The Founder and Chef of Ode to Gaia, Naimita Jagasia, is nothing less than a driving force who dreams big and works on making those dreams come true. With the story of her inspiring journey and all the trial, errors, common sense and calling towards being ethical, sustainable and vegan, Naimita shares her perspective and vision with the Earthen One.
Turning Vegan in 2016, the initial years of Naimita’s journey were easy. Living in UK, it was no big problem getting hold of a frozen vegan cheesecake at any regular store. However, things took a different turn when the entrepreneur landed in India. “When I moved back to Bombay, the options were limited. There was Nomou’s Ice cream and Break of Dawn milk but, I could hardly find any large players in the market and you had to really hunt for them”. She started bringing back a lot of vegan products that she consumed from London but, once she graduated it would be a hard pill to swallow living in India, “So, I had to make own cheese and whatever else you can think of.”
So, even though the vegan essentials were entering the market, no one was thinking about dessert. “I like to start my meal with something sweet first. At night too I like to end things with a chocolate piece or hot chocolate. My Dad is like that and my Grandmum too!”, Naimita reveals. People like her did not have an option which got her experimenting. In fact, it is crazy that the first vegan cheesecake in India was her that she introduced at a party and people couldn’t have enough of it. “I made it for the heck of it”, a small confession slips out from the Chef. But then, Naimita’s mother stepped into the picture and got her signed up for a club event which got her figuring out a menu, a brand name and laid the foundations of all things we know Ode to Gaia to be.
“When I was thinking of a brand, I wanted it to be a conscious brand. I wanted whatever I do to be for Gaia, the earth. You know, encouraging people to be vegan through my love for food,” goes the origin story that embodies Naimita’s dedication to the mother planet. It got her motivated to fill in the huge gap in the dessert market, “For me, dessert has to be an indulgence. You can obviously have a ragi or jowar based indulgence. But I didn’t want things to be boring. I wanted people to look at something and say, ‘Oh My God! I cannot believe that thing is vegan!’”. She wanted to tap into the inquisitiveness of the masses that is why everything she offers always looks like a piece of art. Moreover, she has been a part of activism groups which she feels threatens people into veganism rather than lovingly encouraging them, “At the end of the day, people want to feel like they are doing something good or at least trying to.”
The goal to manifest of these thoughts led her path to Ode to Gaia which majorly runs on the principle of innovation. “We have to be innovators in this space as we are already the pioneers of a plant-based, premiere, a French patisserie in India”, the entrepreneur chirps in. Keeping this at the forefront of her business with her personal goal of bringing veganism to the global pastry industry level, Naimita Jagasia is surely one of India’s biggest name in the respective space.
Coming to the technicalities of the pastry business, Naimita has never been to a pastry school or had formal training in this area. Yet while developing recipes, she could always do it very efficiently by just using her common sense on scouring vegan replacements. “So basically, if I’m using a100 grams of cream cheese, I need to find the replacement based on the fat and density where cashews come in for the fat and tofu for the density. But I realise that not a lot of people can make the connection. Maybe this was my calling, so these things came naturally to me”, she notes. Finding the replacements was easy which made the experimentation fruitful, apart from the moments of tweaking little ingredients here and there which was difficult from time to time. Even in her classes, Naimita advises her students to look at things as if they are changing the function of the ingredient with something else and not the ingredient altogether to make the process easier and more scientific. She agrees her education in footwear design might have just wired her to look at things a certain way.
Naimita also focuses on making her mark in the fair-trade industry and meticulously sourcing her sustainable ingredients. She backtracks a little revealing how learning about the slavery in the chocolate industry stopped her from consuming them during high school. Later, terms such as fair trade, cage-free hens came to her when she was in the UK, probing her to research on the matter. “For me, it was important to know what I was eating and where it was coming from. You can only do so much as a university student and yet I wanted to create an impact and not do something detrimental to the environment”, she says. It started small with her purchasing things from the farmers’ market or going to eco-friendly stores as a student and later resulted in her practising fair trade for her business.
“Being vegan cannot just mean protecting the animals. What’s the point of protecting the animals if you are going to have some kids grow your cocoa? That did not make sense”, which is why she completely switched to Indian-origin chocolates that are sourced sustainably. Putting in little effort to have a clean supply chain for something as universally loved as chocolate can really help it sustain for longer and if bigger corporations do it, it can trickle down to the smaller ones. “We have middlemen who find us almonds and lavender grown in Kashmir, Vanilla from Kerela and more. It takes a lot of effort but, these small changes are impactful”, Naimita shares. Sugar, baking powder and other large things cannot be sourced so sustainably but, in comparison, the impact of sourcing the smaller goods through fair trade is a lot more she believes.
Even when it comes to facing challenges in the business, Naimita believes in staying true to her values. Over the years, she has learned to accept the little things that she cannot change and make peace with them. Running an all-women team, customers often don’t care much about where the products are coming from as long as it is solving their needs which is why Naimita suggests, “You have to be okay with people not caring as long as you are doing what you want to.”
Being the benchmark in the vegan pastry business, another challenge that Naimita faces is that people often copy her but, her perspective guides her to keep innovating things irrespective. “It should be about being better than what you were yesterday, being a better version of yourself, offering a better product. Your goal should be to serve better,” she says, “For me, the impact far outweighs the competition. That is why I am teaching. My vision is to be a leader in the plant-based patisserie space. So, when my goal is so clear and big, I don’t have time to think about someone else.” The interesting perspective is led by another thought that focuses on truly caring about other women and being happy seeing them succeed and being an impact on their lives and career.
Throughout her conversation, Naimita talks about the mix of different things that led her to veganism from being lactose intolerant to doing something for the environment. Thus, the philosophy of her brand has been ever-evolving but, at its core, it has always remained about being ethical and environmental.
When asked about her next 10-year plan, Naimita laughs it off saying, “I will retire and become a teacher.” But, on a serious note, she plans to venture into the international market within the next 5 years.
But, with such a big business relying on her shoulders, Naimita too has seen her share of ups and downs and, she talks about taking this never-ending one last shot that keeps her going. Sometimes, the anxiety of thinking too far into the future gets her too but, she notes, “Taking one day at a time is all that matters. If something is not working, I accept it and move on to the next thing”.
The small measurable goals, inspirations such as Phil Khoury, accepting the highlights and the failures in life and always striving to be better in what she does amounts to all that keeps Naimita Jaigasia going and Ode to Gaia shining brightly in the face of any storm.