Born and raised in Dubai, Nadia Parekh was on the path to becoming a clinical psychologist before realising that she was more suited to a career in food.
When you conjure up the image of a gap year, a grand diploma at Le Cordon Bleu in London doesn’t immediately come to mind, but that’s exactly what Nadia Parekh did. Having completed clinical psychology degree at Canada’s McGill University, Parekh was about to start her masters but decided to take a ‘break’ to go to culinary school. After an intensive one-year programme in cuisine and pastry, Parekh completed an internship at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, the eponymous chef’s three Michelin star venue. Placements at the Sheraton Park Lane and with famed chocolatier William Curley followed, and it became clear that sticking to her original plan was no longer an option.
She explains: “After my time in London, I just I couldn't imagine doing anything else. I just loved working in kitchens and I'd never felt part of a family in a job situation.”
Parekh moved back to Dubai in 2013. She says: “The hospitality industry at that point was booming. There were so many hotels opening and I ﬁgured it was a good time to get my foot in the door. So I moved back home and I got my very ﬁrst permanent position at Fairmont The Palm Dubai. I was part of the pre-opening team there and I worked there for just under two years. That was when I would say that I got my most intensive training in the industry.
"I started off as a commis chef and I climbed my way up doing production and trained in buffet desserts. That's where I excelled."
From the Fairmont, Parekh went on to complete placements at Marina Social under Tristan Farmer and then Play Restaurant which was headed by Reif Othman at the time. Though she enjoyed her time in professional kitchens, she soon realised that it wasn't for her in the long term: "There were a lot of reasons. Though I did love kitchens, one thing that really frustrated me was that after a while you were doing the same thing over and over again. I was still learning but I missed the creative aspect of things. It almost became like you were like a machine.
You were doing the same thing again and again. That started to get to me a little bit. And secondly, it's tough. It's a lifestyle choice to work in hospitality in general. I do miss working in big kitchens but I don't miss the pay and I don't miss the hours. I know that it works for some people and I really admire that. I knew I couldn't do it for the rest of my life. It wasn't a sustainable lifestyle for me. I couldn't fund myself when it came to things like travel. A lot of the reason that I enjoy travel is the food. I love to taste and experience food from other cultures.
"I knew I needed to learn and I needed to train but the goal was always to start my own brand at some point."
That came in 2015 when she founded Mélange. Initially, it operated as a catering business where Parekh could put her hospitality training to good use.
However she soon became a victim of her own success. She explains: "It came to a point where the orders were increasing and the problem was that I was just a one-woman show. In order to succeed ﬁnancially in catering, you need volume. So then I decided to go into cakes because with cakes there’s a higher margin and you can pull it off with one person. You don't need a whole team of people if it's bespoke."
The move to a new product category was challenging at ﬁrst: "I had to really work on it but I thought it was a great opportunity to use all the skills that I had learned in terms of sugar work, chocolate work, everything that I've learned in the in the industry that I was trained in, but just use it in a different way. So instead of making a small garnishes for buffet desserts, I made larger chocolate toppers and give them a bit of an edge, which is something that I thought the market here was missing."
It was around the same time that Parekh started her blog: "The food scene was really evolving and I would go out to all these restaurants because I was passionate about the industry. So I started a blog and then the two just got linked together because I would put my cakes on it and I would also blog about restaurants. It was all intertwined."
Her blog helped Parekh build a large following on Instagram, which opened doors. She says: "Just meeting people and making contacts in the same industry that you're in. It's not easy to make connections here because I feel like everyone's very separated into their own cliques. Blogging really helped me meet people in the industry and get noticed in general, not only for being a foodie, but also being in the industry as a chef. Social media is how it all started for me. Without Instagram, I'm not sure where my business would be."
Due to the success of her cake business, Parekh recently brought on a partner (Saad Umerani) to help her scale up: "The cakes have started running themselves because thankfully they have become well-known in the city. However, whenever I would leave the country or if I was sick, all business would halt. "I don't have a background in business. It's not what I'm good at. And that's where my partner comes in, because he's deﬁnitely helped me take that next step towards creating Mélange and directing it into a more viable business."
The retail division of Mélange was launched in November 2019. Parekh says: "It started off very small. I was supplying to one café, 20 Grams Specialty Coffee. I would just make them cookies, tarts and brownies and they were just ﬂying in their coffee shop. It was doing so well that I saw a lot of potential in these products. I wanted to start a retail line and do something more or supply to more cafés, but I just didn't know how to scale up. That's where I needed help."
Parekh couldn't produce the volumes needed to make the business viable and sustainable from her home kitchen, so Parekh and her partner decided that kitchen sharing was the way to go. This allowed them to avoid making the massive investment that having their own kitchen would entail. The solution also allowed them to focus on other aspects. She explains: "We made boxes and we really focused on the brand and logistics, outsourcing deliveries, production, and of course, protecting my recipes."
Still, Parekh had her share of challenges especially when it came to funding: "First of all, you have to get a business license and you have to renew it every year. The minimum is AED20,000 a year, but that's without any visas and hardly any activities on your license. For each activity, you have to pay one or two thousand more and then if you want a visa on your license, you have to pay even more.
If you have your own kitchen, you need to pay rent and get all the equipment. On top of that, you have to ﬁnd a space that has enough power to actually run a kitchen, which is rare. So we decided to just use kitchens that were already set up and work out of them. It's a good middle ground especially for a start-up."
Speaking about the market, Parekh says: "Dubai is all about how you position your product because the food industry here works on trends. If you're able to position your product properly and then promote it and publicise it, you can make it here for sure. Of course, you have to keep evolving, you have to be on top of the trends here and you have to sort of change up your products and do new things. It's a continuous process but I do think that there is opportunity in the market, especially in pastry."
Parekh seems to be taking advantage of the opportunities in a measured way, explaining: "We decided against doing a café because we felt that the market was saturated. So we launched an online shop. We decided to just launch retail and approach cafés that ﬁ t the brand. We have B2C and B2B going as well."
She also did her research when it came to product and ingredient selection. She explains: "When I was creating the ﬂavours for the products, I had to really look at the market because you have to create things that not only you like, but they have to appeal to the general public's palette. That was one thing that I had to really work on because over here desserts are very sweet."
The resulting range was an ode to popular childhood treats. She says: "These ﬂavours are very nostalgic. There's a peanut sesame tartlet and the other one is called the morning after tartlet. It has a brown sugar custard at the base and caramelised corn ﬂakes on top.
Then we have the classics like chocolate chunk and salted caramel. You can't go wrong. We tried to pick things in a way that everyone could ﬁnd something that they like, but just a little more reﬁ ned and balanced in terms of ﬂavour.
"We're using really good quality products like Elle & Vire butter and cream and PatisFrance chocolate. We're not skimping on quality and we want that to come through in our products."
Parekh's immediate plans are to focus on growing the online shop and her reach through partnering with more cafés and food halls. Her ultimate goal would be to go back to hotels, albeit in a different way: "That's deﬁnitely our target market. That really ﬁts the brand because Mélange is a little bit more niche, quality focused products. The branding is minimalistic chic, a little bit industrial, so I think that it would ﬁt hotels very well. I would love to supply amenities in the rooms or the lobby cafés. It's deﬁnitely what we're working towards.