Life is most delicious when you pursue all your passions. It's an approach that pastry pioneer Umber Ahmad, who was just nominated for the 2019 Outstanding Baker Award by the James Beard Foundation, has taken to heart. Inspired by a childhood of world travel, a soaring career in finance, and a special talent for making transcendent confections, she deals in a different kind of dough today, helming the phenomenal Mah-Ze-Dahr Bakery in New York City. Here is where all her skills—and passions—come together exquisitely.
When Umber Ahmad was a child, her family played an unusual game around the dinner table. "We'd try something new, and my mother would say, 'Close your eyes, take a bite, and tell me: What do you taste, and where have you experienced it before?'" recalls Ahmad, who grew up in Marquette, Michigan, and spent summers traveling to her parents' native Pakistan and other far-flung places. The meals on those journeys sharpened her palate and shaped her worldview. "I realized that the cinnamon in Moroccan bisteeya is the same spice Americans sprinkle on their oatmeal, and the saffron in Swedish bread also shows up in the rice in Spain." Foods, she found, are like the cultures that give rise to them: "Made from the same ingredients, just put together in slightly different ways."
Today, she's spreading that message at Mah-Ze-Dahr Bakery, which she opened in Manhattan's West Village in 2016. Its name translates roughly from Urdu as "the magic that makes something delicious." And her sweets have that quality in spades: Along with fantastically rich brownies and fluffy vanilla sugar–dusted doughnuts, Ahmad gives customers a taste of the world. Her shortbread is spiked with cumin; a French brioche has a hint of rosewater.
For years, however, baking was merely a hobby for Ahmad—one of many. She has been a licensed pilot since age 16, and played violin professionally even before that. After earning a genetics degree from MIT, a master's in public health at the University of Michigan, and an MBA from Wharton, she worked as an investment banker and cofounded a consulting firm that, among other things, advises hospitality groups. One client, restaurateur and Top Chef majordomo Tom Colicchio, heard about a birthday cake she'd baked for a mutual friend and requested a sample. Ahmad spent three days in the kitchen—"I was terrified. He makes people cry on TV!"—then proffered a few of her greatest hits. "He asked, 'So what do you want to do with this?'" recalls Ahmad. "I said, 'What I'm doing for everybody else, but this time for myself: Build the next great heritage brand.'"
With Colicchio as her backer, she's well on her way. In addition to her shop and website, Ahmad's pastries have been offered through Williams-Sonoma and on JetBlue flights. In December, she partnered with Ralph Lauren to create sweets for the Ralph's Coffee café in the Polo flagship. For Ahmad, who's still active in her consulting firm and, believe it or not, also does voiceovers for commercials, it's been a thrilling, if exhausting, rise. "Concealer and coffee," she jokes, "are my best friends."