Having grown up in Singapore, Thailand, Dubai, and Australia, Mahima Chawla is no stranger to establishing herself in one place, only to leave and pop up elsewhere. Currently working in business development at a financial technology startup in New York, Chawla spends her free time operating Drawing Room, a pop-up bakery and bar, with co-founder Dora Jericevic.
About once a month, Drawing Room co-opts an undisclosed space somewhere in the city to allow friends and strangers to meet, speak, and learn from each other over a menu of original pastries and cocktails, all made from scratch. If you’re one of the first 120 to sign up, you get access to the venue and as many desserts and cocktails as your heart desires for under $25.
I sat down with Mahima to discuss Drawing Room, its history, and her goals moving forward, including a foray into private pop-ups. Here are some excerpts, edited for clarity.
On how Drawing Room got started:
“My NYC roommate – who was one of my friends from middle school in Thailand – and I used to do these dinner parties every week or so where, on a Wednesday, we would both invite two friends who didn’t know each other and do a six-person home-cooked dinner. We had so many friendship babies form from that; it was just the coolest thing. I knew from those dinners and a brunch pop-up I used to run at Brown that I really cared about experimenting with food and bringing people together. In December 2014, Drawing Room was born.
When we started off, we contacted everyone that we knew in New York who we thought might be interested. We just emailed them and said, ‘Hey, we’re starting this thing called Drawing Room. It’s a pop-up bakery and bar. Are you interested in being on the invite list?’ Out of everyone we emailed, probably 200 people responded saying ‘Yeah sure, add me and maybe add this friend of mine’ and we thought ‘Great!’
So we threw our first event in December 2014, and from there it really just grew through word of mouth. Each time we sent out an invite, we noticed we’d get a ton of RSVPs from email addresses that weren’t already in our system, so it became clear that people were forwarding the invite on and on.
Now our invite list is around 1,500 individuals, and it’s been really cool to see organic growth. At our events we like to ask people, ‘How’d you hear about us,’ and they’ll always be like, ‘Oh my friend Sarah got it from her friend Ben, and I don’t know who Ben got it from,’ and so it’s just cool to see that happen.”
On the name:
“I’m from India originally, and growing up we’d always call our living room ‘the drawing room.’ I’ve always associated it with a space where family and friends come together to hang out and eat, drink, and be merry. It’s a very relaxed place to me, and so that’s why I really liked the name Drawing Room.
It’s ironic that once I came up with the name and ran it by friends, a lot of them said, ‘Drawing Room! That sound so British, old-timey, regal, like some grand ballroom or something,’ and clearly that is not the vibe I’m going for, so hopefully that comes across at our events. Separately, I love the idea of having the word ‘room’ in the name, because a room to me implies a fixed position, but Drawing Room changes that connotation as it’s actually constantly on the move to new locations.”
On where the idea came from:
“The initial idea stemmed from 50/50 food and community. I love to cook, and I love to bake, and when I first started exploring this world I thought, let me just start inviting people over to taste test and get their feedback. Why not?
With every menu for Drawing Room, we put a lot of time into thinking about ‘What are the flavor profiles that we want in this? Oh we’ve never worked with…saffron, so let’s incorporate that into this cocktail,’ or ‘Let’s incorporate poppy seed into this dessert, or cumin,’ or something that is new to us, and so I think part of it is that I just find cooking and baking really exciting, and coming up with your own interpretations of things is a lot of fun.
Then the other [part] is that I think food is most enjoyed with other people, and so if I can have a way to experiment and make any and everything that I want, and I can use it to bring people together and facilitate conversations, then it’s a win-win. That community aspect of it is really important to me. It’s not like people have to be drinking a cocktail or eating a dessert and be talking about what’s in it or talking about the food – that can be an initial starting point if they want and they can venture off into whatever else.
Guests also know, ‘If I’m at Drawing Room, then I’ve come here because I’m interested in experiencing something totally different and unexpected from the norm.’ I think it naturally attracts people who are more curious and adventurous and open to just whatever comes their way.”
On who Drawing Room draws in:
“I’d say the majority of our guests are New Yorkers in their 20s or 30s, both male and female, that are just interested in doing something different from what they would typically do. For example, our last event was at Café Grumpy on a Saturday night from 8pm to midnight, and it was the first time that we’d done a night event.
I was a little hesitant at the start because I questioned, ‘Okay, what are people doing on a Saturday night? Do they really want to come out to a café and have desserts and cocktails?’ I really didn’t know how it would be received, but honestly it was one of the best events we’ve had! From comments we received, people had an amazing time, and they were excited to participate in something different from what a typical Saturday night could look like.
I feel like the types of people who come to Drawing Room are really open-minded and just down to experience whatever might come their way. They’re really going into it without knowing much, initially just the menu, and then upon RSVPing they’ll get to know the location. Other than that, they have no idea, like ‘Who are these bakers?,’ ‘Who else is going to be there?,’ ‘What is the vibe going to be like?,’ ‘Am I going to like it?,’ ‘Is it going to be overcrowded?,’ ‘Is it going to be not crowded enough?’
They don’t know much, yet they’re thinking, ‘Yeah, I’ll try it out!’ I feel like that’s a lot of my mentality too – I really believe in just trying everything at least once. Any experience that someone puts in front of me, I’ll most likely say ‘Yeah, sure, why not? I could learn something new.’ Of course, I also think people coming to our events are generally interested in food because they appreciate the effort that goes into the cocktails and into the desserts.”
On her favorite items to make:
“My favorite thing cocktail-wise is probably what I made most recently, which we named a Masala Chai Cooler. It was a rum-based cocktail to which we added a super-concentrated homemade chai mix. Being from India, I grew up drinking chai but never really sat down and made my own masala mix, so it was fun to explore that.
For the chai mix, I used about ten different spices and boiled them for a really long time to get it really aromatic and concentrated. When mixing cocktails on the day, we added this lightly sweetened chai concentrate to some rum, fresh squeezed lemon, and seltzer, and it became a really delicious drink that reminded me of childhood, but was also very adult since it was spiked.
As for a favorite dessert, I generally make sure I love them before putting them on the menu, because I know I’ll be making many, many batches, but recently I really enjoyed making mini-pavlovas. It was my first time making a pavlova and the inspiration came from when I lived in Australia, where I’d first tried one. They were these individually-sized, really beautiful-looking light meringues with infused cream and fresh fruit. It was a very different kind of dessert to make for me and fell outside of my more chocolate-oriented comfort zone.”
On private pop-ups:
“The plan going forward is to definitely continue with these pop-ups, and make it as big as can be in New York and get as many people exposed to the idea and welcomed into the Drawing Room family. At the same time, we’re just about to launch our private pop-up arm, which I’m really excited for! The idea basically being that if you have a celebration of any kind – a birthday or bridal shower or anniversary, or really just any occasion, we can work with you to curate a menu to add a memorable and unique touch.”
Drawing Room’s next pop-up will be on the evening of Saturday August 13th, in partnership with The Bean. To receive the invite, you can subscribe here. For those interested in talking through private pop-up options, Mahima and Dora can be contacted at email@example.com.