ALBANY PARK — When Emily Nejad started her Internet-based custom cake design business, Bon Vivant, three years ago, she set an unusual bar for success.
“All I want to do is make cakes for Chrissy Teigen. She’s really it. Chrissy is my ‘people.’ I am her girl,” said Nejad.
Teigen, the multi-hyphenate model-cookbook author-Internet meme generator-Twitter maestro-wife of newly crowned EGOT winner John Legend, may not be on Nejad’s client list, yet, but their paths seem destined to cross.
Nejad’s exuberant Instagram-friendly technicolor creations have already caught the eye of Kirsten Corley, fiancée of Chance the Rapper. She recently commissioned a Bon Vivant cake for the couple’s daughter’s third birthday party.
That puts Nejad a single degree of separation from her idol. And from there she envisions herself as a baker to the stars, with dream clients including the cast of “Queer Eye,” Barack and Michelle Obama and — why not shoot for the stars — Queen Bey herself.
“The idea of doing a cake for Beyonce, I would die. I would turn to dust,” Nejad said.
Wait, does “celebrity cake artist” sound ambitious? Nejad is worried that it does.
Ambition can still be a tricky word for women. Too power-tripping masculine. Too brash and boastful. Too risky, as if acknowledging a goal aloud will trigger karmic retribution.
Even after founding one successful business, and now prepping to launch another, Nejad wrestles with owning up to aspirations.
“I don’t really think of myself as a particularly ambitious person,” she said.
So how would this bootstrapping entrepreneur characterize herself?
“I would say I’m a perfectionist. I am extremely competitive with myself. I’m always in competition to one-up ‘past’ Emily. I’m interested to see what I can do. I ….”
Nejad trailed off. It occurred to her, mid-sentence, that the person she was describing did indeed sound determined, enterprising, industrious and a dozen other synonyms for ambitious.
So yeah, she’s putting in the work to reach that bar she set for herself. And while she’s at it, she’s extending a hand to help other women climb the ladder with her.
The Sugar Hustle
Nejad’s new venture is Maven, 4749 N. Spaulding Ave., a desserts-oriented workshop and event space that will also double as Bon Vivant’s commercial kitchen (but NOT a retail bakery, she emphasized).
She took over the lease on the storefront, the former home of Cafe Chien, during the summer and is in the process of creating Maven’s inaugural slate of classes projected to launch in November — think doughnut decorating, a basics of buttercream tutorial or a macaron how-to. Nejad plans to teach some of the workshops herself, but is also recruiting what she calls her “cake and cookie buddies” as instructors.
“I have found teaching people about dessert to be so incredibly rewarding and so edifying that I’m trying to get all of my friends to start teaching classes too,” Nejad said.
Along with providing emotional satisfaction, workshops are, frankly, financially rewarding, Nejad added.
“It’s how we get paid,” she said.
The “sugar hustle,” as Nejad calls it, is brutal, particularly in Chicago, which has strict prohibitions against selling anything baked in a home kitchen.
Shared commercial kitchens are the solution for most start-ups, but rent is typically $15-$25 per hour — the low end of that range being for off-peak “dead of night” hours — plus additional monthly rates for dry storage and refrigerator/freezer space.
“You can’t make money,” Nejad said. “Your profit margin on baked goods is already very thin. You’re selling a trio of cupcakes for $3.”
Workshops and pop-ups are a way to increase income, but the venues for these ad-hoc events aren’t always conducive to baking.
“When I was doing pop-ups, I’d find these super cute spaces but I’d be washing dishes in a bathroom sink,” Nejad said.
With Maven, she’s created the workshop space of her dreams: big oven, “legit” sink and bright, colorful decor with personality to spare. (Nejad’s more-is-more aesthetic is heavily inspired by clothing designer Betsey Johnson and actress Fran “The Nanny” Drescher.)
“I collaborated with a lot of freaking awesome ladies on this place,” Nejad said of her partners in Maven’s design, including Elise Metzger of Forward Fruit and muralist Syd Veverka (aka, Moody Rodent).
The result is an environment where Nejad and members of her cake and cookie sisterhood can strut their stuff, promote their businesses and gain social media followers, referrals and clients. And have a helluva good time in the process.
“I like hanging out with people who are really really pumped to learn how to decorate doughnuts. That’s a very good day for me,” Nejad said.
Her vision for Maven is ultimately one part business venture, one part community builder: bringing people together over a common love of sweets, sharing knowledge and skills, and getting a little buzzed during a “less lame” version of wine and paint classes (“No shade to wine and paint,” Nejad said).
“The next time [workshop attendees] have a brunch or a special occasion or they need to impress someone or they’re just feeling fancy, they will be able to go to the grocery store, pick out some ingredients and replicate the thing that we did,” Nejad said. “I want them to do it again. I want to teach them skills that they can have and hopefully build upon.”
The Making of a Maven
That Nejad would be in a position to teach cake artistry to others is something the 32-year-old couldn’t have imagined during her misfit childhood.
The daughter of an Iranian immigrant father and a redheaded Scot-Irish mother from rural Pennsylvania, Nejad said her family was always the “oddball” as they shuttled around the Midwest for her father’s work, eventually settling in southern Indiana.
“We ate different food, we listened to different music, my parents had different expectations of us,” Nejad said of herself and her two siblings. “My household was definitely different.”
She found a fellow tribe of weirdos in the arts community and majored in music theater at Ball State University. Post-graduation, Nejad moved to Chicago, like so many budding performers before her, with a dream in her suitcase.
“I pretty much knew I was never going to audition for a musical,” she said. “It’s so hard.”
Instead Nejad took gigs singing in bands and worked as a receptionist, waitress, anything to pay the bills.
“I did the early- to mid-20s ‘float.’ When I was 27 or 28, I started to get super stressed. I was tired of being broke, I didn’t know what I wanted. I thought, ‘If I just keeping moving forward [my path] will reveal itself,” Nejad recalled.
To relieve her anxiety, Nejad started baking.
“I was always a sweets kid. I love, love sour candy. I also love chocolate. I love it all, even things that I thought I didn’t really care for that much. Like, at one point, I foolishly thought that I just didn’t like cookie dough. Wrong. I love cookie dough,” she said.
Apart from providing relaxation, baking also offered Nejad a sense of accomplishment and gratification.
“You put time and love into something and at the end of three hours, you have a beautiful thing,” she said.
Baking, with its reputation for requiring scientific precision, tends to intimidate newcomers in a way that cooking doesn’t. Not so with Nejad, whose mom was an avid home baker.
“She’s amazing, she’s ‘goals’ in so many ways,” Nejad said of her mom. “She’s also one of the reasons why I thought I could just up and start this business. She started her restaurant when she was in her mid-50s, after being a stay at home mom for her entire life, and just was like, ‘I’m going to start this restaurant.’ She’s really wonderful.”
Building on a base of knowledge she’d gleaned from her mom, Nejad enrolled in the Instagram/YouTube School of Pastry to take her skills to the next level. (Don’t bother googling, it doesn’t exist.)
“I taught myself everything on YouTube, 100 percent. A hundred percent. I am 100 percent self taught. You can learn an entire career on the internet,” Nejad said.
Studying images of cakes posted to Instagram, Nejad would try to analyze technique and duplicate bakers’ effects.
“It’s just trial and error to figure out how to get your ganache the right consistency to make it drip, and how do you make the chocolate shiny, and what kind of edible gold are they using there? It was so much research. Just hours and hours,” she said of her process.
“That’s still how I build skill. There’s a whole world out there of dessert and cake design that’s on Instagram that is just incredible. I’m like, ‘That’s amazing, how did they do that?’ and that’s when I just get out the laptop and get out my supplies and start experimenting. I could probably contact them directly and ask them but part of the fun of this is discovering it myself,” Nejad said.
Turns out, Nejad had an innate talent for cake artistry and creating mouthwatering flavor combinations, like her Almond Joy cake — coconut cake with whipped chocolate ganache and almond buttercream — and Mom’s Carrot Cake (which she did indeed crib from her mom), iced with cookie butter buttercream.
But before she could declare “Nailed it!” with anything approaching consistency, Nejad experienced more than her share of epic failures. One, in particular, stands out, years later.
It was her first-ever attempt at a tiered cake, a rainbow-colored confection that she baked for a friend’s Pride Parade party back in 2015.
Nejad didn’t remotely provide the stability needed for the cake’s multiple layers, simply smashing them together with a flimsy filling.
“I got in the car with my roommate and was like, ‘OK let’s drive over to my friend’s house.’ We drove legitimately three miles an hour on Chicago roads, so you know how that went,” Nejad recounted.
After walking up two flights of stairs with the cake still intact, Nejad breathed a sigh of relief, only to set the towering masterpiece down on a less than sturdy makeshift table.
“It was like a freaking milk crate with a board on top of it and I set this cake down and it just went ‘Whoop!’ Just a puddle of cake on the floor. I dove for it to save it and I was just on the floor covered in cake,” she said. “You know how when a child hurts themselves, it takes them a little bit to understand that they’re in pain and they just look at you with this accusing look in their eye for a minute and then they start screaming? That was me. I have not done a Pride cake since.”
Fast forward to 2018 and Nejad has carved out a unique niche for Bon Vivant, in part because of her decision to forgo the use of fondant. All of her elaborate decorations are created using actual buttercream icing, cascades of real flowers, and figurines crafted from chocolate or edible wafer paper.
“I like creating under constraints,” Nejad said. “I find that it’s sort of more fun to do that, so the constraint that I created for myself was, ‘What happens when I don’t use fondant? How do I work around that?'”
If a request comes in for a cake that looks like a shoe or a cake that looks like Elmo’s face, Nejad will gladly refer clients to another baker who specializes in that type of design.
“I’m lucky in that, for the most part, if you’re coming to me, you want the thing that I do. The people who come to me, they want me to just do my thing. That is so crazy to me and I feel so freaking lucky that people will just trust me to do that,” Nejad said. “That sort of trust is something I take super seriously. It’s a big deal. It’s people’s big day. Even if it’s not a wedding. These two girls were celebrating 10 years of friendship, it was their friend-aversary, and I was like, ‘I’m so excited to be the one who gets to make your friend-aversary cake.’ It’s really cool.”
Nejad’s sense of commitment to her clients, the joy she gets from being part of people’s special moments and her desire to never back down from a design challenge are what’s made Bon Vivant so successful, but those same qualities have also hampered the launch of Maven.
Every time Nejad vows to turn off Bon Vivant’s cake orders so she can focus on building Maven’s website and scheduling workshops, well, she can’t.
It’s gotten to the point where Nejad’s upcoming trip of a lifetime will do double duty as a working vacation.
In late October, Nejad will travel with her father to Iran, meeting aunts, uncles and cousins for the first time. It took a year of planning, just to get her paperwork in order (“I now have an Iranian birth certificate which says I was born in Omaha, Nebraska,” she said), so guess what Nejad is most looking forward to?
The 10-hour flight.
“I can’t wait because I’m going to get so much [work] done on that plane,” said Nejad.
And when she lands? Nejad’s tourist itinerary is a little unconventional, which is to say, exactly what one would expect from this bon vivant.
“You know who has a crazy cake and dessert scene? Tehran.”
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