Fathmath Jisthee of Janavareemage has been a name synonymous with cakes and baking since the nineties. We had a rare opportunity to sit down with this legend and find out a bit about her journey through the years and what she is up to these days.
Jisthee first baked her first cake at the tender age of eleven during the late seventies. As she puts it “My love affair with sugar began at the age of eleven and is still going strong. My first cake, I would say was a disaster, but I never gave up. At the very beginning it was just a hobby that has turned into my profession over the years.”
Her introduction to cooking was during her school year in the Home Science class. She recalls how her classmates who were interested in baking would get together at her house during the weekend and her teacher would visit and demonstrate for them.
“We did not have internet those days, we did not have any materials to refer to. Because the only option back then was cook books unlike now; we can google and find any recipe now. So we had to rely on books. And it was very fortunate for me because my dad was a sea captain; he was travelling in the Asia region. He got a lot of books for me and he was the one that got the equipment for me to start initially, like ovens and stuff. When I was small he got small ovens for me but as I advanced in age he got bigger ones for me, even industrial ones. I got a lot of backing and inspiration from him.”
During her school year Jisthee mainly baked cakes for her friends and family. But by the time she was done with her A’levels, her business was up and running. As there were not a lot of dessert options Jisthee decided to branch out into making pastries and other sweets for parties.
“It was pretty difficult at the beginning, but we were living together in an extended family, so I got great help from my family members and friends. So Thursdays Fridays Saturdays we were very busy on Thursday, Friday and Saturday so all of them would come and help me.”
After multiple years of successfully running her business she decided to go abroad and continue her studies. She handed over her business to one of her cousins who had been with her through the years.
“I knew that in order to expand my business I needed to have the knowledge to do so. The practical knowledge like the food costing and proper training in the field of cookery. That’s why I decided to go to Ceylon Hotel School. I specialized in Professional Cookery with Hotel Management.”
But even during the four years that Jisthee was studying, she visited Maldives often, bith to keep an eye on her business and to complete her industrial training. She worked in both Kurumba Village and Bandos Island Resort during this time.
“Working at a resort was a learning curve for me, in addition to a lot of experience which I got from the hotels I got the opportunity to mingle with a lot of people from a lot of different cultures and backgrounds. I would say it was from that point onwards that I became more people oriented. So that exposure was really good for me. It really helped me look different people and cultures with an open mind rather than through a lens.”
She recalls the stigma that went with working at a resort during the nineties. Even some of her extended family did not understand why she was working at a resort as she already had an established business. But she was adamant in her resolve to complete her studies. She knew that she had more to learn. During these trying times her father was the one who supported her decisions and was the rock she leaned on.
After finishing her studies in she moved back to Malé and started to apply the knowledge that she had gained from her studies. It led to a massive improvement in her business. She also opened her first shop called Nice and Ice where she had the kitchen in the back and a showroom at the front. This was one of the first cake shops to open in Malé. At first the reception to the idea of being able to buy readymade cakes was a bit lukewarm but it slowly began to gain traction.
After nearly twenty years working with cakes in Malé, Jisthee decided it was time for a change and moved to New Zealand in 2010.
“It was a great experience. But New Zealand and Maldives are two completely different worlds. I went there as a student first and studied for one more year at NSIA. I got my first job in New Zealand while I was studying. I got a position in the Cake decorating department in Pandora (one of the biggest bakeries in New Zealand). I worked there for three years.”
“I’ve participated in a lot of competitions over the years and have received heaps of prices. But the biggest achievement for me would have to be one I took part in after I moved to New Zealand. I won the gold in a culinary competition.”
After getting her residency, Jisthee started her own business in New Zealand. Unfortunately, due to personal reasons she had to sell her shop. But she continued her cakery online so that she could have more flexibility and travel whenever she wanted to. She has recently started her own business in Malé once more.
“I have been out of Male for nearly ten years now, jumping back in I’ve noticed that there is a big revolution in the food industry now. And I would say there is competition unlike when we were doing business earlier. There are established cakeries that we have to compete with them and there are very established catering people as well. But I have the full confidence that I can do it.”
“Ribbons n Balloons is a marriage between two of my greatest passions, baking and designing. We are offering food, venue, decorations, the dessert table, a total package.”
Jisthee took the time to reflect and give some words of advice to the new generation in this industry. “It takes a whole lifetime of experience to climb to the top. Just because you know how to bake a cake that does not mean that you know everything. You have to have an open mind to learn from the people who have experience. There is a lot to learn, new developments are coming in everyday. Even when I was in New Zealand running my business, I was learning online. There is no end to learning. So if you want to be in the market and always have a competitive edge, you need to keep on learning.”
“I am so happy that so many people have taken an interest in the food industry and so many people are doing so well in the industry and I wish them well and I am open to offer any assistance if they approach me. I am thinking of opening a page on Facebook called Maldivian Cake Decorating Community where anyone interested can join and we can exchange ideas and tips.”
Words by Asy
Images by Jisthee