We all had those childhood days when we chose future professions that sounded fancy to our understanding without even realizing what we were aiming for. Probably one of the reasons, why it kept changing when every time something new was introduced to us. Given that being the common scenario, it’s rare to see people who are crystal clear about what they want to become when they grow up, from a very young age itself.
Here at ICCA Dubai, we have someone like that who is so determined that by the age 15 itself she knew what she was aiming for and had already started working towards it. We are talking about Annika Panikker, ICCA Dubai’s Online Education Specialist who strongly believed that she belongs to nothing but the culinary industry from a very young age. And today, she being an ICCA alumna and also a part of Team ICCA, along with a whole lot of culinary collaborations going on for her, we can definitely say, she’s not that far from achieving her goals. So, let’s find out more about her journey so far in the culinary world.
Q. Where does your passion for food stem from?
It goes way back to my childhood. My mom’s dad was a Chef and he was working in Qatar as a personal chef for a Qatari family. He used to come down to India for vacation in December every year, and I remember during that time everyone in the family got together in Goa, where my grandpa’s house is, to celebrate Christmas with him. And for me, the best part about this get together was the Christmas dinner that my grandpa used to cook single-handedly.
Watching him cooking with so much passion somehow connected me with food. I could say the visuals and the experience of him working in the kitchen stuck with me and it continued to grow.
Q. What’s your earliest memory of cooking?
When the cooking spree got into me before I even knew anything about it, I started asking mom to make dishes that my grandpa used to make. But to my disappointment, she always discouraged that idea by saying “we are not chefs and we don’t know how to make it”. Later on one day, she got so fed up with me pestering her all the time to make this or that; she agreed to bake a cake with a box of ready-to-mix chocolate cake just to calm me down. We baked that cake together and I think that’s the earliest memory of cooking or baking I have.
Q. I heard that you were a little entrepreneur during your school days. How did that happen?
Lol, well it all started with a fundraiser program in my school where I put up a stall for home baked brownies along with the others. My stall was unique because I was the only one selling food while others had stalls for arts & crafts. It was my mom’s idea as she knew how enthusiastic I was about baking. Although I was a little nervous in the beginning, as the sale picked up, I became very confident and towards the end of the sale, my brownies were all sold out.
After this event, I started participating in this fete every year and kept introducing new things. So that created an interest among the people for my baked goodies and they started placing orders with me. My home business grew very fast and went on steady for a very long time till I left India.
Q. How did your education go along with such a busy schedule?
When I finished school, I didn’t even want to continue my studies. I was so sure that baking is all that I want to do for a living. I even told my parents that one day I would become world’s best baker which obviously made them crack up but like any other parents, they talked me out of the idea of dropping studies and made me consider education first.
Since I was anyway planning to continue my studies, I thought I might as well study Hotel Management, but when I checked the syllabus for the course, it had management, housekeeping, accounts, finance and subjects which I was not interested in learning. So I chose literature and philosophy thinking it’s easy to do and that I could continue taking orders on the side. Again, I was wrong as it wasn’t as easy as I thought, but I managed.
Q. When did you decide to do Culinary School?
As my university studies were coming to an end, I was again in two minds, between getting a professional training in baking or to look for and invest in a professional space & kitchen for my growing business. I found a place too, but I think I was worried more about not having any professional training or qualification to take such a huge step. So I started looking up for short term culinary courses but everywhere the professional diploma programs were for 1-2 years and I didn’t want to invest that much of time into it and stay away from my business. It’s during that time; I came across ICCA Dubai when I was visiting my parents in Dubai as they were working here. Their professional program time duration was perfect for me and I loved the kitchen atmosphere at the school. That visit to the school also gave me an insight about culinary industry and I understood that the culinary world is not just about baking, so I decided to do both cookery and patisserie with ICCA Dubai.
Q. Your business was everything for you then how come you joined Team ICCA?
After studying in a professional kitchen and gaining exposure through so many events and seeing the culinary world at a different level, it opened my eyes to the fact that there are so many facades to the culinary industry today. Studying here at ICCA has definitely given me that foresight. It made me see the possibilities in this industry and made me realize that cooking or baking is not the only way to stay connected to food. Today, you could be a food writer, photographer, stylist, F&B Manager or food consultant I mean the options are endless. So when I was offered to be a part of Team ICCA, I took it as “it was time for a new adventure”.
Q. While you are working at ICCA how do you manage to fulfill your passion for cooking/baking?
I cook for my friends and family for sure which is by default but to satisfy the other side of handling food per se, I help one of my friends in Mumbai with menu development and things similar for her café. That requires a lot of recipe testing and I find it quite interesting also.
Q. You are currently collaborating with a couple of international food web networks; could you please tell us something about it?
One of my good friends, Keshia Hannam, was working as the Digital Marketing Head for a leading culinary magazine in Hong Kong called ‘A Foodie World’ and they also have an e-magazine which is more like a community where they source content from contributors. Upon Keshia’s suggestion I started out with Foodie World e-magazine as a contributor and now I am a part of their team who writes about the Middle Eastern food culture and trends.
Another collaboration I have is with an Indian blog dedicated for Indian women called Indian Women’s blog, for which again I contribute recipes on a regular basis.
Q. In 2016, Indian Women’s Blog listed you as one of the top 11 chefs of India. What are your comments on that?
It was such an overwhelming moment for me. I don’t even think that I completely came to terms with it that they put me in nation’s top 11 because I was sharing that list with prominent figures of Indian culinary industry such as Sanjeev Kapoor and Vikas Khanna. I think it happened because of the number of people who started following me for my contribution to the Indian Women’s Blog which was only 24 recipes a year but the impact it created was insane. I was so humbled by it and it has inspired me to work harder for more.
Q. What are your future plans with ICCA Dubai?
Education is the future and with the growth of ICCA and the way we are moving forward I am very excited to see how we are going to take culinary education to places such as Saudi Arabia and other parts of the world; educating people about food and how it could be more than just a hobby or a routine at home.
Q. Coming back to your childhood ambition to become ‘world’s best baker’, do you still have that in your mind?
I think in all these years my passion has evolved. Earlier it was about being world’s best baker and bringing happiness to people’s homes through my cakes. Yes, that still holds a lot of value and importance to me, but now it’s much more than that. Today the way food industry has evolved and changed, I think it’s very important that we need to understand a lot about sustainability and where do we see our food system going. I would like to be a part of something bigger in the sense of working with environmental conditions and understanding how we can consume produces that are not bad for us as well as for our environment.