“Sweet Love” was a hit song from songstress Anita Baker, but it could also be a job description for this week’s Portrait. Emory McLeod is a wedding and custom-cake coordinator at Cake Life Bake Shop. A charming young woman with a lovely and frequent laugh- and I found out just before we started our phone interview that her partner is Nima Etemadi, winner of The Cupcake Wars and one of my favorite profiles from a few years back. Sweet!
PGN: How do you like to start your morning?
EM: With a cup of coffee, as soon as I can get it. I can’t function without it. As soon as I wake up, the search begins.
PGN: Do you have a cupcake to go with it?
EM: [Laughing] I try not to do that! But I will admit that there are days when I forget to eat breakfast and whatever’s on the staff tray becomes breakfast, a cookie or a brownie or whatever’s there.
PGN: I’ve gotten into the habit of sweet stuff for breakfast, probably not the healthiest thing. Wait, you want customers. Cupcakes are great for breakfast and, unknown fact, there are no calories in February!
EM: It’s all right! We have regular breakfast foods too. Seasonal quiches, breakfast hand pies, savory scones, sausage rolls … We’re not always sweet!
PGN: [Laughing] Good to know. What are three of your favorite cupcake/cake flavors?
EM: My all-time favorite is our lemon cake, soaked in thyme, with a honey goat-cheese frosting. It’s incredible and another favorite is our red velvet, it’s a basic flavor but there’s something about the way we do it that takes it to a higher level. And my third would be anything that has our hot-chocolate whip on it!
PGN: You deal in celebration cakes: What was your most memorable birthday and birthday cake?
EM: For my 25th birthday, my boyfriend at the time and my mom organized a surprise party for me. There were friends there from New York and all over who came and surprised me. I thought it was going to be a low-key birthday and it ended up being an amazing night. It was also the first time I went to Woody’s and it was life-changing. We closed the place down and then went to Voyeur! The most memorable cake was a tequila-shot birthday cake, made with stacks of shot glasses filled with tequila. I think that was for my 23rd.
PGN: You’ve done a little partying!
EM: Oh yeah, but I’m starting to creep up to my 30s, so not so much anymore.
PGN: Why was it life-changing?
EM: Woody’s was the first place that felt like home, if that makes sense. Everyone was so welcoming, I really find people in Philadelphia to be more friendly and open and sweet than in other places I’ve lived. If we’re getting really honest here, it was the first time in a long time where I felt that I could let loose and just be myself and not worry what people around me were thinking about me. Growing up, I struggled a lot with worrying about what people thought about me.
PGN: Was that your first time in a gay club?
EM: No. I’d been to a few — some drag shows when I was younger and a few places in the city. I’d had relationships in the LGBTQ+ community before. If people ask, I identify as bisexual but in actuality, I think I’m more pansexual. But I try not to get caught up in labels. I just live my life how and with whom I want to.
PGN: You said that you struggled with what people think. Have you ever had any pushback because of it?
EM: No, we’ve been pretty lucky. Nima identifies as a trans man and both of our families have been nothing but loving and supporting. Gender or sexual orientation has never been an issue for either of us. We’re surrounded by great family and friends. And in the greater world, I think we have the safety and privilege of looking like a straight couple. Nima totally passes and I look like … well …
PGN: A typical straight girl! I looked up your profile online.
EM: [Laughing] You’ve been cyber-stalking me!
PGN: I have indeed! Hey, I worked at Sisters for 17 years and people still thought I was straight! But back to you: What do you do at Cake Life?
EM: I am the wedding and custom-cake coordinator. So if you want a cake or desserts for an event, I guide you through the process. I make sure that your design matches up with your vision and that it matches up with your budget so we can create the cake of your dreams.
PGN: What’s the most unusual cake you’ve done?
EM: We recently made one for the scientist behind Botox. It was for his birthday and it had an edible racecar and Flyers and Eagles logos with scientific beakers around the bottom and “happy birthday” using lettering like on a periodic table. It sounds random and chaotic, but it ended up being really beautiful.
PGN: And I understand you had a very high-profile client recently.
EM: Yeah, we got a call to make a cake and they wanted it to be black and yellow with gold. They also wanted bees on it and though they didn’t say who it was for, we had an idea. Lily, the other owner asked if they wanted crowns on it and they said yes and then we knew. We were making Beyonce’s birthday cake! Our cake director made a magnificent cake and we delivered it to them backstage at Made in America. It was pretty cool.
PGN: Speaking of cool, what were you like as a kid?
EM: I was pretty independent [laughing], or some might say stubborn. All the other kids could be doing something and if I wasn’t interested, I would never just join the crowd to go along. I’d just be like, Cool, I’m going to just go do me. Catch you later. It’s something that carries on to this day! [Chuckles] I think a part of me enjoys going against the grain.
PGN: Can you cook or bake?
EM: I’m good at baking, not so much cooking. Nima just said to say hi and that I’m lying, but it’s true. I think you need intuition and spontaneity for cooking but baking is more measured and precise. My mom is a great cook, I’m still trying to learn how to make her sauces.
PGN: What do the folks do?
EM: My mom works in development at a women’s shelter and my dad is a consultant for several motor-vehicle companies.
PGN: Where are you from?
EM: That’s a little complicated. I was born in Portland, Maine. Then when I was 6, we moved to the Bucks County area, then I moved to NYC to go to high school and college and bounced around between a few schools there and ended up back in Philly five years ago.
PGN: Any extra curricular activities?
EM: As a kid, I loved to sing and was part of a professional group, the Princeton Girls Choir. Ironically, when I moved to New York, I stopped singing. I like to draw and I still love music, though I don’t do it professionally anymore. My main enjoyment is spending as much time as I can with the people that I love: Nima, family and friends.
PGN: How did you and Nima meet?
EM: I was working in marketing and last year I just decided it wasn’t the right path for me, so I quit my job and started working at the bakery as a barista. A month in, I got promoted to “front-of-house” manager and in September I got the position that I’m in now. When I was working at the front of the house, Nima and I found ourselves spending a lot of time together and next thing you know we started dating. As the co-owner of the place, Nima jokes that it’s an HR nightmare! But it was obvious to both of us that it was inevitable, and worth the chance. It’s been awesome!
PGN: Nima, you charmer, you!
NIMA: [laughing from the other end of the phone] Yeah, I try to keep it turned down at work but sometimes it just comes out!
EM: Yes, it just oozes from your pores.
PGN: Have you guys had to deal with any Bridezillas?
EM: Not really, because we work so closely with the brides and make sure every detail is taken care of, so we haven’t had any real diva problems. Knock on wood!
PGN: What’s happening at the shop for Valentine’s Day?
EM: We have all sorts of wonderful baked goods for the holiday of course, but we’re also having an erotic cookie decorating class, which will be a lot of fun. We have a number of very-suggestive, very-detailed cookie cutters so it’s going to be really cool. But we’re almost sold out!
PGN: Have you been asked to do an erotic pastry before?
EM: We definitely have! Lots of penis cakes for bachelorette parties, cookies with suggestive bulges, you name it. We all get excited when someone orders something fun like that!
PGN: What’s the hardest part of being in the cake business?
EM: I’ve struggled with an eating disorder most of my life so it can be challenging working in the food industry and being around it all the time. I’ve struggled with bulimia, specifically, and eating disorders in general since I was about 11. I’ve been in and out of treatment for years and would say that I’m now close to being fully recovered, if there is such a thing. I struggle a lot less with it than I used to, but it’s still a daily challenge. It’s why I want to talk about it, so we can remove the stigma so that others in the same position can know that they’re not alone.
PGN: It must be tough. Unlike alcohol or drugs, things a recovering person can abstain from. You still have to eat.
EM: Exactly. You can’t go cold turkey and stop eating. Although, to be honest, there are a lot of times when I wish I could. Even like I mentioned when I have days where I don’t eat breakfast and just pick something from the staff tray, it can be triggering.
PGN: Do you work with any organizations on this issue?
EM: I’ve been to treatment at the Renfrew Center a couple of times. They have an inpatient center here in Philadelphia. They do really good work; a few things I don’t always agree with, but for the majority, they do incredible work and they’re very LGBTQ-friendly. They’re definitely open to the community. I probably wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for them.
PGN: What’s a misconception that people have about eating disorders, at least from your experience?
EM: I think there’s a common misconception that eating disorders are about wanting to be thin and beautiful. In reality, wanting to be thin is just a symptom. It’s definitely more about wanting control, being able to control something in your life. A lot of people with eating disorders have experienced times in their lives where they felt out of control or powerless — traumatically in most cases. The symptom of wanting to be thin is also less about wanting to be beautiful and really more about not wanting to take up space. Not having the confidence to claim space, not having any self-esteem. It’s a big issue. The stigma is that people with eating disorders are trying to obtain this shallow image of what we think society says we should be. That pressure definitely doesn’t help, but it’s not the real issue … in my experience and in the experience of many friends who I met at Renfrew. It goes much deeper.
PGN: Thank you for sharing that. OK, time for totally silly questions. What Winter Olympic sport would you want to compete in?
EM: Probably bobsledding. I think it would be terrifying and awesome at the same time. When I was younger, I went up to Lake Placid for the pre-Olympics with my family and we saw the bobsledding from up close. They go so fast, it’s crazy. I was entranced.
PGN: What would your theme song be?
EM: Hmmn, probably “Off To The Races” by Lana Del Rey.
PGN: Name one historical figure you would like to have coffee with.
EM: Cleopatra, hands down. She was the first female pharaoh in Ancient Egypt and just an all-around spicy lady. I mean, she’s believed to have killed herself with an asp bite of all things. Pretty badass.
PGN: What’s rewarding about being parts of a couple’s big love day?
EM: Being able to take people’s vision of what’s debatably one of the biggest days of their lives and being a part of making it come to life. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not important but on a micro level, it means a lot to people. We become intimately involved in their lives. We get pictures back of the cake cuttings and honeymoon postcards and not just that, it’s the same thing for birthdays and graduations. Big events are marked with a cake. And being able to be a part of people’s lives for their milestones is amazing.