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A TALE OF TWO CITIESISSUE 06

Mah-Za in Manhattan

Former investment banker Umbar Ahmad’s high-end bakery Mah-Ze-Dar is giving New Yorkers a sugar rush like never before.

“Let the beauty of what you love be what you do.”

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This quote by Rumi perfectly sums up banker-turned-baker Umber Ahmad’s passion for food, business, travel and luxury that are manifested in her brand called Mah-Ze-Dahr.

On the 22nd of September this year, Umber opened the doors of Mah-Ze-Dahr at 7am to allow West Village, New York into her café. It was a day that had been long-awaited, for while the brick-and-mortar café was new, the bakery had established somewhat of a cult following amongst New Yorkers for its exquisite desserts since it began online operations two years ago.

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Mah-Ze-Dahr is the latest addition to a string of trendy eateries cropping up on Greenwich Avenue, fast becoming known as New York’s newest “Restaurant Row.” Located in an area as quintessentially New York as can be, it is emblematic of the city’s diverse and vibrant character that the woman behind the beautiful, mouth-watering delicacies is of Pakistani origin.

Easygoing and dynamic, Umber grew up in Michigan, learning to master the recipes loved by her family, who are originally from Pakistan. A degree in genetics from MIT and an MBA from Wharton initially saw her excelling as an investment banker, working for powerhouses like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley.

Eventually, she was able to combine her expertise on Wall Street and her love for food into setting up her own investment advisory firm known as Specialized Capital Management, which helps high-end luxury brands, including restaurants, to expand their businesses overseas. As fate would have it, one of her clients was celebrity chef and Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio, who heard of Umbar’s baking prowess through common friends.

Once he convinced her to bake him some brownies, it didn’t take Colicchio long to decide that he wanted to back Umbar’s baking business and Mah-Ze-Dahr was launched as the first brand on the “Colicchio Discoveries” platform – a collection of food brands that he hand-picks and mentors.

Mah-Ze-Dahr spells quality and luxury, indulgence and comfort, all through food. “The gift of being able to create food for another human being is the most intimate thing you can do for someone,” says Umbar when asked what it is that first attracted her to the food business. “It’s very special, almost soulful.”

As for the name, it is as much a reference to Umbar’s Pakistani heritage as it is to that inexplicable quality that makes good food an experience worth remembering. “We use the word to describe the magic or essence of something that gives it its life. It brings you back, again and again,” says Umbar.

So what is the Mah-Ze-Dahr experience for the customer who walks into the café in Manhattan? It is one that defines a certain lifestyle and speaks a global language that has no boundaries. The café is not just about enjoying coffee and cake; it is about appreciating the universal appeal of good food.

Umber has built this appeal by offering interesting combinations in her sweets and savories, through the use of ‘exotic’ ingredients such as rose water, pistachio and zattar. Being of Pakistani origin, her country is never far from her. From her language to her recipes, she is as much a desi as she is a New Yorker. Her zeera (cumin) biscuits remind one of the biscuits found on Pakistani supermarket shelves. The evergreen gajar ka halwa lined with gold leaf (soon to be introduced) also speaks volumes of Umber’s rich heritage and her connection with Pakistan, despite not having grown up there. The menu offers an interesting and diverse mix of pastries, cakes, cookies, tarts and breads. The Brioche Doughnut is a favourite with customers and has won over numerous food critics, the New York Times declaring it “as chic as a non-French pastry can be.”

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As head chef and founder, Umber is personally involved in the entire baking process from the oven to the table. A new concept introduced by the bakery is the ‘Cookie of the Month Subscription’ where the customer receives an order of a different cookie flavour every month. There are also various gift options with exotic names like ‘Heaven in a Box’, ‘Hostess Gift’, and ‘For the Love of Chocolate.’ An idea as delicious as it sounds!

Manhattan is one of the most diverse places in the world, in terms of language, ethnicity, religion and race, and Mah-Ze-Dahr’s philosophy of timeless and luxurious global appeal resonates well with the tourist as well as the local. Its ambience is contemporary and chic, playing on muted tones of the palette, lending an air of calm and ease. Midnight blue walls accentuated by funky lighting contrast well with the neutral tones and help make the café the experience it is.

I am very curious about how Umber fares as a woman in the high-end food industry. Is there prejudice against a Pakistani woman running a café in Manhattan? The answer, fortunately, is a decisive ‘no.’ The ethnic mix of downtown New York makes it easy for her to operate her business, and the sheer deliciousness of what she has to offer ensures that loyal customers keep streaming in day in and day out. Umbar, in fact, has plans to expand to Qatar, London and Hong Kong soon.

Mah-Ze-Dahr offers the discerning customer an opportunity to treat himself well. To honour himself and realize his self-worth. To indulge and pick a lifestyle that suits his choices and his needs. In the adrenaline-high, fast-paced life of New York City, Umber offers a retreat that is a blend of the east and west yet has an all-encompassing global image.

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