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MY CUPCAKE JOURNEY

 


by Thu

chef & owner

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I started my cupcake journey in 2010. I was barely old enough to drive, and my favorite cupcake shop at that time was 20 miles away. I thought “if I can’t get Sprinkles Cupcakes, why not just make my own at home?”

 

I taught myself how to bake. My earliest test batches were red velvet cupcakes pulled from allrecipes.com, and frosting from the tub.

Before I knew it, I was baking up a storm in the kitchen. In high school, I  became known as the “cupcake girl”. I used to walk around campus with a container of freshly made cupcakes and pass them out. Soon after, family, friends, and even those who I just met wanted to order my cupcakes. Selling cupcakes was never on my radar but seeing the smiles on people’s faces when they took a bite ignited my passion.

 

That was the beginning of my  cupcake business “Tootie Cakes”.

2011

Before I left my parents’ house for college, I wrote what I thought was silly at the time, a mission statement:

 

“Must feed the world with bombass cupcakes!” Thirteen years later, it is still there today.

2013

Throughout college, I felt like I was living two lives - the life of a Biology student and the life of a baker. I wanted to improve my baking skills so I got my very first kitchen job at a local bakery in San Francisco. I was working graveyard shifts, running my cupcake business, while attending school full-time. My hard work was paying off when the owner at my bakery job let me sell my cupcakes at the shop. By 2014, Tootie Cakes was at its peak. I was taking on weekly cupcake orders, deliveries, weddings, pop-ups, wholesale, even adding cookies to my menu.

2015

Overtime, I accumulated very little sleep with only 2-3 hours daily. I started to feel burnt out. I decided to leave my job and put my business on hold to focus on school. I graduated with no idea what was next. Part of me wanted to pursue my cupcake business full-time, and my customers were ready for me to open a cupcake shop. The other part felt obligated to fulfill my parent’s expectations, and there was an immense pressure to take over their dental practice. 

2016

Against my parents’ wishes, I wanted to keep refining my baking skills and got a job at my favorite bakery at that time, Mr. Holmes Bakehouse. It was a dream for me to go from standing in line for their pastries to being a part of their team.

In the midst of burnout, I had suffered a knee injury. I moved home with my parents to care for it and to figure out my next step.

 

At home, the pressure to follow my parent’s footsteps heightened.

2018

Despite the guilt I felt, I kept fighting to pursue my passion, whether my parents supported me or not. And so, I decided to move to New York for culinary school.

I attended the French Culinary Institute, a place where my inspirations had walked - Anthony Bourdain, Christina Tosi, David Chang, Dan Barber. I chose to take the culinary program in hopes of bringing something different back to the pastry world and my cupcakes.

My first restaurant job was at a 2-michelin star restaurant called Aska. I loved it, but my time there was brief, as I was working 15-16 hours and had to prove myself amongst my male peers. I wanted to look for a place that had more opportunity for myself.

I ended up at Momofuku.

 

Chefs yelling, limited kitchen space, the fights for equipment, eating next to a garbage can, station partner leaving a shit prep list, burn marks from the hot line, cooking in a NYC summer in 90F degree with no A/C - I loved every moment of it. I felt alive. I had learned all I could from garde manger to entremet, and eventually, I decided to go back to pastry.

 

The Modern was my first and last job as a pastry chef in NYC. I refined my skills, which took my baking to the next level. I thought I would work my way up in this pastry kitchen, but then, the pandemic hit. I moved back to San Jose not knowing what was next, with half my belongings and my heart still in New York City. 
 

2020

While in lockdown at my parents' in 2020, I revisited Tootie Cakes. I’d drop a limited amount of cupcake boxes for pickup. By the 2nd cupcake drop, I sold out within minutes, and the next few drops within seconds. My first in-person pop-up during the pandemic had a line out the door, and I only had enough cupcakes to feed a small fraction of the line.

Despite having a solid following in San Jose, I wanted to be in a faster paced city where my creativity can grow. Also, as my experience and palette for food had refined over the years, I felt like my brand had to refine as well.

 

That was the end of Tootie Cakes, and the beginning of nīn.

2021

In 2021, I moved to Los Angeles.  It was another fresh start, living in a new city where I barely knew anyone. The city was still dead from the pandemic, but I was hungry to get out there. I finally decided to do my cupcake business full-time.

I was nervous for my first pop-up in Los Angeles. I had not made a name for myself in the city and had just rebranded. My constant thoughts were “what if no one shows up?” To my surprise, my cupcakes would prove themselves worthy as I had customers come two hours early to stand in line, and my pop up sold out within the hour.

For 2 years, I went between Los Angeles and San Jose doing pop-ups to create traction and build momentum. Everytime my business grew, I had to slow it down because I could not meet demand. Even though I’ve learned to work smarter, faster and more organized than I ever did before, I could only make so many cupcakes, already baking 200-300 out of my home oven. I had to pivot and find ways to expand my business.

My cupcake business started taking shape in ways I never imagined. I’ve taught cupcake workshops, hosted sit-down experiences paired with tea or wine, collaborated with other chefs and businesses outside of the food industry like fashion brands and local artists. Any cupcake ideas I wrote down in my journal since 2010 started coming to life. I was finally able to execute my ideas to my liking.

 

Did I finally create my own

Sprinkles Cupcakes?

As I look back at my journey that started 14 years ago, it is now beyond anything I ever dreamed of. The goal for nīn is to create an experience of quality and intention, to break the mold of what people think a cupcake could be. nīn is the beginning… a box of cupcakes to celebrate the start of something new.

 

After baking cupcakes from my home oven for so many years, I am finally ready to make it something greater... another beginning.

COMING TO LOS ANGELES
2025

nīn cupcake shop is coming to life at its first location in Los Angeles. Join the next part of my journey here.

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Baking in 2010, before I learned how to make everything from scratch.

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Instagram posts from customers in 2011

(with the OG instagram filter!)

 

First logo ever for my cupcake business!

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The start of my cupcake business in my parents' kitchen in San Jose

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Tootie Cakes' first pop-up

at a local art fair called FAME (Fashion Art Music Exhibition) in 2012.

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I used to sell cookies, too!

Finishing up cupcake orders

after a long day of college classes and shifts at my bakery job.

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Tootie Cakes deliveries from the trunk of my car.

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Tootie Cakes first cupcake tasting at A.Muse Gallery in San Francisco in 2015. Video by Miguel Nuestro.

 

Photo by Brian Valdizno

& more info about this event on

The Culinary Four blog.

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Got baked at Mr. Holmes Bakehouse.

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My culinary school classmates and I spontaneously got matching tattoos.

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I was so in awe meeting Christina Tosi and Massimo Bottura!!

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Customers coming an hour early to wait in line first cupcakes. Some brought camp chairs!

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2023 pop-up at Sesame LA. Video by Brian Valdizno

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Cupcake workshops

at Tea at Shiloh in Los Angeles.

Collaborations with chefs

Deconstructed ube cupcake at Sampa's 5 course tasting menu.

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mango cupcakes 2012 vs. 2022


December 2023, snippets of me occasionally back in my parents kitchen.

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Photo by Tiffany Chung

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