Chef Umber Ahmad grew up traveling around the world, "belonging simultaneously everywhere and nowhere." Her family is from Pakistan but she was born and raised in a rural town in northern Michigan, filled with first-generation Finns and Swedes. As a teenager, she was an exchange student in Spain and Austria.
"We lived in an area [of Michigan] in the absence of other Pakistanis, so each summer we traveled back to Pakistan to be with our extended family. Because there were very few immigrants, my parents committed to taking us around the world to expose us to all the possibilities," Ahmad says.
She grew up with a Finnish caretaker who they called Gram. As a result, Ahmad was exposed to the Scandinavian community, culture, and way of life.
"What was most amazing to me was how much our Pakistani customs overlapped with the Finnish traditions. I learned how to bake from Gram and she taught me how to make many traditional Finnish and Swedish pastries. Even today, I gravitate toward a cardamom bread or a cinnamon braid over other things," Ahmad says.
She found that spices also created connections between disparate places: "The first one for me was cardamom. Both my grandmother in Pakistan and my Gram in Michigan tasted the same, they tasted of cardamom. One used cardamom in her tea, the other, in her bread. With that, they became connected. What magic there is in a spice."
Her mother brought the world to Ahmad through food. Ahmad’s parents emigrated from Pakistan in the early ‘70s. Her father is a surgeon and her mother was a designer who stayed home to care for Ahmad and her older sister.
"Each culture we experienced was through the food they made. When we would return home to Michigan, my mom would recreate so many of the things we had abroad," Ahmad says.
Ahmad went on to earn an MBA in Finance from The Wharton School of The University of Pennsylvania, has an MPH in International Health Policy from The University of Michigan, and a BS in Genetics from The Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She became an investment banker and after many years on Wall Street (Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs), she started a firm focusing on emerging technologies, luxury brands, and world-renowned chefs to expand their concepts globally. With food as an area of focus, Ahmad and her partners started spending more time with food brands, chefs, and producers—like Tom Colicchio.
During this time, she baked as a means of grounding and balancing herself.
"It was an escape of sorts, different from the work on which I focused in my banking career. I often baked for my friends, for their birthdays, for our dinner parties. I remember having a fleeting thought one day of how peaceful I felt when I was creating pastry, and wouldn’t it be amazing to create a life from this feeling," Ahmad says.
From this, Mah-Ze-Dahr Bakery was born out of her one bedroom apartment in 2013. Although she has no professional culinary experience, Ahmad used her science background to recipe test to perfection. She cooked and baked at home, using her education to play with ingredients, cooking methodologies, and ideas for her future bakery.
"When I baked for then client Tom Colicchio, it was the first time I presented my products to anyone in the industry," Ahmad says. "The opportunity to create a legacy rooted in the gift of nourishing others is a dream of mine. There are a few ways to change people and I fundamentally believe that being able to feed someone a product rooted in history, global awareness, innovation and creativity is one very good one."
She opened her first storefront in 2016. Mah-Ze-Dahr Bakery is an intersection of her expertise, combining her business acumen, science education, and cultural knowledge. She approached her own business as she would her clients.
"Being an investment banker and investor has helped me tremendously in how I have approached and structured my company. A food business is not only about the food, it is so much about the business of the food. Without the financial considerations of every single piece of the business, it doesn’t matter how good your cookies are," Ahamd says.
Dollars and cents aside, Mah-Ze-Dahr Bakery is renowned for its viennoiserie, brioche doughnuts, cheesecakes, Devil in Ganache chocolate cake, and Mah-Ze-Dahr bar.
Ahmad’s goals are to continue to build the brand with additional retail outlets, expand her online offerings and select brand partnerships. She is building her second NYC location with plans to open winter 2020, as well as two locations in Washington, D.C. this year.
What was the last thing you ate?
We are recipe testing today so I just had a few chunks, yes chunks, of honey loaf. It's a loaf-style cake made with clover honey, autumn spices and olive oil.
It's your day off. What do you have for breakfast and where?
On my very infrequent days off, I usually try and make breakfast at home. Because we start our mornings so early at the bakery, I don’t often get to eat a proper breakfast. So on these days, I will bring a croissant from the bakery home, toast it up and fill the center with soft scrambled eggs mixed with kalles kaviar (Swedish caviar in a tube). It reminds me of my childhood having grown up in a largely Scandinavian community in Michigan.
Controversial question: Do you believe in brunch?
I love brunch. More than the food itself, I love sitting around with my friends, catching up, laughing and sharing stories. Top that with great food? Yes, I believe in brunch. My favorite local neighborhood spot is Joseph Leonard. Incredible food with a fantastically talented chef/owner, Gabe Stulman. The tables are small, which is great when you’re sharing everything.
What is your 2:00 a.m. go-to food?
Since I wake up really early for the bakery, I’m rarely awake at 2:00 a.m. But if I am, my go-to snack is a bowl of Lucky Charms.
What is your local coffee shop and what do you order?
I’m totally spoiled with having La Colombe coffee at the bakery, so my morning always starts with a latte from us. It also gives me a chance to work on my latte art. If I’m out and about, I love Felix and Abraco.
Where do you go when you travel to your favorite city?
My favorite bakery city is Paris. I go there for inspiration and to be reminded of what a love for pastry can create. My go-to spots are Du Pain et Des Idées (escargot and chaussons aux pommes), Boulangerie Utopie (charcoal baguette and their viennoiserie), Circus Bakery (cinnamon rolls) and Mokonuts (cookies). Whenever we’re in town, we always try to find new places but save space for crepes from Breizh Cafe, a falafel wrap from L’As du Fallafel, and a tartine from Comptoir Poilane. My other favorite food city is Lahore. There is no shortage of creativity, wholesomeness and love in the food being created there.
What is the "laziest" meal you put together for yourself this past week?
When I get home and am too tired to cook, I make traditional sushi rice. I top it with toasted sesame oil and roasted cashews. If I’m feeling ambitious, I will top it with an olive-oil fried egg.
What is your favorite snack food?
Dark Chocolate Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, the miniature ones. From as far back as I can remember, I have loved peanut butter cups. But as I grew up, the milk chocolate became less interesting to me. When the dark chocolate ones were introduced, it's like the snack fairies were listening to me! The individually wrapped miniature ones have the perfect peanut butter to chocolate ratio.
What do you eat when you want to treat yourself?
When I want to treat myself, I make traditional Pakistani food. I recreate the recipes that were taught to me by my mother and grandmother. Our food takes hours to make, it’s a slow process that requires patience. Filled with anticipation as I make the food, I’m reminded of the way my mother shaped every piece of my life and how very lucky I am to have had her as long as I did. To eat this food is like coming full circle for me.
Photo by Nicole Franzen.