How former banker Umber Ahmad’s baked goods won over top chef Tom Colicchio and became the foundation of a budding food empire.+ READ ARTICLE
As a financial consultant, Umber Ahmad typically spent her days counseling people on how to expand their brands—until one particular client, Tom Colicchio, heard about her baking hobby and asked for a taste. She was nervous, to say the least. “He makes people cry on TV cooking for him,” she says. “And he wanted to try my food.” Over three days, Ahmad brought him cheesecake with a chocolate-cookie crust, dark chocolate brownies, tarts, shortbreads, and biscuits right out of the oven. After that, she went from giving Colicchio advice on how to invest in young talent and grow his brand to being the first member of his Colicchio Discoveries group.
The daughter of Pakistani immigrants, Ahmad was raised in Marquette, Michigan. Her earliest memory is of braiding nisu, a sweet Nordic bread, with her Finnish nanny. “There’s a beauty and ease to the science of baking—it was a peaceful release,” she says. On their many family trips, Ahmad’s parents encouraged their children to make connections between different foods. “Bread in Stockholm would remind us of rice in Spain, and mole in Mexico reminded me of chocolate in Switzerland,” she says. “They’re the same ingredients, just mixed together in different ways.”
In 2013, Ahmad opened Mah-Ze-Dahr, an online baked-goods store. “Getting someone to try something new that they can’t see, touch, or taste—it was an interesting business challenge,” Ahmad says. She landed major wholesale clients: JetBlue, Intelligentsia Coffee, Williams-Sonoma. But the goal all along was to have her own retail space, and in September, Ahmad opened a navy-and-stone-accented café in New York City’s West Village, with plans to expand to the Middle East and Asia. “The meaning of mazedar is the essence that makes something special,” Ahmad says of the Urdu word. Middle Eastern and Nordic flavors are prevalent—there’s cardamom in the snickerdoodles and za’atar in the spinach hand pies, plus nisu is on the menu. “It’s the second or third flavor you taste that triggers a taste memory, and that’s what we focus on,” she says. “The subtlety is what makes a dish.” mahzedahrbakery.com.