By Patricia Canole
The talented Umber Ahmad has been delighting pastry fans for years (including Chef Tom Colicchio of Craft fame) with a mail order and wholesale business, Mah-Ze-Dahr. Then last year after careful planning, Ahmad opened her storefront bakery in the West Village—to the delight of New Yorkers!
Mah-Ze-Dahr—it’s an Urdu word, describing the “magic that makes food so delicious”—feels a bit luxurious by bakery standards, with its cushioned banquette across from the wrap-around pastry counter. “It’s about creating memories, savoring moments,” Umber explains, “and giving people the space to cherish the rest of the day.”
Indeed, she’s working her magic in what has become one of the best pastry shops in New York. We recently caught up with Umber who shed some light on what makes her life and pastries blend so perfectly.
With a career well-established in finance, when exactly did your love of baking begin?
I started baking as a child. And, at the time, we had a Finnish woman to help care for us. As early as I can remember, she would sit me on the counter and go about baking things for our family, all the while telling me stories about her childhood, family, travels, everything. For me, storytelling and food become inextricably linked. My family is from Pakistan, where food is an honored tradition of bonding, love, intention and hard work. The food was life, and the people who created that food were magical.
How did Tom Colicchio inspire you?
Tom embodies the truth of a chef: a person who transforms the earth’s bounty into nourishment and art. He has maintained his authenticity as he has grown his reach and goes back to the origin of why he does what he does. I’m appreciative of that. Tom also recognized in me and my pastries something with potential and longevity. To have someone like Tom acknowledge your work—that goes a long way when you first start out.
Were you always located in New York City? And what has been your vision?
I moved to NYC after graduating from business school (Wharton) to begin my career on Wall Street. After many years in banking and private equity, I started my own firm. Now with Mah-Ze-Dahr, I find myself in New York City for the foreseeable future. My vision for Mah-Ze-Dahr is for it be a global, luxury heritage brand which connects memory, experience, and taste together. The greatest luxury any of us can hope for is time. We all want and crave more time. When we sit and eat, we take that time to be focused ourselves, our well-being and those whom we love. Mah-Ze-Dahr is the true embodiment of that luxury of time.
What are some new baking concepts you are bringing to the table?
Baking is not about new concepts or innovations. Our goal is not to create fads or photographable food, but instead to become a part of your lives. We strive for Mah-Ze-Dahr pastries to be the best version of that pastry you’ve ever had. We do this through the finest ingredients, refined techniques, innovations of flavor and ingredient, and the commitment to quality. While not a new concept, I fear that it is a bit of a lost one in today’s markets.
Since opening your bakery, what has become the most sought-after item?
One of the things that I love about our bakery is that our pastries speak to people in so many different ways. We have some guests who gravitate toward our scones, others swear by our signature Mah-Ze-Dahr bar. Our brioche doughnut with vanilla pastry cream always sells out, as do our vanilla choux.
Are there plans to open other Mah-Ze-Dahr outposts in New York City?
We are currently working on our second storefront in Manhattan. Once we have that established, we will evaluate one more before expanding to other cities. We are also working on a location at JFK airport.
What’s your life like outside of the kitchen?
As an entrepreneur, you become your business, and your business becomes you. Most of my waking hours are spent working on Mah-Ze-Dahr, so when I do have some downtime, I like to spend it with my family and my friends. I seek nourishment in them and find tremendous energy and blessings in their company. I’m a private pilot and try to fly as much as possible. Outside of the kitchen, the sky is my happy place.
And have you given thoughts to writing a cookbook?
Good question! I’ve been approached by publishers and agents to write both a cookbook for Mah-Ze-Dahr, as well as the story of our brand. Both labors of love, I believe that timing is critical when it comes to books. Once we have another year under our belts, I will do the cookbook. The brand book is something about which I feel very strongly about. Mah-Ze-Dahr is a journey from emotion to a lifestyle brand. Having changed me as a person, I would hope the story inspires others to find their own love and legacy.
For more information on Mah-Ze-Dahr Bakery, visit mahzedahrbakery.com.