The original article appeared in The Hindu - Stories from the oven - The Hindu
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Somewhere in the early 1924, an enterprising Swiss couple Mrs. Jeanne Strechi Wenger along with her husband H C Wenger began a catering venture for the British troops operating from Kashmere Gate called Wenger’s. Their food must have been good as in the then being built Connaught Place, a portion of the A Block was reserved to house Wenger’s. Wenger’s officially shifted to their present location, in early 1930s, with its confectionery and tea room - Rendezvous (café), La Mer (ball room) and Green Room (party room) spread over two floors. In true Raj style, during summers, Wenger’s downed its shutters to move to Wenger’s Simla, the summer capital. Soon a young Brij Mohan Tandan, joined as General Manager. In 1944, Mrs. Wenger sold the business to Tandan and retired to Dehradun. Atul Tandon, current owner / partner who runs Wenger’s today with his brother – first cousin Aman Tandon recalls, “I still remember in the late 60s of going to Dehradun during summer holidays. In the evening we would visit Mrs. Wenger and she would treat us to homemade baked goodies and take us for a ride around town in her car. We used to call her Memsahib!”
Tandan had learned the ropes of the business, and carried forth the legacy that the establishment spelt, the emphasis on quality and everything made in-house – proprietory. As Atul Tandon, says. “what my grandfather bought was the brand name, the utensils and some equipments which were there. Over the years, we have innovated, closed some operations, introduced new variants, started the Deli, manufacturing at Noida and over hauled the production process.” Charanjeet Singh, manager, an old hand who joined Wenger’s in 1965 says, “then we had four types of pastries made using margarine - pineapple, strawberry, vanilla and chocolate. They cost Rs. 5 per dozen and people would buy a dozen or half a dozen and not less. Today, we have over 70 varieties of pastries all made from fresh cream which no one does. In chocolates there were 7 – 8 variety, now we have 22 varieties of chocolates.”
It does come as a surprise that a majority of the “European confectionery or patisserie products” were actually introduced by the Tandons. At one point of time, it also had a range of Indian mithais available. The ground floor patisserie shop is the only iconic landmark reminder.
Wenger’s had the who’s who coming for its delights. Atul Tandon laughs, “M F Husain would sit in the restaurant and speak to my Tayaji. He would doodle and sketch on the cotton cloth napkins and leave them behind, which would be promptly thrown into the dustbin by my Tayaji. It was considered a wasted napkin.” Singh adds, “He used to walk in bare feet and he loved our Shammi kababs and Chicken patties.” He parts with more gems, “Actress Helen is fond of our wine chocolates and visited us often then. Atal Behari Vajpayee before becoming the PM would simply walk in and buy vegetarian products. The plum cake was a great gifting option to the Late Indira Gandhi.” It is still a popular gifting option. From the over 250 products, it is the pineapple pastry, black forest cake, truffle which rule the roost. Traditional preparations like the plum cake, pudding are still made using the old recipe perfected by Mrs. Wenger with improvisation. Easter specials of hot cross buns, marzipan and Easter eggs work well. Recently custard based peach tart pastry has been launched as also Panettone.
With the onslaught of competition, Wenger’s has managed a fine balance of uncompromising on quality with affordable prices. Fruits are soaked in rum for over a month and the long procedure is followed. However, what touches the heart most is the old world hospitality of personalised service, polite unhurried charm a throwback to the times of what Delhi once was.