Two years ago, Los Altos siblings Naiel and Punhal Chaudry started their culinary adventure with great intentions and some help from YouTube. During the COVID-19 lockdown, they wanted to do something nice for their mom, a front-line doctor, and dad, an entrepreneur and engineer. They had been watching some cooking shows and wanted to try it themselves, so they took on the challenge of becoming the chefs for a date night for their parents.
Their parents were game, but at the back of their mother Aifra Ahmed's mind was a concern.
"We were really nervous," she says. "How are we going to pretend that we like it?"
To her surprise, she says, she didn't have to pretend: The souffle they whipped up for dessert was spectacular. "We were just blown away," she says.
Satisfied with their first project, the kids kept at it, and word spread to friends and family. When a neighbor paid them for a loaf of banana bread, they decided to try to make a business out of it.
They launched their first batch of sales in advance of Valentine's Day 2021, starting out with simpler recipes like cupcakes and creme brulee before moving on to more complex dishes like their signature cake, a fusion ras malai tres leches cake. The cake is made with cardamom sponge layers and uses ras malai, a popular dessert in India and Pakistan made with rose water, saffron and pistachio flavors soaked into the cake to give it the moist texture of a tres leches.
Naiel, who's 13, says that their logo was something he pieced together in a few minutes on the computer the day of their first sale. It pays homage to the artistic style of Pakistani truck art, in which trucks around Pakistan are elaborately decorated in bright colors and intricate calligraphy. The business name, Lá Jawab, means "matchless" in Urdu.
Over time, the Bullis Charter School students developed their own flair for Asian fusion desserts and built their specialties — Naiel specializes in the science of baking, while Punhal focuses on cake decorating and fusion boba drinks. When asked whether sibling tensions ever arise during their baking projects together, Punhal, now 11, replies with a laugh: "Yeah, we have experienced that a lot. Like, almost every time we bake." But, she adds, "When we're in a good mood, we help each other out."
And for their big projects, including wedding cakes, they put aside their differences and team up. One of their scariest moments, they say, was when they had been tasked with baking their first wedding cake. As they were initially assembling their first two-tier confection, the fondant began to bulge from the cake's softness and the cake began to lean. But they managed to fix it, and said that the bride ended up loving the cake. On another more recent wedding cake order, they had to innovate because their client wanted figs on the cake, but they couldn't find any because they weren't in season. So they went with candied blood oranges instead.
Behind the children's business is a dedication to community service that comes from their upbringing. The family has a tradition of traveling to Pakistan each year to visit a school that they raise funds to support. While in Pakistan a couple of years ago, the family was eating at a fine-dining restaurant when Naiel looked out the window and saw children begging for food.
At the time, their father Moazzam told them, "You can keep feeling bad about it or you can be part of a solution and do something."
The experience stuck with him, so when he and Punhal started their business, the two committed to donating 20% of their proceeds to charity. Among the nonprofits they support are the APPNA Free Clinic in San Jose, which their mom heads as chief medical officer, homeless service nonprofits and the Human Development Foundation in Pakistan.
As they began marketing their wares on Instagram, Naiel was approached by a casting agent for Food Network's "Kids Baking Championship." He went through several rounds of the casting process before getting on the show, making him the first Pakistani American kid to compete in its 11 seasons. The winner receives $25,000.
"It was just super crazy and really surreal to me that I got selected for a show I'd been watching since I was really young," he says.
Four episodes have aired so far. In the latest, contestants were asked to prepare desserts in a jar as one might for a food festival. Naiel baked a lemon rosemary cheesecake with a graham cracker crust and a blackberry compote and made it to the next episode on Jan. 23.
While Naiel can't reveal how he did overall on the show — the season was filmed months ago but is being aired each Monday — he says the experience has helped him grow as a baker, especially when it feels like things aren't going right.
"Before the show I used to panic in situations like that. But when I got on the show, I said 'I'm not going to panic on the show, I'm just going to bake and whatever happens, happens,'" he says. "I've carried that from the show to my business."
The experience helped him meet another childhood goal: to be on TV. While his earlier dreams were to be on the Disney Channel, he says he's happy to have made it on the air on a different channel for his baking skills.
At first, his mother Ahmed says, she was apprehensive about how Naiel would manage the criticism on the show — the judges are kind, but they don't hold back their critiques when the children mess up.
"I was just so proud," Ahmed says. "He (managed) it much better than I thought he would, which was for me a learning experience."
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