Nima Etemadi: Walking in a cupcake wonderland

Google the words “cupcake sayings” and you’ll get a whole slew of responses: “Cupcakes don’t ask silly questions.

Cupcakes understand”; “You can’t be sad when you’re holding a cupcake”; and a quote from actor Emma Stone, “You’re a human being. You live once and life is wonderful, so eat the damn red velvet cupcake.” Obviously cupcakes inspire a lot of passion, and who better to talk to about it than Nima Etemadi, co-owner of A Cupcake Wonderland, a Philadelphia-based company that has been featured (and won!) on the Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars.”

PGN: So where did you cook up from? NE: I’m originally from Vancouver, British Columbia. I moved to the States to go to college and lived in New York for about 10 years. During that time, I traveled a lot back and forth to Philadelphia because this is where my business partner was, and now that I live here, I love it. I can finally stop being jealous of her enormous living space compared to my tiny New York apartment!

PGN: What school did you go to? NE: Sarah Lawrence College.

PGN: So what was life like growing up in Vancouver? NE: Well, I’m one of two; I have an older brother. We’re Persian and have a large extended family who all settled in Vancouver after the revolution. I feel really lucky to have grown up in a big Persian community with all four grandparents and lots of uncles and aunts and cousins.

PGN: Any cool Persian traditions? NE: I love Persian New Year. My father’s family is Islamic but they’re not very religious — we never went to a mosque or anything — and my mother’s side is Bahá’í and they’re not very heavily into it either. One of the secular holidays in the Persian culture is New Year’s, also called Nowruz. I think it was originally Zoroastrian but it’s been adopted by the other religions that populated the area. It’s really wonderful. It happens at the spring equinox so it usually falls around March 21. They’re very particular about calculating exactly when the sun crosses the celestial equator and if it happens at 3 in the morning, we all get up to celebrate it then.

PGN: As a night owl, that’s my kind of holiday! NE: Yeah, it’s been celebrated for over 3,000 years. They make all kinds of special sweets and have a great time. It’s a 12-day celebration and we get pulled out of school for the better part of a week so that you can visit everyone that’s important in your life. First, you visit the elders of the family, then the rest of the family and finally your friends. On the 13th day, families leave their homes and picnic outdoors, as part of the Sizdah Be-dar ceremony. It’s one of the things that I miss when I’m not there.

PGN: [Laughs.] Do you now wake people up at 3 a.m. to celebrate? NE: No, but my parents still wake me up! My mom once sent me “Persian New Year in a Box.” It was great. It had all the pieces I needed to set up a Haft Sin table. It has a lot of symbolic items that are about birth and renewal: a painted egg, a mirror, rose water, etc. It was really sweet of her.

PGN: What was a favorite toy as a kid? NE: He-Man [laughs], much to the displeasure of my mother. I was really into action figures and things like that. And this is going to sound strange, but I really loved money. Counting it and stacking it.

PGN: You’re not alone. I did too. I loved getting my parents’ bottles of change and putting all the coins in those little paper rolls. I didn’t care if it wasn’t my money, it was just fun. Now it’s all ruined by those stupid counting machines! NE: I know! I used to spend hours doing it. Now I see that it was really the joy of organizing things, so I try to apply it to other areas in my life.

PGN: Are you and your brother alike? NE: No, I tend to be more casual, the left-brained creative type, whereas he’s more precise. He’s a doctor now and I bake cupcakes so that should give you an idea. But he’s always been gentle and good-hearted.

PGN: What did your parents do? NE: My father had a construction company for many years and my mother was a homemaker.

PGN: Did you pick up any building skills? NE: I wish. I think my father was the least handy person in his company. But he’s a very sociable character; a lot of his role was building the company, keeping everyone happy and bringing in new clients. He was like an ambassador for the company.

PGN: Back to New York, what did you study at Sarah Lawrence? NE: I studied film theory, which I loved but quickly realized wasn’t going to lead to a job, unless I wanted to be a professor. I love teaching but the world of academia was not for me.

PGN: Did you jump right into cupcake-making? NE: I did not; I actually graduated high school a little early and tried university, but I was way too young and I dropped out and went to culinary school first.

PGN: How old were you when you went to college? NE: 14.

PGN: Smartypants! NE: [Laughs.] I tried. I actually just never cared for high school so I tried to get out as soon as possible. Unfortunately, college wasn’t a good fit for me either, so I dropped out and enrolled in The Pacific Institute for Culinary Arts. It was a wonderful experience. I did a few years of catering but most of my friends were older than me and when they all started graduating, I decided maybe I should go back to school. While I was at school in New York, I worked as an assistant editor for Aperture Magazine. It was wonderful and the people were great but I found that, ultimately, I’m not made for a desk job. I missed working with my hands so I left to go to pastry school and graduated from the French Culinary Institute’s Classic Pastry Arts program. In the meantime — unbeknownst to me — my friend from college, Lily Fischer, had also decided to go to pastry school and had started her own company, which had been featured on the TV show “Cupcake Wars.” After her business partner left, she got invited back on the show and called me to join her for the episode. We clicked really well and decided to go into business together. It didn’t make sense for the two of us to be doing the same thing at the same time and not join forces. I moved to Philly and here we are!

PGN: Before we go whole cupcake, what was coming out like? NE: I definitely came out to my parents in stages. There were all different levels of rebellion at first. Like, “I’m never going to get married” [laughs], then it was like, “OK, I’m never getting married to a guy …” then it was, “I AM a guy.” I was really lucky that they were very liberal and open-minded, especially being from a Middle- Eastern background. They were very much of the mindset that their children’s health and happiness was of primary importance. So as much as I’m sure certain parts were confusing for them, they’ve done their best to adapt to it. So yeah, they’ve been really great. There were some family members who they were nervous about telling, like my grandmother, and she turned out to be the easiest to tell. She was like, “OK, great! I have another grandson!”

PGN: It’s amazing how people can surprise you if you give them a chance. I think in most cases if you approach it positively and without shame or hesitation, most people can handle it. NE: Yeah, I transitioned while I was working for Aperture and they were really wonderful about it too. To acclimate them, I sent around an email to everybody saying, “Look, I’m going to be the same person you know … just hairier.” I think being open to questions helped too. I think if you want to bring people with you, on any transition, you have to be willing to be open and honest and willing to talk. People are going to have natural curiosity and have things they don’t understand and if you don’t supply the answers, they’re going to go online or watch “Jerry Springer” for answers and that’s just going to create misunderstandings and misinformation. So far, I’ve had very few problems transitioning and I think part of what worked was being kind of mellow about it. Not taking a sledgehammer to people’s preconceived ideas, just letting it work out on its own by being myself.

PGN: OK, back to cupcakes. Who is the comic-book fan? I saw a lot of superheroes on the website. NE: Actually, a lot of that is customer-driven. The kids, especially little boys, tend to like superheroes, though sometimes people surprise you there too. We recently had a girl who last year was all frilly pinks and princesses and this year she wants Spiderman.

PGN: It looks like you do a lot more than just cupcakes. NE: Yes, we’ve been really trying to expand our wedding and custom cake department and it’s really growing nicely. Our big news is that we’re getting ready to move into a storefront shop this spring. It’s going to be at 1306 Frankford Ave. and it’ll be called the Cake Life Bake Shop. In addition to cakes and cupcakes, we do cookies and scones — both sweet and savory. We’ll be making great biscuits too and pies, tarts, all kinds of things.

PGN: There were some very beautifully decorated cupcakes pictured on the website, my favorite being a peacock design. Do you have to possess artistic skills in addition to culinary skills for this business? NE: Yes, I think cooking in general, but especially baking, requires a degree of artistry and creativity. I’ve seen some people who have wonderful cooking/baking skills but if they don’t have the right eye, the right aesthetic, the cakes look crazy.

PGN: So you’ve now been on “Cupcake Wars” twice? NE: Yes, we’ve been featured three times but I wasn’t on the first one. I was on the episode where “Spiderman: Turn off the Dark” was the theme and also the “Celebrating the USO” show. They tend to rerun that one around the Fourth of July. They were both great experiences and being on “Cupcake Wars” has been really beneficial to the business. Especially since we don’t have a storefront yet, it helps legitimize us in people’s eyes. As soon as you step foot onto the Food Network, people are impressed. We really made sure that we looked good and didn’t make any crazy mistakes.

PGN: What was the task? NE: For “Spiderman,” in the first round they gave us six ingredients that weren’t very palatable together — currants, pumpkin, apricots, molasses, oats and kale — and we had to use them all. The other teams combined them all together and it was disgusting, the judges hated their cupcakes. We broke them down into three components. We made a kale, current and apricot cake with a pumpkin cream-cheese frosting and a decorative cookie on top using the oats and molasses for a spiderweb. We did well in the second round too and a lot of the flavors we created for the show are still on our menu.

PGN: I noticed some interesting pairings, like your fresh fig cake with honey goat fig frosting. NE: Yeah, that frosting was from “Cupcake Wars.” It’s one of my favorites. We’re not big on shortcuts so if it’s not starting as a whole fruit, we’re not really interested in it. We want to work with things in season as much as possible. We do everything here. For instance, with our raspberry buttercream cupcake, we make the raspberry compote ourselves from scratch. I think it truly comes through in the flavor. I have a few for you to try.

PGN: If you insist … I’ll do it for research purposes only. Just joking, I’m definitely not an “Oh but I can’t” type of girl. Bring them on! What’s the weirdest or favorite custom order you’ve gotten? NE: My favorite custom order came from Neal Santos from City Paper. They were having a goodbye party for their food editor, Drew Lazor, and they asked us to make them a Rhianna butt cake with a 3D butt. It was a logistical challenge; From the top it looks two-dimensional but from the side it pops up like that thing is coming right at you. But it was also a lot of fun.

PGN: Well, if you do that again, I’d be glad to personally take Rhianna’s measurements for you to make sure it’s accurate! Back to you, let’s get to some random questions. What’s a conversation piece in your home? NE: Hmmm, I guess my books. I have a huge book collection accumulated from childhood through my time working at a book publisher, and now quite a collection of cookbooks that I’ve been racking up faster than I could possibly read them.

PGN: Who was your favorite author as a young person? NE: I loved Roald Dahl, especially some of his lesser-known books like “Danny, the Champion of the World.” He also wrote an autobiography that was really good. I also went through an Agatha Christie phase.

PGN: What movie makes you cry? NE: Pedro Almodóvar’s “All About My Mother.” That makes everyone cry.

PGN: If you were undead, would you be a vampire, zombie or ghost? NE: I think I would be a zombie. I think they’re very food-motivated.

PGN: Best store to walk/browse through? NE: Reading Terminal. If you’re interested in food you can’t beat it. I think most of my money at this point goes to food-related things.

PGN: Your favorite picture of yourself? NE: One Halloween, I was about to go out dressed in a full Viking costume when my father called and told me he had an unexpected layover and needed me to find him a hotel. I put on my glasses and got on the phone and the computer and was making calls trying to get him situated. My then-girlfriend took a funny picture of me and called it “Full Business Viking.”

PGN: And now the Viking is out conquering the culinary world! NE: I hope so!

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