Writer, Artist, Entrepreneur
If you think vegan and gluten-free desserts are for other people, our July Teafluencer just might change your mind! Uzo Ehi is an impressive LA-based self-taught baker who has turned her ferocious appetite for learning and creating delicious desserts for vegans and people with food sensitivities into a successful business. We’re wowed not only by her adventurous baking spirit but by her love of tea – she’s even created some unique goodies made with Harney teas that you could win on our Instagram giveaway! Welcome to the wonderful world of Uzo Ehi!
Harney: Tell us a little about you. Where are you from, educational/professional background, where you live, family, etc?
Uzo: I’m a Los Angelena, born and raised, to West African parents. The sometimes rambunctious but mostly peace-loving middle child of three amazing siblings. As a child, I always loved escaping into my own personal fantasy realm via an enchanting novel, a classic film or an eclectic tune. These favorite pastimes still hold true for me now, but I’ve also tacked on painting, creative writing and, most importantly, baking.
I am a self-prescribed, incurable philomath; I am very curious and am always learning something new. I loved, loved studying (and I still do)! I attended Princeton University to study Comparative Literature and, after I took a jab at a legal career path, quickly pivoted toward the art world. I took an incredible post-bacc course at School of the Art Institute of Chicago for Painting & Drawing. I’ve also worked in the marketing field in the healthcare and non-profit sectors. While I have no formal culinary training, many years of genuine curiosity about the “magic” of baking followed me throughout my high school, university and post-grad years.
Harney: When did you first become interested in cooking and baking? What were some of your early experiences, both personally and professionally?
Uzo: My love of baking, or really of the heat, unpredictability and patience required in the kitchen, comes from my mother. She is an incredible cook. My siblings and I grew up to the delicious scents of her meat-laden Nigerian stews, deep-red jollof rice and crumbly Chin Chin made with the perfect amount of nutmeg. I used to watch her in wonder, begging for a recipe, and she would scold me that the best way to cook is to simply watch and learn – no recipe was required.
That lesson has stayed with me since – cook from the heart and use your intuition to guide you. I first began cooking savory dishes in the kitchen. My first memory of cooking was making a Western omelet with my brother while watching The Emperor’s New Groove one summer break. We burnt the hell out of those bell peppers and over-crisped the cheese the first time we made it, but it was so deliciously cheddary that we were hooked.
My curiosity for baking dramatically piqued after tasting unique desserts throughout Europe during my study year abroad. Visiting multiple countries exposed me to unique flavor combinations and desserts jam-packed with mouth-watering bursts of flavor. By 2011, I was making mango-cardamom cupcakes and rose cream pistachio tarts. My growing hobby became so intense that I would read up on intricate tempering and baking methods just for fun, and I would even gift my art school professors slices of cake as a broke grad. By 2016, my mother and sister were really impressed by the desserts I was making. They suggested that the desserts were good enough to start a business. So I did.
Harney: When did you found your company, Chipper & Cheeky? Where did that great name come from?
Uzo: First off, thank you for the kind compliment! I founded my company in early 2018. My sister Sylvia and I have been running the bakery together since 2021. When figuring out the name for my bakery, I wanted to share a part of myself that I didn’t always demonstrate or reveal publicly. The phrase “cold hands, warm heart” could describe me well – especially since my hands get so cold so easily!
With close family and friends, I tend to be quite jovial, playful, sassy, spunky and lighthearted. In other words, chipper and cheeky. These qualities were parts of myself that I began to shut away after a tough few years dealing with family loss and disappointments in my personal life. I think that it can be easy to want to hide the more sensitive parts of yourself away from the world, because some of the people and unforeseen situations in it can be all too cold. However, I wanted to challenge the notion that sensitivity and vulnerability are a weakness.
Chipper & Cheeky initially started out as a way for me to reclaim those parts of myself and label them as personal strengths; since then, the meaning of Chipper & Cheeky, for me, has transformed into a welcoming environment that appreciates, even champions, people’s personal and unique sensitivities. Those soft bits in a person should be valued, loved and celebrated. Let’s be sassy, fun-loving foodies who challenge the notion that vegan and/or gluten-free must be boring and tasteless—together.
Harney: What led you to decide to focus on making desserts that are vegan and/or gluten-free?
Uzo: Curiosity and necessity. I had started making vegan cookies, muffins and cakes by 2011 because I had recently gone vegan (and would remain vegan for the next 10 years). Simply put, I didn’t like the desserts out there (if they were available at all!). I could only order yet another sorbet or cup of fruit for dessert so many times. I took my frustration and turned it into motivation to make vegan desserts that I wished I could order from restaurants or nearby bakeries.
By 2014, I found out that my sister has Celiac disease after a fateful conversation with a law school classmate. While we were relieved to finally learn why her stomach would ache after almost every meal, we couldn’t find many desserts for my sister either! After a couple of dessert-less holiday feasts for my sister and me, I decided that I must learn how to make desserts that were 1) both vegan and gluten-free and 2) still good enough for my entire family to enjoy.
Harney: What would you say to people whose experience with vegan and gluten-free desserts was less than positive? How do you make yours taste delicious when these types of foods often fall short?
Uzo: To be fair, not every single restaurant you’ve been to has been stellar, right? Have you ever been to a not-so-great restaurant that specializes in a specific cuisine and then had an amazing experience with an unforgettably delicious meal at another restaurant with the same cuisine? I think we all have.
My point is this: I hope you try again! Experiment. If you see a vegan, gluten-free dessert that looks good to you, then don’t hesitate. Try other bakeries or freshly baked desserts from your local grocery store. You won’t know unless you try (again). And, if you’ve tried and tried some more, and you’re still not liking what you’re tasting, then that’s okay. I think that you should find a dessert, whatever your preference, that makes you feel good, one that allows you to indulge a little.
When baking, I put myself in the hypothetical shoes of my most critical customer… or just in my own shoes. Who else here is their own toughest, most lovable critic? 😊 I get the criticisms—seriously. Vegan desserts that I’ve had really have been dry, bland, overly sweet, disastrously both dry and cloyingly sweet, or simply unbalanced. And that fake, “healthy” taste paired with a dessert can be the worst! I get you.
What do I do to avoid all that mess? I bake thinking of every single person at the party table, from the celebrant with a gluten or rice allergy to the attendee who has absolutely no allergies. I use moisture-enriching ingredients to make each bite moist, decadent and flavorful. And, perhaps most importantly, I use my intuition. If the batter consistency doesn’t seem right to me, I’ll add more milk, butter, etc. I believe that intuitive cooking lends itself heavily to empathy, so I constantly think of what each individual customer would like to enjoy after speaking with them. And, so far, customers have thankfully given very positive feedback about the flavor, richness and designs of our cakes!
Harney: We might be biased due to one ingredient, but we’re in love with your Lily Pond Cake – matcha, chocolate, blackberries and edible flowers. Where do you get your inspiration for your desserts?
Uzo: Thank you so much for the warm compliment! I’d blush if I could. 😉
My imagination runs pretty rampant—sometimes for worse, but mostly for the better. Regarding cake designs and flavors, I normally start with a flavor combination that I’m craving, or I think of what’s missing when rummaging through my pantry; that’s when the “spark” of inspiration is ignited. I also get loads of design ideas in real time, while I’m baking. I don’t draw cake design ideas too often, unless it’s to structure a customer’s intricate custom cake order; I visualize the design in my mind and let raw creativity take the helm. This particular Lily Pond Cake was actually inspired by a former co-worker’s name. I thought of the different layers as I was making the cake, which is not the most time-effective, but is the most inspired when creating a signature cake for the first time, I think. It was her birthday and I wanted to surprise her with a cake… inspired by her name!
Harney: You will make bespoke desserts for your customers. What’s one of the best or most interesting requests you’ve received?
Uzo: Our cake orders are often custom orders, yes. One of the most interesting coincidences has been a cluster of orders, made in the same month, for various music-themed cakes. I normally play music while working in the kitchen, so I played songs from the musicians who inspired the cake orders. I ended up listening to a full range of genres that month. It was quite a unique time that let me tap into customers’ unique tastes in music—and cakes!
Harney: You cook as well as bake, right? Do you have any specialty dishes? Any plans to open a restaurant, or do you just cook for you, your friends and family?
Uzo: Yes, I do! I love making all sorts of food, really. When I’m feeling extra indulgent, I make Tom Kha Gai or miso-style ramen from scratch, mushroom ravioli with truffle-infused white cream sauce, or parsley-scented lamb meatballs with homemade baba ghanoush and yogurt-mint sauce. Nigerian homemade stews and yam pottage are also key specialties.
I currently enjoy cooking for and with friends and family, but who knows? If you’d told me just a few years ago that I was going to become a food entrepreneur and self-taught baker, I would have probably laughed. The possibility for a restaurant exists—especially if there is demand for it!
Harney: Tell us about your Ukrainian Scuffles – is that a traditional Ukrainian dessert? Have you had a good response to this important fundraiser?
Uzo: Ukrainian Scuffles are a traditional Ukrainian dessert normally served during the Christmas holiday season. They’re yeasted, cinnamon-y and so delicious! Chipper & Cheeky likes to highlight special desserts from around the world that have caught our fancy. These Ukrainian Scuffles are not only an homage to a dessert not so popular here in the U.S., but also a great way to support Ukrainians whose lives have been devastatingly disrupted by the Russo-Ukrainian war.
We were hoping for more enthusiasm for this very important fundraiser, but there is still time to order! 100% of the proceeds go directly to two incredible organizations that have created such positive change for those affected by the war—Project Hope and World Central Kitchen.
Harney: Do you ship your desserts, or can we only get them if we’re lucky enough to live nearby in the LA area?
Uzo: We’re currently a made-to-order bakery that ships select desserts statewide (within California)! So, if you love our signature cookies or chocolates, you can get them shipped directly to your home.
Harney: Any tips for wannabe bakers or cooks, specifically for taking on vegan or gluten-free baking/cooking?
Uzo: I highly recommend baking with an open mind and throwing most of the rulebook out when it comes to regular baking. Gluten-free flours and all-purpose or cake flours are worlds apart, as gluten has a naturally elastic quality to it that can be very forgiving. To add moisture to your vegan and/or gluten-free cakes, try using recipes (or coming up with a few of your own!) that use fresh fruit cooked right into the batter. It makes for a naturally sweeter, softer cake!
On a larger scale, for creatives who wish to venture down the lanes of entrepreneurship, I recommend protecting your work and your business ideas to the best of your ability. I’ve learned that not everyone will wish you well when you dare to strike out on your own. Perhaps I was naïve, but I was surprised to learn how others can try to pickpocket another’s personal inspiration for their own material gain.
Be open and excited about your business venture, use word-of-mouth and get people to understand your mission, but please also be discerning. In my opinion, imitation is not always the highest form of flattery—especially where market share is involved. Still, on a lighter note, your originality and uniqueness of thought, your personal life experiences and innate talents will likely be the core of your business and should see you through the drama toward success, whatever success means to you.
Harney: What’s next for you and Chipper & Cheeky?
Uzo: I am so honored that people in our local community and beyond choose Chipper & Cheeky to make their special desserts; I’m thankful for every inquiry, phone call, order and returning customer! I’m also extremely thankful for the international orders that we’ve received to make special desserts for LA locals. What started out as a chance business venture has grown into a bakery that can make someone’s day extra special. I’m truly touched, so thank you to our customers and fans!
I’d like to keep enjoying the steady growth we’ve been fortunate enough (and have also worked very hard) to achieve! More requests for more complex cakes are coming through the pipeline, so I am very excited to build delicious works of art for current and future customers.
Harney: We hope you’re a tea fan! If so, what kind of teas do you enjoy? Any favorite food pairings with tea? Do you bake or cook with tea?
I love drinking all kinds of tea throughout the year—my pantry has at least 12 different types, half from Harney & Sons! If I must choose, herbal teas like ginger, rooibos, and peppermint are my main staples, while I find myself going back for refills of Harney & Sons Indigo Punch in the summer. It’s so delicious!
I normally drink tea on its own – if it’s a strong chai or black tea, then I add a good portion of heavy cream or coconut milk and a dollop of sweetener, depending on my mood. A delicious cup of tea in the morning is one of my favorite reasons to go to the kitchen.
As for baking, I love infusing heavy cream or plant-based creams with tea leaves for bonbons or entremets. In fact, I’ve made truffles filled with blackcurrant tea-infused ganache, and Green Tea Shortbread Cookies as part of our giveaway collaboration. Both were made with Harney & Sons tea leaves!
Harney: Do you have any favorite flavors or types of Harney & Sons tea or anything on your list you’ve been wanting to try?
Uzo: I just got the Royal Chrysanthemum tea and the Year of the Tiger tea to celebrate 2022. They’re actually stored in my pantry right now, just waiting to be brewed!
We’re always blown away by self-taught entrepreneurs like Uzo. Her “chipper and cheeky,” go-for-it attitude is inspirational, as is her creativity. The only remotely negative thing we could even possibly say is that her bakery is in LA and we’re all the way across the country in New York – we know where we’ll be stopping on our next trip out to the West Coast! We greatly appreciate Uzo’s time and willingness to share herself with us. Check out Uzo’s fantastic work on her website, Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest pages. All photography was provided by Uzo.