Steph Chen’s life story follows a dreamy narrative that everyone wants to jump into: kick ass woman quits her successful corporate job for passion project in baking and cake design.
*cue inspiring montage of trading paperwork and pencil skirts for Kitchen Aid and high top sneakers*
But before you get swept away by that dreamy sequence, I want to stop you. Because that’s just the frosting--her whole story is so much richer and so much deeper than that.
At first glance, her turn into the baking world may seem sharp and surprising, but after getting to know Steph, I can’t help but feel that she was meant for this all along...that all the pieces of her life, no matter how small or disconnected at face value, are all flying together in the beautiful crescendo that is her present and future as a baker-entrepreneur extraordinaire.
This “it’s meant to be” feeling, however, does not undervalue the immense courage that it took for her to make the leap into the unknown and stick too it. Steph was working behind some of the the biggest brands in the world (in her twenties nonetheless) and when she quit for her own wellbeing, there were not a bunch of cheerleaders at her side. The stark reality is that when you make such a decision, even the people that you love cannot help but cast their own fear, doubt, and not-so-positive feelings about how you traded job security for what seems like a cute hobby.
Steph credits the gift of her beloved pistachio colored Kitchen Aid as the catalyst for discovering her new passion and ability in the kitchen. At first, it was quite literally an aid to relieve stress from work. When she started, her baking knowledge didn’t go much beyond boxed cake mixes, so she taught herself how to bake from scratch, using every birthday and event as an opportunity to create something new.
And that she did. If you take a look at her recipes, Steph’s baking is such a breath of fresh air. It is so uniquely her! Through her ingredients, like matcha, strawberry, and sweet red bean, and her cake molds of Game of Thrones heads and little Yodas, you can truly get a sense of who she is: a California girl with Chinese roots, a sense of humor, a penchant for fine details and innovation, a love of pop culture, and a huge heart.
At some point between career induced anxiety attacks and new found kitchen confidence, Steph auditioned for the second season of ABC’s The Great American Baking Show and made it. While on the show, Steph had to bake things that she had never made before, yet still made it to the finals. Since then, she’s been working as independent cake designer and recipe developer, which she shares on her blog, Sugarbear Bakes. Most recently, she also helped produce Gather for Good with Chef Zoe Nathan (full disclosure: that's how we met!).
When you consider Steph's family history, her rapid transition from amateur to professional is not so surprising. She grew up in Cerritos, California as the first generation granddaughter of a Chinese immigrant family of movers and shakers. Within her immediate family, everyone is some type of leader or gamechanger, whether it’s running schools, a business, city council, or political activism (her grandfather was part of the KMT party that fled China to Taiwan with Chiang Kai Shek). So, suffice to say that to get up and make things happen is simply part of who she is. But, when I ask her about the moment she declared that she was a professional baker, it gave her pause. Perhaps it all hasn't sunk in yet. Neither quite had the uncanny and enchanting similarities of these two photos:
Within the last ten years, Steph has gone through a number of milestone life moments. Two of the most major include that she married the love of her life, Kelvin (the man who gave her the fortuitous Kitchen Aid and supports her unconditionally!) and she went after her calling against popular vote. But before any of that, she lost a monumental part of her life and her heart: her grandmother, Ellen.
"I just love that name," Steph says, "Ellen King." The name is undeniably resonant. It is feminine, strong, and royal--especially fitting albeit ironically for a matriarch of an incredible family. Steph's grandmother was known to rock a good bright lipstick and Chanel suit. She is the one who taught Steph to take her time with details, especially in the kitchen, even if it takes you all day and into the night. In the 1970's, Ellen immigrated to the States as a single mother with her children. She opened a successful Chinese restaurant in New Jersey called the Shanghai Egg Roll King before moving the family to Orange County, California. Some of Steph's fondest memories with her grandmother are the weekends spent together while she was a student at Chapman University. Steph would skip the college party scene to go home to take her shopping and just be together.
The parallels of Steph's journey with her grandmother's are remarkable, in trajectory and sartorial expertise. Both took a leap into the unknown and landed as culinary creatives. Both left their comfort zone with the intuition that there was something better out there--something not pre-made or perfectly planned, but possible.
Can you imagine if Ellen hadn't moved to to the States? If Steph had stayed in advertising and stuck to adding water, oil, and an egg to cake mix? If they had not doted on details? Even Steph's experience in advertising has influenced her work to be inventive, deliberate, and well organized.
Ultimately, Steph and her grandmother remind me that we usually have all the ingredients for what we need, even if we don't consciously recognize all of them. It's about trusting yourself, using what you got, and embracing the endless combinations of unknown possibilities that may come from that.
And oh yeah, never settle for less than best! Wear that Chanel suit.