Neffar...the face behind NE Cakes...
Tell us about yourself. Where are you from?
I am from North Philly. You would think that we were neighborhood army brats, I pretty much lived in every neighborhood except South Philly. But Germantown, West Oak Lane, we lived there.
How did you get into baking?
Everyone in my family can bake or cook. A lot of members in my family wanted to make sure that the children would always be self-sufficient, be domesticated. Everyone is good at something. For instance, my aunt was good at making pretzels. So the more time I spent with her, I learned how to make a pretzel. My grandma is good at making casseroles and cheesecakes. My mom’s good at cakes. My grandfather was good a pies and he could cook. The more time I spent with them, I picked up a skill of how to make certain things. And the more time I spent with them, the better I got at them.
How did you come up with your brand name, NECakes?
So, I took the letters NE from my name. And I think that the best things, the most creative things, actually come from you. You are your own product, you are your brand. I was just waiting for that right moment. I was just sitting at home and I was like “NE…Do you have NE. Do you have NE more, NE less, NE napkins (laughs)”. And it was like a question. So, I was like it should be NECakes. And when I found out the Instagram name was available, I was like well nobody has it. So I have nothing to worry about and I immediately took it and I ran with it. And that’s how it became NE Cakes. Like I said, I could always cook and bake, but it wasn’t until I got to China where I realized there was a need for it. People actually wanted it. There was a really large foreign community in Shanghai. Around the holiday time, they can’t find cheesecakes or a traditional apple pie. For the people in my network, I started to deliver to them. Word traveled like “hey, there’s a guy who traveled from the states who can bake the things that we need.”. So if you were looking for things like American butter cream, or anything that was American type of sweet, I was your guy. So word traveled fast and we had a Thanksgiving Day party and I brought the Sasha’s Sweet Potato who's down with the Swirl. It’s half cheesecake, half sweet potato. And I brought a Ruby’s Red Dream which is a three layered red velvet cheesecake. They were both hits. So those people that were there told some people, and those people told more people. I would also send pics to people in chat rooms and word continued to travel fast. I was that guy. A lot of those foreigners were American and from Europe, they eventually wanted something sweet. For the Americans, it was hard to find things in the Chinese culture that were that sweet, the sweetness that we are used to. And if you did find an item that was like a cheesecake, it wasn’t the same. They were missing something.
What do you enjoy most about baking?
Ummm…Well….there was a time that I would get really high off my own supply sooo (laughs), so I really enjoy it, ya’ know. I enjoying going inside my own kitchen and eating things that I really enjoy. I just hate going to places, and I have a really large sweet tooth and I try things then realize that it’s just not that good. So I started baking and I really enjoyed seeing my things knowing that it was good and hearing other people say it was good. But I think the thing I really enjoy about baking is the people’s reaction after they try it. Especially people who typically don’t like a specific item. I’ve had people that have come to me and say “I don’t like cheesecake. But your cheesecake, oh that’s good!”. So those reactions people give me just warms my heart and kind of fuels me to keep baking. Sometimes it can get hard and sometimes things don’t come out like you want it to. You have to think, what was the thing that didn’t make this come out right. But when you get it right, and when you got it right and when the customer tastes that, they feel that. It makes you want to continue to get it right every time, to be consistent and to get that same reaction.
I wanted to ask you if you experience any difficulties when you bake, but I feel like you kind of covered it.
Yeah, the littlest things can change the outcome of your baked item. Opening the oven, letting too much air get in…What I really hate is a very dense cake. A lot of times with my recipes, people typically don’t do this but I will add my eggs last. I will beat the shit outta them. I’ll add them in last and make sure the cake comes out nice and fluffy and not dense where the customer would be like “ok, give me my money back.” I don’t have any issues now. But when you’re not paying attention to the smallest things, it could change everything. Especially with customers who have great taste buds, they’ll know like “wait, did you use something different?” You want to make sure everything is consistent and that everything stays the same. That’s what I strive to do.
What are some things that you feel set you apart from other bakers.
What sets me apart….I’m just a regular fella who has a baker's touch. I work hard to make sure I deliver very good products. I think what sets me apart is my ass will be late delivering you the best product because I cannot leave my kitchen if it’s not good. I know when it’s not good. If I can’t eat it or if I don’t think it’s good, then it won’t make it to the door. So I’m gonna make sure every bite, every touch, just like Janet Jackson says Any time, Any place, you gon’ get that work!
Tell our readers about the stories that come with some of the pastries that you create.
So one time I had to make a birthday cake and it was for a 50th birthday for this woman named Regina. She was in Shanghai but I think she was from down south. Her husband asked me to make his wife a really nice cake. I said okay, I’m going to make a cake in the shape of a dress. So at the time, I think I was living in a hotel and I was baking at the hotel. And it was one day a couple hours before the event I was applying the fondant to the cake. And I hear some knocks at the door. I’m like, I ain’t got time for this shit. It happened to be the owners of the hotel. I go over to open the door, I’m like okay I need to wash my hands now. I wash my hands, I open the door, they come in. I go back to try and finish the fondant on the cake and they’re talking to me in Chinese. At that time, my Chinese wasn’t so good. But I was kind of getting the gist of what they were saying. They were basically saying “it smells like a bakery in our hotel and you need to leave.” And their guests were saying it stinks. I was like, okay now I believe there must be a conspiracy to get black people’s blood pressure up because you’re fuckin’ with me. You know damn well nobody came to you talkin’ about it stinks. I’m not making shit cakes. I’m making good cakes. You know, nobody said to them it smells. They said it smells good, that’s what they said. I think they knew I was making money and they saw my prices. So what it came down to was if I wanted to bake there, they said you have to pay us a certain amount of money. And while they were having that conversation, there wasn’t a stop in my beat. I was rolling the fondant and creasing it. I made sure everything was fit for this woman I was baking for and I just felt like I needed to do whatever I needed to in order to get this cake out on time. So I had to agree to whatever they wanted me to do so they wouldn’t throw me out in the middle of making this cake. It was for a surprise birthday party! So you can’t be late for a surprise birthday party. The cake has to be on time. So I was like okay, okay, okay. I was able to put the cake in the box and deliver it on time for this surprise. I stayed for the party a little bit. When I got back, it was a shit show. But when I sat by the table and she cut into the cake, and I saw her face, she said “you made this?” I said “yes.” She said, “this is some good cake.” To look around and see those people not know that the surprise was gonna be your ass was not about to have this cake. I had a situation but here it is. You have this beautiful cake that you enjoyed while you celebrate your 50th birthday.
Do you have a personal favorite item that you bake?
Yes. I like it because I’ve made it so much that I can’t make it with one hand, I can make it with one eye. I know when something is different and if I made a mistake. It’s my red velvet recipe. It was my grandmoms’. I’ve made some changes to it. I’ve made it so many times, it’s probably one of my favorites to make. I know it in and out, I can never get it wrong. It’s very moist, decadent and rich. I’ve had people call me a year later to say they had their red velvet in their freezer and took it out and say it was damn good. I said, “don’t be saying that shit out loud. I don’t wanna be getting arrested because your ass wanna eat some two year old cake.” You know what I mean (laughs). Violating the health code and shit so that’s on you! (laughs). But I had people call me weeks, months and ever a year later saying “yo, this cake is still good and moist!” So that’s my favorite recipe to make because of the reactions from the customers who usually don’t like red velvet and with the texture of the cream cheese. I’ve made it so many times, it’s my go-to recipe.
Is it important for you to keep up with what’s going on in the pastry/food scene and keeping up with trends? Do you feel like you have to keep up with anything?
No, when it comes to the trends I’ve never been a trendy person. I try to remain classic. Everyone’s being trendy. I think right now, matcha, fondant and other things, those are the thing right now. Trends never really last. I never have pressure. In terms of me trying to jump on the newest trends, I usually don’t do that. Some customers want a classic taste that they’re familiar with. That’s not something I want to change just to jump on the trendy train.
If you could train under any pastry chef, who would it be?
My grandmother. She was the bomb. She would give people a run for their money. I’ve seen her bake everything by scratch, by hand. She wasn’t using a stand mixer. She was just using her hands and a wooden spoon. If I could do it all over again for a year or just for a course, I would choose my grandmother. Or also my grandfather. Both of them, they could go head to head.
Are there anything you dabble in other than baking?
Yes. I make clothes. I like to draw and paint. I’m just an overall creative person, I’m very visual. I like to express myself through clothes, cakes or in art using pencil, paint or marker. Those are the things that make me smile. Baking is second to drawing. When I’m drawing, I’m not really aware of what’s going on. I’m like in another place. And I don’t really break the trance or come out of it until I’m finished drawing. And then when I’m finished drawing, I’m like “oh.” But when I’m drawing, it’s so peaceful that I feel like I’m in another world. I’m not worried about anything else and it puts me at peace.
What are some of your personal goals this year for NECakes?
For NECakes, I want to launch the website. I want to take over the city of Philadelphia, as you know. And to create a larger presence. It’s gonna be a numbers game for me too. I want to approach a lot of companies with a business plan. If I talk to a hundred companies, I’m hoping that about ten of them say yes. I’m okay with accepting “no” because I’m gonna knock on that door again. But if I can get an invitation to your stomach by way of one of my cakes, you won’t tell me no. So, the goal is to invite everyone to a get your ass fat party and to come together, drop it like it’s hot, one bite one squat, and make everyone feel good. I want everyone to know NE Cakes and I want everyone to be able to enjoy a great product.
To contact Neffar, please visit https://www.facebook.com/necakes11/