Interview With the Pieneer
For this week’s Small Business Saturdays, the team interviewed the most coveted baker in town, The Pieneer!
1. After being a part of the Lahore Biennale in 2015 and most recently, organising a show called ‘Unmaking History’ which talked a lot along the themes of decolonisation, what made you want to start baking as well?
This commercial baking venture was never part of my plan. I had finished my masters in art history (on a Fulbright scholarship) from the San Francisco Art Institute and had planned to become a teacher. I started off teaching part-time then eventually full-time while working with LBF and doing curatorial projects. In 2018, I was in Texas and my friend Suzanne took me to this amazing pie place. I tried pecan pie there for the first time and then went to Massachusetts to stay with my cousin Sabeen, and I told her about this pie. She, herself, is an amazing baker and we tried to replicate this pie. It turned out delicious. I came back to Lahore, fiddled around trying to get the perfect pie crust, and when my friends tried it, they loved it and insisted that I start selling this pie. I resisted a great deal because I never wanted to get into commercial baking so at first, I only opened orders up through my personal Instagram account. The word (and the pie) spread and before I knew it, I was completely booked for a month!
2. Both being creative fields, what would you say is the one major difference between art and baking?
It’s hard to say. I think if you inject a certain amount of heart into anything it can be identified as art. I often joke about how each pie is a “feelings” pie and has all of my feelings from the day in it. There’s a lot of love and labour that goes into each pie and baking is most certainly a creative outlet for me, whereas teaching cultural studies and art history keeps me mentally stimulated. The major difference is theory though, and I think the absence of it in my baking practice has kept me from taking my pies to the gallery in an attempt to pass them off as art.
3. When was the first time you remember baking something?
Ah, that would have to be back in my O levels when I studied Food & Nutrition and was under the tutelage of the incomparable Mrs. Shirley Cross. I’m quite sure the first thing I ever baked properly in her class was cupcakes.
4. Did you learn to bake from someone or are you entirely self-taught?
I learned from the best – Mrs. Cross. So much of what I know about food theory and planning is because of her. And from my late grandfather, Dr. Fazal-ud-din, a veterinary surgeon by profession and the founder of Pioneer store, who wasn’t a baker but he was very passionate about food. He used to wake up at 4 am and would be making homemade pickles in huge vats, experimenting with ready to eat frozen food, bottling his almond syrup/badaam ka sherbet – stuff our store was really well-known for. He was a great inspiration for me and sometimes I’d watch him in the kitchen and listen to his pointers on whatever he was making. But since O levels I never really baked until five or six years ago, so most of what I now make was self-taught through trial and error.
5. What is the most popular thing on the menu?
No doubt, the pecan pie! It is the beast that started it all, and is still the best-seller.
6. What’s your favourite thing to make on the menu?
I love making lemon meringue pie because the transformation of egg-white and sugar into meringue is always so beautiful to watch. I feel that generally the process of combination and transformation in cooking is fascinating.
7. What is the most rewarding thing that you get out of owning and running The Pieneer?
I feel like my grandfather would have been really proud of me and in some ways, it feels like I’m continuing his legacy. It is also one of the best feelings in the world when someone reaches out to you and tells you they tasted something you made with your own hands and how much they enjoyed it. That feeling never gets old.
8. What skill would you say is most important for you to have in your line of work?
I don’t think it’s enough to just have a good recipe – knowing the chemical makeup of ingredients really informs my practice and helps me figure out the best way to execute a recipe. Also, baking or cooking in small batches yields better quality in my opinion. I do pretty much everything myself and this is how I am able to monitor the quality of the product, and expansion is not a priority for me. Good food loses something when you mass-produce and open branches and branches all over the city, in my opinion.
9. What was the worst baking disaster you ever had, that you still just cannot get over?
I’ve had my share of baking disasters but the worst is always when I take something freshly baked out of the oven and while I’m marveling at its beauty, I fumble and drop it face-down onto the floor, and it shatters into a million pieces. It takes all of me not to burst into tears when something like that happens!
10. Any advice for aspiring home bakers who want to do this full time?
I want to say “with great pies, comes great responsibility” and end on that ominous yet appalling joke. BUT if you’re a home-baker and you want to go commercial, you should definitely take some sort of course or classes in running a commercial kitchen because the two are so different. Only very few can successfully make that transition smoothly, and this is another reason why I am hesitant to open up a physical bakery. I hope to have time to study this more if I ever take that leap.
Head on over to Instagram for more information at @thepieneer