You never forget your first meal at The Willow Bake Shop. I certainly haven't. Over a rich potato and cheddar soup and a farm-fresh pizza — I realised that Willow's food is a fountainhead of love. It's warm and comforting. After eating a citrus choux on my first visit, I've made plans to go the same evening. Of course, to eat and know more because I had to write about the patisserie. Unlike most relationships that end with a review, I went back to Willow at every opportunity I found. It's here I discovered delicious sourdough bread, Paris-Brests, and snickerdoodles. Often, I took a nostalgic ride with their butter beer, sought warmth in their coriander and peas soup, and experienced desserts made from yuzu, a fruit I've read Murakami describe with fondness.
It's been around 15 days since Chaitali told me that she's shutting Willow and leaving Hyderabad in September. After her announcement on Instagram, I saw quite a few strangers on Twitter lament this loss. It wasn't just me; Willow has served many with love. With its themed dinners, it has built and fostered a community of food lovers. I've never attended a single themed dinner; for me, eating at Willow has always been a private activity and something I've reserved to do alone or share with close friends and family. Now, I wish I'd attended one of those to have experienced and witness the food that brought strangers together.
Sneha Inty, the head chef at Bottega Artisan Coffee, says she remembers her first meal at Willow — a bowl of warm pumpkin skin. For months, Sneha would text me to check if the pumpkin soup was available whenever I was at Willow. When asked about her fond memories at Willow, she said, "I loved their Christmas dinner so much. It's one of those days when you fall in love with everything and everyone around you. Good food, conversations, and mood — everything was beautiful. Besides, Chaitali is so kind and encouraging. She's always happy when I tell her about the new things I've learned in baking. She's been so supportive. I'll miss them."
I reached out to Nishitha Medha, who runs Hashi Deli with her husband, Sandeep, to seek her earliest memories with Willow. She said, "With a toddler and business, Sandeep and I could barely take time out for ourselves. Your writing compelled me to plan a date with Sandeep there. We managed to get out after so long. We fell in love with the croissants— flaky, buttery, and fresh! They were superb. Soon it was my birthday, and I couldn't have had a better birthday dinner than their Game of Thrones-themed dinner. The idea that a theme could translate into food, not just in terms of presentation and taste, but also texture and what it made you feel blew my mind! Over the years, Chaitali, Sujith and Imad have become some of our closest friends from the industry. My heart literally broke when I heard the news."
Ashish Chowdhury finds food more than just sacred. As someone who always has a good story or two on local eateries, he had quite a bit on Willow. He says, "I remember the first time I visited Willow. We wanted to try something beyond what they had on their pizza menu. They came up with something instantly and called it 'The Sujith Special', which Chaitali very sheepishly keeps reminding that she was behind it, and that the credit was duly given wrong. It has been a running gag between us over the years. It's been very heartwarming to see the owners take so much personal care and attention to everything; the kind of detailing they put across the place and with their food is always so inspiring. But I don't think the place would have been that without the presence of Sujith, Chaitali, and Imad. I've gotten to know Chaitali well over the years and no matter how busy she is, she takes the time to step out and talk to us about her travels or inspirations. I think that's what made Willow all the more special when compared to all of its contemporaries. And, of course, I love her dog, Madeline. I learned that it was a stray that came into her life, and in a way, I think we are all people like that who walked into her store. And she made all of us a part of her life. That's one of the most endearing aspects of Willow for me."
While my conversations with Chaitali mostly revolved around food, we also spoke about the trivial things of life. She would often regale us with tales from her childhood or about her latest orders. At Willow, she offered more than just food. She offered the warmth of home. The patisserie itself resembles my old home, with the upstairs seating and balcony evoking the presence of my room. Perhaps, that's one of the other reasons why I kept going back. Now, I'm unsure if she'll ever open up something in Hyderabad, but I'm sure wherever she'll go and when she opens up something in a different town — she'll certainly feed and nurture it with love. While I wait to savour that, here's me thanking for feeding me good. For offering great treats to Hyderabad, and for making us a part of your journey. I'll miss you. Hyderabad will miss you!