They say that the mysteries of life can be explained through the deliciousness of a cheesecake. One bite of a truly delicious cheesecake and the secrets of the universe are placed at your fingertips. The levels of enlightenment attainable are directly correlated with the heights a particular cheesecake has reached in cheesecake evolution. …. Okay, so maybe this just wishful thinking. But it should be mentioned that one particular cheesecake inspires the aforementioned thoughts and came to be as a result of two different cultures, a microcosm of resistance, and the brilliant mind of Chera Amlag. This cheesecake comes direct from the Hood-Famous Bakeshop: the Hood-Famous Ube Cheesecake.
Why is it that the combination of a Filipino sweet yam and an American classic desert is yet another symbol of resistance? The answer to this question can only be attained by understanding that the ube cheesecake comes from a culmination of history. It comes from the Philippines. It comes from the meeting of East and West. It comes from the South End of Seattle. It comes from a place of pride and dignity. It comes from souls deeply rooted in resistance to oppression.
In November, I had the great pleasure of sitting down over coffee with Chera and talking about what the Ube Cheesecake meant to her and her family. To say that this conversation was solely about cheesecake would be to grossly misunderstand not only who Chera is, but also why and how this cheesecake came about. Sometimes an ube cheesecake is just an ube cheesecake, but other times an ube cheesecake means more to a community than what is just read on the label.
Jacob Chin: Could you describe the process from when you first got the idea to start your bakeshop till now?
Chera Amlag: Well, I have loved baking since I was a child. So about a year ago Geo (my husband) and I, started Food & Sh*t, where we did monthly Pop-Ups. He’s more of the savory and I’m more of the sweet, so we divvied up the task. So he would do the entrées and then I’d be in charge of the deserts. And we both kind of make sure we’re marketing and we’re getting the word out there so people can come through. But the second Pop-Up was October of last year and I decided to do an ube cheesecake because our thing was trying to take Filipino flavors and we were just having fun with them. [We were] reinventing traditional dishes, we were taking familiar dishes and putting a Filipino twist to it. … So I had an idea. I said I want to do something with ube. Cause I grew up making halaya with my mom, which is an ube pasty type desert. And [Geo and I] were constantly brainstorming. … So in October of last year I decided to do an ube cheesecake and usually my desserts are a one-time thing. I have it for one Pop-Up. … I think we [sold] out of all the cakes that time, but what was more interesting is right away it just snowballed on social media into this thing.
Chin: With the cheesecake blowing up on social media, what happened in which the “Hood-Famous” title was attached to it?
Amlag: I think the social media aspect to it was really interesting and it kind of blew up from there. One of our friends who went to one of the first few Pop-Ups he was just like, “Man this cheesecake is good, it’s like hood-famous good.” So that’s where the name came from.
To us, to call [our bakeshop] that, I think people are always asking like, “Why’d you name it Hood-Famous Bakeshop?” Cause when thinking about the name we were just going back and forth. We were like, “Would people get this if we called it that? Would people be [interested]? Would it turn some people off?” But at the end of the day, us naming our Pop-Up, “Food & Sh*t,” we don’t want to think too hard about the name we want it to be just fun, be a reflection of who we are, represent our neighborhood. And so when the cheesecake kind of got to where it is now and we were thinking of naming the bakeshop, cause we were using the cheesecake as a flagship desert, we wanted to name it after that. I feel like that what we do with food is just another branch, another manifestation of the pride that we have in our neighborhood, in our town and it being expressed in through food. Because when you think about Beacon Hill you think about so many different cultures and ethnicities and how everyone is so proud of that. Why we’re doing this is because of the pride that we have of where we come from and wanting to represent our community, our neighborhood. And some of the best ways you can do that is by being really unapologetic of your food and being: “You know what? This is another manifestation of how we wanna showcase our culture and where we come from and what we eat.”
Chin: Have you encountered any challenges or obstacles as people of color and owning your business?
Amlag: I feel like in general, [to the general public] we haven’t encountered really a lot of challenges. We get the question, “Why that name?” I think when they hear the name [Food & Sh*t], they laugh. They’re like, “Really? Is that your name?”… The “Sh*t” is really important shit. Because if you look at every single one of the Pop-Ups and you look at the write up of each one, there are a lot of deeper layers of what that shit is. We talk a lot about where does that food come from. We talk about our culture. Like one Pop-Up we had kamayan, which means eat with your hands, and it really was this throwback of being able to talk about colonization in the Philippines and how when the colonizers came they imposed the use of a spoon and fork, because eating with your hands is uncivilized, even though our people had been doing that for generations. So this idea of a spoon and a fork, we were like, “Let’s go back. Let’s go back to that precolonization and bring it back.” Cause we still see our families, our parents eating with their hands and I remember Geo saying, “At some point when you have friends over and your parents are eating with their hands, there was a point at a younger age when you kind of feel a little ashamed of that, cause you feel embarrassed.” But when you go back to it that is the closest you can get to your nourishment, by actually having it in your hands and there is nothing wrong with that.
It’s a part of who we are and it’s a part of our history and the reason why we have a spoon and a fork is because people were trying to civilize us. So to us food, we want to keep it fun but we want to also come from a place where anything that we do, we want it to be meaningful. So if we have a platform where people are listening, people are looking at us through the Pop-Ups we’re gonna try our best to really start conversation that are important to us and meaningful to us. And what people decide to do with that is up to them.
I would say the hardest thing though, if you are asking about a challenge, is that it’s a lot time. We love what we do but Geo’s still a rapper, I still at a community college, we’re parents, so managing all that has been probably the biggest challenge. But it’s also been the best thing cause it has helped us grow, [helped] me grow so much and with the community support. Seeing friends and family come and just want to support you, want to go back there and do dishes, want to role like 300 pieces of lumpia for you. It’s all love and it’s those moments that I feel like makes it worth it. And then seeing people get excited about Filipino food.
Chin: What is the next step after this?
Amlag: We went into partnership with Inay’s Asian Pacific Cuisine so that starting Thanksgiving eve anybody can order online and pick up their cheesecake at Inay’s. We’re starting with that because it’s a major holiday and people typically want to bring something, some type of desert to their Thanksgiving dinner or party or what not. But people can still order and pick it up any time after that, they just have to give a 48-hour notice. And then we’re going to be rolling out more stuff.
So it’s a bakeshop, so there is more to come. We’re not just going to sell ube cheesecake all the time and we’re working on some new flavors coming out. I’m working on buko pandan, which is like a coconut pandan cheesecake and a white chocolate guava cheesecake. And then I’ll be rolling out some other deserts from the Pop-Ups, like we do a kalamansi lemon bar. So we’re taking a traditional lemon bar and we’re using kalamansi instead of lemon. We’re going to keep playing with the flavors and having fun. Things that you saw at previous Pop-Up menus will most likely show up and go on the website, in our bakeshop. So all those will be available for order and pick-up at Inay’s and then there will be a platform for delivery through, we’ve partnered with a mobile app called Lishfood. And people can order online and get it delivered to them. So there will be hopefully more to come. We’re going to try to get into more stores but for now that’s a lot for us.