The Cake Queen: BAZAAR Meets The Kuwaiti-Mexican Chef Behind New York's Most Talked About Bakery

BY Harper's BAZAAR Arabia / Apr 18 2019 / 22:04 PM

Amirah Kassem welcomes BAZAAR into her whimsical world as the New York baker and culinary entrepreneur launches her first cookbook

The Cake Queen: BAZAAR Meets The Kuwaiti-Mexican Chef Behind New York's Most Talked About Bakery
ITP Images
This month, Amirah Kassem, the Kuwaiti-Mexican baker, launches her first cookbook, The Power of Sprinkles

“I often describe my creative process as baking outside the box, says Amirah, as she walks past framed photographs by Slim Aarons and a signed print by artist Robert Longo. She makes her way to the kitchen, where a first edition of her cookbook, The Power of Sprinkles, is laying on the counter. “This is the signature recipe that was the starting point for this book,” she says, while turning the page to her rainbow Explosion Cake, a six-layer confection that spills out sprinkles and candy coloured chocolates from its centre. “It’s like a piñata when sliced, which was inspired by my birthdays in Mexico,” says the baker, who recalls the first time she served it at a dinner party. “No one suspected a rainbow inside and when I cut it open everyone screamed and started taking pictures,” adds Amirah, who wants people to relive the colours and flavours of their childhood.

“I kept seeing different versions of this cake being posted on Instagram, so I decided to take the recipe and create 29 variations of it for the book,” says the baker, noting that her cakes come in a variety of shapes and colours, from a unicorn to her favourite Mary Katrantzou sweater coated in rainbow glitter. “It’s ultimately about spreading the joy and creativity in baking to professionals as well as first-time cooks, who may be intimidated to try this recipe at first,” says Amirah, who credits her supportive team with helping her make the book a reality. Among them is the artist and photographer Henry Hargreaves who shot all the images. The pair first worked together on Burning Calories, a photo series of ‘guilty-pleasure’ foods. Exhibited at a Venice art gallery in 2013, it featured Amirah’s cakes in the form of hot dogs and hamburgers that were set ablaze.

Amira decorated her dining room with two large renditions of Takashi Murakami's smiling flowers, made with over 10,000 gumballs

Born to a Kuwaiti father and Mexican mother who met in college, Amirah spent her childhood in Juárez, a colourful town on the border of Mexico and Texas. “While I was growing up, my two favourite activities were horseback riding and cooking in the kitchen with my mother,” says the baker, who also recalls eating Kuwaiti dishes that her paternal grandmother cooked when she visited them. Her mother would also spark her love of baking, thanks to the many birthday cakes she made for Amirah while growing up. “When I was seven she made a life-size Little Mermaid cake for my birthday. She taught me that you can be creative without the need to follow rules while cooking, which I’ve kept with me till this day,” says Amirah

Initially intending to study political science at university, she shifted majors when the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in LA offered her a place in their programme. “My high school teacher had sent them one of my art projects and when FIDM approached me I jumped at the opportunity to study in a creative field,” says Amirah, who moved to LA in 2005 after graduating from high school. Before she left, her mother gifted her a cookbook she’d made containing helpful advice and recipes they’d cooked together.

Not long after arriving at FIDM, Amirah began working in LA’s fashion industry while going to school. Starting as an intern at the brand 7 For All Mankind, she worked her way up to become its head of production, before landing a position in the buying office of Fred Segal’s iconic store on Sunset Boulevard. “At the time I wanted to gain experience in every aspect of the fashion business to figure out what I wanted to do,” says the baker, who moved to New York in 2011 for an internship at Interview Magazine, which quickly turned into a full-time job. She next worked alongside Johan Lindeberg to launch BLK DNM, where she became the brand’s general manager. “One day I woke up andwanted to bake before going to work,” she recalls, noting that she began selling her colourful cake-pops at Café Integral, a friend’s coffee shop in Soho. She quickly realised she might have a new career on her hands as demand for her confections grew.

The design for Flour Shop's store came to Amirah while playing with coloured crayons

“At some point in 2012, I decided to leave my job and launch Flour Shop out of my two-bedroom apartment in Williamsburg,” says Amirah, who recognised she was taking a risk at the age of 25 by leaving her job in fashion. Posting her creations on Instagram, she soon started taking orders from the likes of Phillip Lim, Harry Winston, Valentino, Chanel, Stella McCartney and Versace. “Despite not going to culinary school, working in a professional kitchen or having a website, the fashion industry was one of my earliest supporters,” says the baker, who over the years has created Louis Vuitton-themed treats for a pop-up bakery at the Whitney Museum, and stocked a dessert truck with glitter-topped hot chocolate and miniature ice cream cones for the opening of Rebecca Minkoff’s flagship store in Soho. “It’s a success that came with its fair share of challenges. Although I had to learn how to build out a bakery and create a business plan, I’ve followed my intuition throughout my life,” says Amirah, who oversaw every aspect of her business in the beginning from baking and delivering orders to answering emails.

“I spend a lot of time in the store getting to know our customers, a number of whom are from the Middle East. We have clients staying at hotels in New York for celebrations who will order cakes from us,” says the baker, who hopes to visit Kuwait during her book tour and open an outpost of Flour Shop in the Middle East one day. 

Photography: Sebastian Boettcher

Pick up the April 2019 issue of Harper's BAZAAR Arabia for the full story