the idea for the moment.  In fact, if there’s some recipe she has forgotten, the net becomes a handy tool for this woman for whom food is a passion.

“Culinary tours happened by accident,” she says referring to the recent addition to her portfolio.  A 30-member group of Japanese, food writers, food bloggers and owners of restaurants descended on Goa last October and the tour operator was stranded and that’s when she called Melissa to rustle up a cooking demonstration of Goan dishes.  She did, so much so that word spread when the Japanese went back and in February this year, a group came back and put her on their must-do list.

Her daughter Renee is already showing promise. “She has a good hand with desserts,” says the mother approvingly.