Indian cuisine has, since time immemorial, been a beautiful amalgamation of distinct cultures. With more than 30 regional cuisines, each with a 5,000-year heritage, there are enough flavours to last for a lifetime. This exciting blend keeps on giving as, over the years, flavours from all over the world have been introduced to the national palate. From Southeast Asian dishes to traditional Middle Eastern cuisines, most people are still unaware of these offerings. For Pawan Soni, the trek across the nation and the chance to try a plethora of local cuisines started out as a hobby but it was a hobby that would go on to create a much bigger impact on the ecosystem. The founder and CEO of Indian Food Freak, a corporate professional, a foodie and a WSET Level 2 wine connoisseur; is introducing the whole nation to different cuisines and creating vibrant communities driven by a shared love for food.
As one of the oldest and biggest food and travel blogs in India, Soni has taken his passion for food and changed the industry for good. Along with the food blogs, he is known for strictly abiding by his principle of providing genuine reviews and constructive feedback to any place he visits. He used this philosophy to build one of the most successful food awards, the Big F Awards, now in its 11th year. But where did this enthusiast’s journey begin?
A foodie since birth
Raised in western Uttar Pradesh, both of Pawan Soni’s parents had rigorous jobs that involved a lot of transfers. In the 80s of his childhood, eating out was not a big trend, yet Soni explored restaurants in every city his parents were posted to. His partner-in-crime was his father, who became the chief influence on Soni’s future hobbies. Moreover, even when busy, his mother made quick and delicious meals that further ignited his interest. Soni also believes that his foodie nature comes from his blood, particularly from his grandfather, who managed a sweets business.
“Perhaps the foodie nature also stems from my grandfather. He was in the sweets business. Even though I never met him, I heard things from my dad,” shared Soni in an exclusive interview with The Story Watch.
Soni graduated from Delhi University and later went on to get an MBA from IMI, Delhi. Though his early professional career was in the corporate sector, his food-loving nature never waned. Soon after graduation, he went on to work for Electrolux, which helped him hone his taste buds with different cuisines as he travelled a lot because of the job. After Electrolux, he worked for HSBC, but his longest stint started with GE Capital, where he worked for almost 10 years.
Soni took advantage of every place his work took him, trying out all the different foods he could get his hands on. Travelling and eating were his true passions. Even when people wondered why a senior executive of an MNC was waiting in line to eat from a street vendor, Soni did not care.
“I used to travel the entire country while working at GE Capital. It was established in smaller nooks and corners of the country, and I got to explore the local cuisines,” shared Soni.
Food blogging as a stress reliever
Soni’s life as a corporate professional was understandably stressful. At that time blogs were completely unheard of, yet Soni wanted to document and share his experiences with the world. At first, this was a simple hobby, but things changed when Soni wrote an article about a bad experience he had at the Taj Hotel.
Despite being a regular, the apathy of the management staff at the hotel was a shock for him. Soon after he shared the blog, it blew up, even though, back then, blog posts were not a thing. The blog spiraled to the PR team of the Taj Hotel, who invited Soni to come back to renew his experience free of charge. Yet, Soni declined. A free meal or a free stay was never his intention; he just wanted to share a honest feedback of his experience for management to act upon. This entire incident opened his eyes to people’s interest in reviews like this, and he started taking his blogging seriously.
Over time he realized, that while the blog was going strong, a shift seemed necessary as he wanted a platform that enabled a two-way communication with his audience. He opened a Facebook page to share his food-related thoughts, called Indian Food Freak.
Indian Food Freak (IFF) became the standard destination for food lovers. The site provided honest restaurant reviews and allowed cooks, chefs and foodies to share their favourite, tried-and-tested recipes. The food columns were not just a space for gourmet destinations; they also featured small and tasteful street corners.
Around the same time, Facebook changed its policies. Indian Food Freak’s reach became stagnant merely as a Facebook page. Pawan Soni knew that to go forth with this venture of food exploration, he’d have to take a different route. This gave rise to groups like Gurgaon Food Freak. Their Facebook group garnered a following of 42,000+ foodies, coming from all over the nation. Still, the best was yet to come.
A gathering of food-loving enthusiasts
Coming from a middle-class family, the importance of saving money was deeply instilled in Soni. Once he had worked hard enough to provide a stable life for himself and his family, he shifted his focus towards enjoying his life. He took up consulting jobs at FMCG companies to ensure a steady income and moved towards his calling for a food-filled adventure.
“Money earning is a source so we can enjoy our lives. Our aim in life is not to make money but to enjoy life, but money becomes a conduit to do that. I knew I could enjoy myself with the money I have currently without running after bigger prospects,” said Soni.
Gurgaon was the perfect place to start, as a melting pot of people from all over the nation who came together to enjoy and share different cultural dishes. With Gurgaon Food Freak, his intention was to create a common platform where every member could voice their honest opinion, with even senior restauranteurs present. IFF respected all cuisines, and any negativity was strictly avoided. They carried out activities like food walks, potlucks, and group eatings.
“People have found lovely families and a friend circle through the foodie group. Gurgaon is a unique example where everyone has shifted from a different part of the world. It had become a melting pot of different people from all over the country with evolved tastebuds. So that’s how Gurgaon Food Freak came up with these events,” shared Pawan Soni about the endeavour.
The events allowed for an open interaction between like-minded people. It even shortlisted people based on events they were most likely to enjoy, keeping things like price, taste, and habits in mind. This gave rise to a vibrant community of food connoisseurs.
The eminent Big F Awards
Gurgaon Food Freak gave rise to its extensions through Delhi and Mumbai Food Freak. Soni’s community and his own authentic reviews have gained him many accolades through the years. Soon enough, he became privy to one of the malpractices in the food industry. Many of these food awards were handed out to people without any thought or precedence. They could even be bought. This led Soni to start his own food awards. These Gurgaon-based awards had a strict no-nomination money policy and ensured zero misconduct. The nominees of every category were invited, and the winners were revealed right on stage.
“We told the chefs and judges up front that we wouldn’t be paying them but instead giving them an honest voice. These people already had money, and they also wanted to be associated with an honest award. Because awards were very prevalent back then but honesty couldn’t be seen anywhere,” shared Soni.
These community-led awards gave a platform to upcoming mavericks in the industry and uplifted home cooks and street vendors. They were so authentic with zero monetary incentive that, funnily enough, in the early days, some winners did not attend because they were suspicious. Yet soon enough, the awards scaled up. It has seen the attendance of famous celebrity chefs like Sanjeev Kapoor, Ranveer Brar, Ajay Chopra, Vicky Ratnani, and even singers like Amrita Rai and Neha Bhasin.
Every nomination and winner was an honest one. The jury for the Big F Awards worked meticulously to taste and review every dish. Coding every food item to avoid any bias and being open about every vote to avoid any discrepancy. The Big F Awards 2023 had a nine-person prominent jury consisting of Chef Ashish Bhasin, Diwan Gautam Anand, Chef Kunal Kapur, Chef Manisha Bhasin, Chef Nita Mehta, Pawan Soni, Chef Rakesh Sethi, Rocky Singh, and Chef Sabyasachi Gorai.
Not a road without challenges
Perhaps the biggest challenge in an endeavour built on truthfulness is the expectation of image building on social media. Part of a community of thousands of members, Pawan Soni’s goal is to eat, enjoy, and write about the places he frequents. The no-monetization model was built into his mind from the very start. Through the years, he has had to turn away multiple organizations looking to get their products advertised. He did all this while ignoring the harsh comments on social media platforms that target every move a person makes.
This judgmental atmosphere has often slipped into his own community as well. Some members tend to not respect the call for an open and unbiased atmosphere and push their own opinions onto others.
“People might disagree and think their views are better. I say you can have your own views; you might like one restaurant, and I might like another. As long as we can both speak our minds, let’s give freedom of expression to both of us. Agar khaane me ek hi taste aapko accha lagta hai tab toh sirf ek hi restaurant chalega (If someone likes only one taste, then only one restaurant can be functional). We all have different tastes, and we should acknowledge that,” Soni shared about how he deals with these differences in opinions.
Wish for a future with fun and stability
Pawan Soni knew that his life was for him to follow his interests. Amongst colleagues suffering from work-related health concerns, he knew he could not get this life back if he hesitated. His endeavour has changed the lives of many. Through Indian Food Freak, many have found a welcoming community where they not only find the best places to eat but also a family away from home.
Currently, Soni is satisfied and thankful for where his hobby has led him and has no plans to grow his endeavour inorganically which would dilute its impact. The platform continues to grow and thrive organically. Happy with the place he has reached, Soni only wishes for stability and peace of mind to continue his journey.
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