The way Akim Vann sees it, baking is mathematical. As owner of Bakery on Bergen in the Prospect Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, she draws on the inspiration of her mother, who was a trainer for math teachers and inspired Vann’s other career as a teacher.
“It’s a lot more exact than cooking, so I think I was able to adapt to it because I’m a good cook, but also because I’m a mathematician,” she says.
Vann opened her bakery during the summer of 2014, and has since shaped the meaning behind it being “more than a bakery.” When she’s not whipping up the super popular smoked sea salt chocolate chip cookies, chocolate sablés, or mini rum cakes, she works as a private tutor helping with mathematics and a student life coach.
Vann is certainly inspired by her mother who is Chinese and her late father, Grammy-award winner Teddy Vann, known for his 1973 song “Santa Claus Is a Black Man” that Akim is also featured on.
“When you’re a child, you don’t really think it’s a big deal,” she says of the track. “But when you’re an adult, you know it’s a big deal now. I feel blessed that I was able to have that experience with my father.”
As artistic as he was, that creativity rarely carried over into the kitchen, Vann admits. “My dad made salmon cakes a few times and my mom hated when he cooked,” she says with a laugh. “He had no culinary skills and always made a mess.”
That’s where her mom stepped in and Vann said the family completely grew up on Chinese food, specifically fried rice. “I remember I was watching an influencer on Instagram and he was like, ‘Why do American people think rice is a side dish?'” she says. “In Chinese culture, that is the dish. You’re having fried rice for dinner.”
Using fresh ingredients was a priority in her parents’ kitchen and she continues the trend in her own kitchen and with the ingredients she uses at the bakery.
“I don’t use a lot of junk,” she says. “In Chinese cooking and the way that I grew up, we had very simple, high-quality ingredients. There weren’t hundreds of things in the pot.”
Vann has four children of her own now and one of her favorite dishes to make them is a Cantonese dish consisting of either fried sea bass or cod and fermented black beans, garlic, oyster sauce, and soy sauce over white rice. “Those are the main things my mom would use when I was growing up,” she says.
While Vann’s bakery primarily serves sweet baked goods, some of the decorations in the shop and items on the menu give a nod to her Asian heritage, like the red front door that symbolizes good luck, matcha cupcakes and ube cupcakes, newly added pork and chicken dumplings, and upcoming fried rice offerings on the weekends.
“Our dumplings are more of a momo-style dumpling, but the Chinese part comes in when I make the sauces,” she says. “I make a fish sauce with scallions and sesame oil and I also make a Thai curry one.”
These ambitious plans are a far cry from where Vann was a year ago today. Like many businesses, the pandemic presented multiple challenges. In March 2020, Vann became ill with COVID-19 and, due to little public information being known about the severity of the virus at this time, she decided to close her shop for a month while she recovered.
Luckily, the Prospect Heights community stepped in when she needed it most.
“A lot of people wanted to support small businesses and then with what happened to George Floyd, they wanted to support women-owned businesses, Black-owned businesses, and POC-owned businesses,” she says. “People were at home and, when you’re home, you want treats. I started to see a surge in delivery. I’m one of the fortunate ones because my business has been able to survive and actually flourish during this time.”
One particular customer has always been supportive of Vann’s dreams and, in turn, gets some added perks.
“My mom comes into the shop all the time, too. She loves the chocolate chip cookies with smoked sea salt and our organic carrot cake,” Vann says. “Mom is often the taste tester and it helps that she has such supreme taste.”
You can find Vann’s mom’s fried rice recipe below!
Akim Vann’s Family Fried Rice Recipe
Serving size: 4
1 skinless chicken breast
3 cups Jasmine rice
2 heaping tbsp oyster sauce
2 heaping tbsp soy sauce
2 heaping tbsp sesame oil
2 stalks of scallions
1 cup frozen peas/corn/carrots
1. Slice up two uncooked stalks of scallion and set aside until very end.
2. Crack 5 eggs into a bowl. Do not stir! Add 5 shakes of salt into eggs, add 3 shakes of garlic into eggs.
3. Cut up half a breast of chicken. You may also use shrimp or veggies.
4. Add 2 tablespoons of sesame seed oil, soy sauce and oyster sauce onto chicken.
5. Turn a high flame on the wok and add 2 tablespoons of oil to the wok to let it get hot.
6. Throw in eggs into the wok, stirring and folding the eggs to finish cooking.
7. Turn off the flame and toss the cooked eggs back into the original bowl.
8. Turn the flame back up to high on the wok and add 2 tablespoons of oil.
9. When the wok gets hot stir in the chicken.
10. When the chicken is done throw everything else (veggies,rice) in keeping the flame on high.
11. Keep folding everything over and over to cook them quickly.
12. Toss the stir fried rice into a serving bowl and add uncooked prepared sliced scallions on top.
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