“Food is everything we are. It's an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It's inseparable from those from the get-go.” — Anthony Bourdain.
If the late chef’s words are inspiration to many, Harsh Kedia, the owner of A Diabetic Chef in Mumbai can surely be one of them. This 21-year-old with rebellious-yet-measured thoughts and a keenness for cooking food was all but 15 when he was diagnosed with diabetes. Seven years hence, he runs a bakery in Marol, which sells sweets friendly to the diabetics.
"The idea of A Diabetic Chef was to convert the taste of patrons from sugary stuff to my stuff," says Kedia, who claims his products are completely organic, mostly sugar-free and almost no difference in the sweetness quotient.
The eatery’s menu comprising brownies, chocolates and milkshakes is one inspired by fiction but caters to real-life people — diabetics and the health-conscious lot. Dark Knight, Philosopher’s Stone, Willy Wonka’s Delight and Ragnarok are some of the items that A Diabetic Chef dishes out.
"They are all spin-off related to TV shows and movies, which was relatable to the younger audience, and has since brought about a lot of engagement," says Kedia.
Picking out Kedia in a crowd is an easy task with his lanky figure, his shirt-and-suspenders combination, his Beatles-esque mop top and droopy eyes fixed behind a pair of hipster horn-rimmed glasses. His carefully crafted appearance is not an intention to be noticed, trendy or stylish, but to embrace his ‘different’ streak.
As a child of eight, growing up in Mumbai, while the other boys were playing cricket and football, Kedia’s curiosity led him to the kitchen. He observed how vegetables and spices of different taste, would come together under the heat of a pan and turn into something unique.
In short, cooking and baking fascinated Kedia, much to the surprise of his family. In a country like India, where unconventional choices — lifestyle and profession— are detested, he too had his share of “don’t take-this-up” moments. Undeterred by such barbs, Kedia grew secretly trying out recipes at a friend’s place.
But life has a tricky way of panning out. At 15, Kedia found out that he was diabetic, making him one of the millions in the country to suffer from the lifestyle disease.
While many may see it is as a death knell on one of the basic indulgences of life, Kedia took everything — the regular pricking of the finger to check blood sugar levels and the laundry list of have-nots — in his stride.
Contrary to his fascination for all things culinary translated into aspirations of taking up hotel management, Kedia moved to Pune to study economics in 2015.
It is here that he channelled the challenges of his condition into his passion. He saved up to buy an oven from a friend, and began experimenting with recipes for sweets that are diabetic-friendly. When a few friends suggested that he sell his sugar-free brownies at the upcoming college fest, he decided why not?
Kedia recalls that he was furiously working the oven and even scalding palms in the process as his brownies were literally selling like hotcakes. His tiny stall ultimately drew a larger crowd than the branded outlets.
This was in 2015, when Kedia decided to run a small operation from his residence. He had his share of collaborations with local cafes and restaurants where it would cater to them on a regular basis.
Bolstered by the success and the encouragement of his well-wishers, Kedia decided to go one step further — he enrolled his name at the Symbiosis School of Economics’ B-Plan competition in 2016. A Rs 3 lakh prize and a shot at fame were on his sights.
Always the outlier, the economics student kept his eyes on the prize and meticulously chalked out his business plan for “A Diabetic Chef” — a restaurant that sells diabetic-friendly sweets.
After clearing several rounds, giving the country’s ambitious marketing and MBA students a run for their money, Kedia could not believe his ears when the plan for A Diabetic Chef won the competition. The laurels didn’t end there, a few venture capitalists gave him business cards.
Meetings ensued and some of them agreed to fund A Diabetic Chef. Fast forward to the present day and 21-year-old Kedia is close to four months into the venture.
"Initially, we used to get one order a day. But after the digital marketing campaign kicked in, we get anywhere between five to 10, maybe 15 orders a day," he says.
While no more running a one-man operation of his college days, he still maintains complete creative control over the menu — One that evolved through the trial and error that comes from the process.
He stresses that making diabetic-friendly sweets does not mean sugar-free. Taking out the flour, artificial flavours are as important to his process, as well as adding natural colours like beetroot juice.
Kedia's experiments with sugar alternatives meant baking with dates and other processed market alternatives like Sugar Free Natura before finally settling on Stevia — a plant extract.
Such insights got him to challenge existing conventions and thumb-rules. "It was believed that you cannot make anything 'Red Velvet' without sugar. I realised that it was a myth," he says.
For Kedia, his achievements are part of a larger journey. When most transition from college to the workplace with hopes of fulfilling careers in mind, Kedia looks to retire by the age of 27.
“I hope to start another company by next year, but essentially I will have the unique factor that I have maintained in my journey of startups,” he says. True to his convictions, Kedia also looks to open a gender fluid line of clothing.
What would someone like do with all that time and money on their hands?
“I would pursue my PHD, travel the globe, and give lectures to sensitise people on certain issues like diabetes, digital marketing, entrepreneurship and digital innovation,” he says. Kedia hopes to be in a position where his experience and money would allow him to travel.
Asked what drives Kedia to achieve so much in so little time, he says: “Every day has to be different. If I hit a stand of monotony, then life will come to a standstill. Things should have a little spark… a little differentiation.”
When asked if that meant whether he would give up A Diabetic Chef, if the venture reached a standstill, Kedia immediately talks about doing something different with the business itself.
He would change something in the menu, or try something new with the current technology. He would focus on cold storage for his consignments and figuring out the best way of shipping his product abroad. “Once I have a brand name, franchising is something I would like to look at,” he says.
Kedia embodies what the startup culture stands for — a conviction in one’s self, their unique ideas and the tenacity and grit to face every day as it comes, and then some more.
He believes it will take another six months for him to completely enter the highly-competitive space. Will the 21-year-old come up trumps and his ventures make it large?