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The pandemic pushed many of us to a standstill in our lives. But, whether in terms of careers or our personal lives, we often must choose between fight or flight in tackling our problems. A Spark of Madness founder Simran Savlani chose the latter.
Her career unknowingly and unexpectedly took off thanks to the pandemic after a few rounds of trial and error. Although her lifelong dream has been to become a successful restaurateur, COVID made it basically impossible to pursue those goals over the last few years. So instead, Savlani used her time in quarantine and lockdown to develop her culinary skills, leading to several exciting projects, including her own cookbook.
TMS caught up with Savlani to learn more about her “spark of madness," what kept her going during the pandemic and her unexpected entrepreneurial journey.
Before the pandemic, Savlani enjoyed what she describes as an “Emily in Paris" moment. She quit her then-job in media and consulting, despite having reached a high position, to study and pursue what she’d always dreamed of – entering the F&B industry.
But, she doesn’t recall the decision to have been difficult at the time. She knew a different track from media was a better fit for her. “I was like, OK, I can do this, it doesn’t take a lot out of me – but am I happy doing it?" she remembers. “Or am I learning something from it? I don’t think so. So, I knew that it had an expiry date for me."
Moving to France, Savlani enrolled in the famous culinary school Le Cordon Bleu to study restaurant management. She went through months of training and internships that gave her the confidence to pursue her goal of opening her own restaurant.
“I do not have aspirations to be a chef," Savlani explains. “I don’t have the skill set or the acumen or the patience or attention to detail, but I wanted to learn how to run restaurants. The program was beautiful, where it was six months of training in school and six months of internships.
But, when Savlani returned to Hong Kong, the F&B landscape wasn’t ideal for opening a new restaurant, and many of her mentors also felt that she wasn’t ready.
“Coming back, I hesitated," says Savlani. “I didn’t think it was the right time and Hong Kong – this was 2017 – it was a very different F&B landscape. It was governed by the top five or six big dining groups."
On a trip to India, Savlani met up with some chefs and restauranteurs she contacted through social media, and they all told her that she didn’t have enough experience. Coincidentally, two of the chefs she met up with were about to open a restaurant together, so she saw the perfect learning opportunity to intern with them and see the process first-hand.
“I thought this would be perfect for me because, OK, they’re not brand new to the restaurant space, but they’re coming together as a unit and that’s brand new. So there will be room for them to make mistakes, and that’s where my learning would come in. But they also have the experience that I can learn from their stories."
So, Savlani moved to Mumbai to work through the restaurant opening. Despite the internship’s challenges, such as a low salary and a long commute, the insight and skills Savlani gained from the experience were priceless. From decisions regarding choosing crockery to restaurant logistics to designing menus, the internship gave her the skills she needed to become a restaurant consultant.
Savlani went on to help open several restaurants, including Soho House in Mumbai, a restaurant in Lagos, Nigeria, “revitalizing" a 30-year-old family-run restaurant in Jakarta for a new generation taking over its management and finally coming back to Hong Kong to open two more restaurants.
Returning to Hong Kong, Savlani finally felt she had enough experience to return to her original plan – opening her own restaurant. The idea was to open an authentic Malaysian restaurant with an atmosphere fit for both comfort food and a night out. However, the location was still an issue.
“Hong Kong still felt saturated because every idea had been done in Hong Kong, and it was almost like a cookie cutter where you had a different plate and then you had maybe a different wallpaper, but it was the same idea," she says. “And after having spent time in India, I realized there were so many things not done in India, which I thought I could bring something new to the table."
So it was back to India for Savlani, and while everything seemed to be coming together, the pandemic hit and shifted everything to a standstill. “After spending my entire life as an adult working, I had nothing to do for the first time ever," Savlani says. “I wasn’t fun employed – I was just unemployed. And that was, it was hard. Lockdown was for one month, two months. Do I still work on my business plan? Is this even valid anymore? Like I just didn’t know."
“A Spark of Madness"
Savlani was disappointed, but with all the cooking (and cleaning) she occupied herself with during lockdown and quarantine, she’d also found a new hobby to keep her going – experimenting with food. She documented the process on Instagram and received positive feedback from her followers.
“I used to look up YouTube videos or new cooking styles, things that I haven’t learned before. I was ordering my own vegetables, I was looking at vegetables which I haven’t cooked with before like jackfruit and celeriac root and palm heart, and I was like, ‘They all sound exciting but I actually don’t even know what they look like in their raw form.’ And I was just pushing up on Instagram just for people to see, and people were asking me for recipes," says Savlani.
Since lockdown left her with plenty of free time, she started typing out the recipes she’d developed and sending them to people.
“Then when I decided to come back to quarantine in Hong Kong, and I got a flight finally, while I was in quarantine for 14 days, it was like ‘OK, you already have these recipes typed out. You took some photos for Instagram. Why don’t you just put it together as an e-book, just for yourself, or for your family?’ Like, it’s just something to be like ‘This is what I did during COVID.’ I started doing it again, then it just took on a life of its own."
Inspired by an Instagram handle of an account she had made to document her journey in Paris – which she believed at the time was her “spark of madness" – she started bringing her cookbook to life. It wasn’t an easy process, with so many details and the work that went in.
“So then that became a nine-month project. It was my COVID baby. I had to rewrite all the recipes, I had to standardize them. I’m someone who cooks by just throwing things together in a pot. Suddenly, now I’m over here telling people what to do and guide them through my recipes, everything had to be measured. I had to retest the recipes to make sure it still works, you know, just cooking it once does not mean that it’s going to work again the second time."
She also photographed all the dishes herself to make her book as genuine and similar to the reader’s experience as can be. “You will see some cheap plates, you will see the coriander not looking so perky, but that’s how coriander looks when you put it on a hot dish. It starts to wilt."
As Savlani was born in Taiwan and influenced by so many cultures while living in India, Hong Kong and America, the cookbook features 116 Asian vegetarian recipes with different Asian influences – from India, China, Thailand, Vietnam, Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore – as well as sections like brunch, picnic and other goodies with an Asian twist.
Savlani finished the book, but with her PR and media background, she also wanted a creative marketing idea to help launch it. She thought of merch but didn’t want the typical apron, bottle opener or tote bag. “That’s when the sauces happened," Savlani says.
Continuing her spark of creativity, Savlani created three sauces to pay homage to Hong Kong – a crispy chili oil composed of eight different chilis, a gluten-free caramelized spring onion and a “Crack Sauce" (inspired by dan dan noodles).
“The sauces from conception to ideation to holding the jars in my hand was a six week long project. And it sounds crazy because the recipes were developed for a really long time. The recipes for the sauces are in the book. You can make the sauces yourself, but they’re more simplified versions in the book," explains Savlani.
“It was just an idea to start, and I thought it’d just be e-commerce. It’s now taking a life of its own. It’s available at several stores in Hong Kong. The plan is to take it overseas hopefully to Singapore starting soon."
The optimistic entrepreneur
Describing her entrepreneurial journey in one word, Savlani says, “unplanned."
“I have an idea, and then I go for it, and then I fall down, and I’m like, ‘What were you thinking? Why were you doing this?'"
This goes to show in her latest project – Spark Jam – as well. While out on a hike, another hobby she gained during the pandemic, the idea of alcoholic jams came to Savlani. But, she wanted something more versatile than jam only good for bread or scones. She came up with what flavors she wanted and how people could use them, like in cocktails or marinades, but realized that she didn’t know how to make jam.
“But I rushed through the process. I went to the food factory, I made massive batches of the jam, came back. The next day, I woke up and opened the jar and it wasn’t jam. It didn’t have the texture of jam, it wasn’t the consistency of jam. I had 750 jars of this ‘not so jam.’ I did not know what to do. And I was like, ‘Now what? Like what did I do wrong? Where do I fix this? Do I even go ahead with this product launch?'"
Savlani was stumped. But, her optimism and tenacity kept her going. She left the 750 jars of jam to use elsewhere and focused on starting from scratch to make the perfect jam.
“You just gotta keep trying. I don’t ever believe in not trying. I think that’s the number one thing that if I have a goal and if I don’t get it in one way, I will keep trying and several different ways," says Savlani. “If I fall down, I will get back up. It will take me time, but I will get there."
Savlani also began working on her “Mad Dinners" project, a traveling series of pop-up dinners that feature a nine-course Asian vegetarian meal with one dish from each section of her cookbook.
This project, too, was inspired by the side effects of the pandemic. Coordinating the events with quarantine schedules, she’s so far held the dinners in Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, Bombay and Jaipur and is planning to return to Singapore and Manila soon.
“The work life balance which everyone strives for, I do not have it at all. I’ll be very honest. I struggle with getting more time in the day and trying to make everything happen. But I’m OK with it. I’ve come to terms with it," Savlani shares.
Although 2020 and 2021 proved to be very challenging for Savlani, she kept searching to rediscover her “purpose." For someone whose purpose always revolved around work, the pandemic initially stunted her drive and passion. But she wasn’t going to give up so easily.
“I have evolved and have elevated from that, but work will always define who I am. And more so right now, actually, because A Spark of Madness is me, and I am A Spark of Madness."
What’s next for Savlani’s Spark?
Although perhaps not in the near future, Savlani is still keen on having her own restaurant one day. “It’s what I wanted since I was four years old, so I don’t think I’m gonna shift away from that goal," she says. “But it won’t happen for a few years … Just learning from experience, I will not touch F&B as a physical space at least until ’25, ’26."
Aside from the cookbook, Savlani’s Spark Store offers her Spark Sauce, Spark Jams and Spark Bark, her take on a holiday product with Sichuan peppercorns, pretzel and salt. “Everything that I do, I want to try have the perfect bite of sugar, spice and salt. That’s what I strive for either in the sauces or with the chocolate," she says.
The “A Spark of Madness" cookbook is celebrating its one-year anniversary this month. You can find Savlani’s products online and in stores around Hong Kong, like Bookazine, Live Zero, Slowood, M+ Museum and more.
“The one biggest thing was that I always thought the only way for me to be involved with food would be restaurants. I just didn’t think of anything else," says Savlani. “I did not think by launching food products, I’m still feeding people. I’m still getting that same response, that joy when they have that first bite, and I’m excited about it but without a restaurant. So my goal is still being met."
But, Savlani has the COVID pandemic both to blame and thank for her journey so far.
“I honestly would not have been where I am if it wasn’t for COVID," says Savlani. “I would have probably opened the restaurant, maybe even failed at the restaurant … I don’t know what life would have been if it wasn’t for the cookbook, if it wasn’t for a Spark Store and everything that’s coming with it. But it’s also good because now I’m learning more and I’m feeling more and more prepared. I’m still on that path. It’s not taking me away from it. It’s just a different journey to get there."