Chera Amlag had no idea that her baking hobby would flourish into a full-time profession. But when the Filipina American's signature ube (Filipino purple yam) cheesecake rose to notoriety, she took a leap of faith and left her decade-long career in education to open her own bakery.
"I think people [in my community] were excited to have something that represented them." Amlag, who was born in the Phillipines and raised in the United States, told NBC News. "My favorite dessert growing up was ube, and I love cheesecake. It was exciting creating something new yet so familiar. I grew up feeling like I was never Filipino enough with some friends, and never American enough with others."
With roots as an artist-activist and community organizer, Amlag has dedicated her life to contributing to community organizations such as arts collective Isang Mahal (One Love) and helped found Gabriela Seattle, a grassroots organization which advocates for the human rights of Filipinas globally. She then worked as a youth program manager at a non-profit organization and later college campuses, where she spent over a decade helping first-generation college students transition into higher education.
"My work in the community was a vibrant time in my life," she said. "It continues to inform my work today."
Her new profession as a pastry chef emerged out of a desire to serve the community. In 2013, Amlag and her husband, Geo Quibuyen, decided to take their children on an immersion trip to the Philippines so that they can be exposed to their homeland. As a way to fundraise for the trip and celebrate their 10-year wedding anniversary, the couple collaborated with a local Filipino restaurant in their neighborhood to do a pop-up dinner service, which was met with warm reception.
"The pop up was only supposed to be a one-time event, but our friends and family encouraged us to do it again," Amlag said. Their monthly pop-up series, Food & Sh*t, was born. She introduced her ube cheesecake at the second event, and it became an instant hit.
"People kept asking for the ube cheesecake after we initially debuted it at our second pop-up," Amlag said. "It grew a life of its own. So we put it on the menu as an a la carte item, and diners would post it on Instagram. Like that, it spread through social media and word of mouth."
Eventually, Amlag's cheesecake reached a local grocery store in November of 2014, and the demand for the dessert reached a new level. Amlag decided to leave her job at the beginning of 2015 to work on her new wholesale baking business, which she named Hood Famous Bakeshop after a neighborhood customer asked for the "hood famous" cheesecake.
"There was some buzz about the ube cheesecake in our neighborhood and a diner came to one of our pop-ups asking for that 'hood famous' cheesecake," she said."We started calling it Chera's Hood Famous Ube Cheesecake and later decided to name the bakery Hood Famous Bakeshop. It was really our neighborhood that helped us grow. I know our work isn't perfect, but our customers are amazing and are willing to go on this journey with us."
Amlag opened her first storefront, which consists of a small sweets-to-go counter, in the fall of 2016.
In addition to her cheesecakes, Amlag's Filpino-American dessert specialties also include ube cookies, calamansi bars (a Filipino take on lemon bars), pandan flan (pandan is a tropical leaf used in many Southeast Asian dishes), and the traditional cassava cake. While she is known for her Filipino inspired desserts, she aspires to introduce more traditional dessert options to her bakery menu next year, including ensaymadas and pan de sal, and to continue making her hometown proud.
"I wouldn't be doing this if it was just about cheesecake. The ability to uplift Filipino culture here in Seattle makes this all that much more special," she said. "I hope to bring our flavors to as many people as possible."