From her creative process to the story that led her to launching her vegetarian cookbook, A Spark of Madness, food entrepreneur Simran Savlani shares about her journey navigating the F&B industry.
Simran Savlani loves three things: food, feeding people, and seeing people eat. It was her lifelong dream to open up a restaurant of her own, but her inspiring journey was far from short of ups and downs.
When Simran finally thought she had reached the point where it was time to open up a restaurant in Bombay, the whole world was hit by a pandemic which found her stuck in lockdown for 9 months. Without much to do, Simran experimented with recipes day and night, mixing ingredients she never imagined she would. This led to the launch of her cookbook, A Spark of Madness, carrying 116 vegetarian, Asian-inspired recipes.
Read on to learn about the Spark Girl and her journey below.
Tell us about yourself!
Simran started, “I was born in Taiwan and lived there for 7 years, then moved to Bombay, and then eventually to Hong Kong. I’ve been here for the last 20 years.
Since the age of 4, I knew I wanted to open a restaurant one day. Everything I’ve done in life was on the path of getting closer and closer towards F&B. In high school, I studied FoodTech. During senior year, I was teaching lower school students how to cook. I organised food fairs, whether during my time in Bombay, middle school, or in Hong Kong.
When it came to choosing universities, it was a choice between hospitality or business school. Being a good student academically, I was like let’s do business school instead. You can always use the skillset and learn more about restaurants after anyways! This is when I stumbled upon the media and lifestyle industry which I ended up staying in for 7 years. I was one of the first employees at Sassy Hong Kong and it’s how I learnt about branding and strategy and then working closely with restaurant groups on how to implement that. I got the chance to organise a lot of food walks, bazaars, and activities in F&B. Then I finally decided to put some money where my mouth was!”
The next step in Simran’s career was enrolling in a Restaurant Management Diploma Programme in Paris, without speaking a word of French, where she spent six months training in school and six months working in different restaurants.
Simran added, “In this business, you can’t learn from a textbook, you have to work in it. My life was like Emily in Paris without the good-looking French men and fashion!”
What did you do after your studies in Paris?
For the last internship part of her programme, Simran decided to travel around the world and work in different restaurants and that’s when life took her to Melbourne. She worked there for two months at Chin Chin Melbourne, an Australian restaurant where “there’s a tinge of sweetness in everything Australian. It’s balanced out so well with other flavour profiles!”
After her time in Melbourne, Simran returned to Paris, graduating as a valedictorian with a business plan in hand. She found her way back to Hong Kong and was ready to open her restaurant in the city she knew best. A few weeks in, Simran however felt that she was not ready anymore. Instead, she headed back to Bombay for a holiday and decided to take the plunge and message a few key people in the city’s food scene on Instagram to learn more about their journeys.
She shared, “Can you believe six of them responded back to me? Three of them were chefs and the other three were restaurant owners. I met up with all of them! They told me about their journey and how they became successful in their own career paths.”
Simran’s ideal scenario was to convert an empty shell into a full-fledged restaurant and it just so happened that two out of the six people she met up with in Bombay were coming together to open a new restaurant which led her to moving to Bombay.
“I moved to Bombay for three months and started from scratch again. I took the internship and was travelling an hour and a half every morning to get to work but it was amazing to learn about all the decision making procedures that come with opening a restaurant. There are a lot of things to think about when making every decision, and this is the experience I exactly needed.
I then stumbled upon a career as a restaurant consultant. I went to Lagos, Africa to help open a restaurant there. I helped rebrand a restaurant in Jakarta. I helped a couple of restaurants in Hong Kong, as well.
Then in 2020, I decided that Bombay would be where I opened [my first restaurant]. When Covid-19 hit, I ended up getting stuck in India for nine months until October 2020. I was all alone and suddenly for the first time as an adult, I did not have a job. I had no purpose. I didn’t know what I was doing. I couldn’t foresee what the future was. I was stuck and confused,” said Simran.
All Simran found herself doing was cooking, eating, and cleaning like the rest of the world. Three months into lockdown, Simran started experimenting with recipes at home, “like self-imposed cooking school,” she laughed.
Is this when you created the concept for your vegetarian cookbook, A Spark of Madness?
Simran replied, “Yes! I experimented with a long list of recipes and I finally started taking notes for each of them. It was definitely a challenge because ultimately, I am not a chef. The cookbook now has 116 Asian recipes, all vegetarian!
There’s a good amount of gluten-free recipes in there, as well. The ingredients that I chose for each recipe are also versatile, which means they can be used for more than one dish. If a recipe asks for a unique ingredient, I’ll tell you what other recipes you can use it for. If it has togarashi and you can’t get it in your hometown, I’ll give you a hack on how to make it! The goal of my cookbook is to keep it easy.”
Can you tell us more about A Spark of Madness?
“At the start of each section, there are easier recipes and towards the end, they get a little harder! My book is filled with hacks to make things easier though. There is a great Green Curry Gnocchi recipe in the book, where I will show you how to make gnocchi from scratch, how to make Thai curry paste, and how you get flavours together.
Another thing that was important to me was that my dishes looked exactly like they did in photos as in real life. I wanted to make sure I took every photo in the book myself. Every photo in the book is taken by an iPhone at home using my family’s crockery. I needed everything to look as real as possible,” she explained.
How did you get the vision for the aesthetic of the cookbook?
Simran said she wanted it to look like a coffee table book but deciding what had to be on the cover was a struggle, “I didn’t want the cover to be of my face or a dish. I wanted it to be dark on the outside, colourful and absolutely mad on the inside.”
What was a challenge you came across in the development of A Spark of Madness? Did you have anyone trial your recipes before you launched?
“I’ve never been one to sit down and follow a recipe but I’m here telling you to follow my recipes. Ironic, isn’t it? Secondly, most cookbook authors are either chefs or a food blogger of some sort. I’m neither! I didn’t have the luxury to just sit and test different recipes in my kitchen. I had to do it all, from marketing to business registration, to printing, and everything else in between,” Simran shared.
“I had this idea of putting it up on Instagram. I put up a story sharing that I had 116 recipes that needed to be tried. I’ve got seven sections in the cookbook and my followers could choose which section they’re keen on making something from. This resulted in 130 people from 36 different cities around the world [taking part] – there were more people than recipes,” said Simran.
Can you tell us a little bit more about your pop-up dinner concept, A Mad Dinner?
Simran started, “I’ve never been a fan of launch parties. I hate it when someone’s reading out their book! So I decided to do a pop-up dinner when I first launched my cookbook. The concept is to do a dish from each section of the book. The dinner takes you on a journey through India, China, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, and Singapore, so you get all these flavours coming out.
Everything that’s served comes straight from the book, nothing is modified to make it look restaurant worthy! It’s all food you can make at home yourself. One thing I watch out for is not repeating vegetables across different dishes. We’re officially at A Mad Dinner 4.0 and it has been a really great exercise to promote the cookbook!”
Where do you go for inspiration?
“There’s so many people that inspire me- it could be someone on TikTok or a recipe I saw on Buzzfeed. Being involved with food has always been a dream, for as long as I can remember!
Although, I always get a creative outburst when I’m running or hiking. Being in the mountains made me get my best ideas,” she shared.
Simran added that the idea behind her latest product, Spark Jam, also came to her while hiking. The jams incorporate elements of sugar, spice, and salt, but with an alcoholic splash.
What’s your favourite food or most popular recipe from your book?
“I think I’ve consumed my Spark Sauces, which come in 3 different flavours, more than anything the past year. I put it on everything! I survived quarantine because of my Spark Crispy Chilli Oil.
The most popular recipe in the book are the Taiwanese scallion pinwheels which involve three ingredients: puff pastry, the caramelised spring onion Spark Sauce, and sesame seeds. Another dish I think everyone should try is curd rice. It’s a very common dish in India but in the cookbook it has undergone some madness!” Simran replied.
Tell us more about your Spark Sauces!
Simran shared, “The Spark Sauces are made with six different types of chillies. There’s chillies from Sichuan peppercorns, African chilli, Indian chilli, Korean chilli, Thai chilli, and smoked paprika which is mixed with fried garlic shallots, fried onions, sesame seeds, vinegar and sesame oil.
I wanted all three sauces to have a spicy, sweet and salty taste to it. They’re all Asian-inspired! The Spark Crispy Chilli Oil is a cleaner version of the one we find in restaurants here. It’s for dumplings, fried noodles, everything! The Spark Caramelised Spring Onion is super simple and clean. It took me the longest time to make but is also the simplest in terms of ingredients. It’s slow-cooked spring onion with sesame, ginger and then a balance of vinegar, and salt, perfect for soba noodles or stir-fried tofu, but it can also double up as a Greek salad dressing!
The third one is the Spark Crack Sauce which is peanut, sesame, brown sugar, chilli, oil, and vinegar – a burst of flavours coming together perfect for sushi, roasted chicken or a cheese board with vegetable sticks!”
What advice do you have for others looking to go down a similar path?
“It’s the Robin Williams quote: ‘You’re only given one little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.’ If you have an idea, do your homework. Do your research. Send a message to whoever you need to! Seek for help and you’ll get it. Everyone’s willing to share their stories and tell you their trials, tribulations and also successes. Be a little mad, get a crazy idea,” said Simran.
What does a day in your life look like?
“I work best at night when the rest of the world is asleep. I wrote my cookbook every night from 12am to 4am – my golden working hours. Every day is different, some days I’m at the food factory making sauces, other days I’m at food tastings or speaking to retailers or planning for upcoming events! If there’s a day where I don’t feel like working, there’s no one else who will pick up the slack so every day is very different.
I’d like to highlight that not every day is amazing. It’s only when I step away and had time to think about it, then, it only feels like I’ve achieved something. I think it’s important you don’t lose track of the goal,” answered Simran
Do you have any exciting ventures coming up this year?
“I’ve just launched a range of alcoholic jam – Spark Jam! It has a sugary and salty combination but is not your typical jam. You could either use it on biscuits, cakes, waffles, pancakes, or as a cocktail mixer!
Take a spoon of it, mix it in with the spirit of your choice or any carbonated beverage. Or you can use it as a spread at a barbecue! It’s got spices and herbs coming out but also a taste of sweetness to round it all up,” Simran shared.