Islamabad is no stranger to the 4O1 logo gracing the unveiling of every jaw-dropping, even gravity-defying, cake created pain-stakingly by Umair Khurshid, the owner of 4O1.
With his signature floral wedding cakes, his birthday cakes are a testament to an artistic imagination running wild.
I spoke to him over email about the challenges he’s faced and his future plans for the most in-demand bakery in the capital.
Firstly– why baking? How long have you been doing it and what got you started?
I am a Meetha lover, used to be into kulfi, faloodas and ras malais when I was a kid but later when my sisters started baking, I used to go through this euphoria of “weehe, someone is going to bake a chocolate cake!” Baking was always fascinating and ahh! That scent! It made me shift to cakes and brownies from Desi meetha. With time when I actually developed the proper skill required for baking as one of my sisters got married and shifted to Canada. My other sister would be busy with her studies so I had no other option but visit local bakeries in Islamabad and Lahore. That’s when I decided to start experimenting to satisfy my own taste buds. My forays into baking as a profession were never planned.
Islamabad as an incubator of a unique blend of business and creativity in Pakistan– how far do you think your creative growth would’ve come about had you not been living and working there as compared to your time abroad?
I spent time abroad for my education. In fact, the idea for 4O1 was generated in Toronto. But I had never thought of starting up something on a bigger scale as when I came back, I saw a major change in the city, in terms of eating out, corporate events and the like.
You have acquired a business degree while maintaining your passion for baking — what do you think about the whole ‘get a solid degree even if you want to get into arts’ mentality prevalent in Pakistan? Do you think it’s conducive or more damaging to our younger generation?
I’ve always believed in doing what I felt like. Though I made huge blunders but I was in a learning phase and you can never learn until you make a mistake. Being the only son in my family, I faced a lot of criticism from my immediate family as I decided to operate my bakery with myself as head chef. You know how things are like here! No one is happy with anyone. I remained determined. Still, I believe there is a slight change in the mind set of our elders these days. I remember singing was a simple NO from my family but like slowly they’ve realised that this generation is a lot different. I know customers who are willing to go for food and baking courses in their vacations. I get a lot of calls and requests to form a baking school as well. So yes, the best part is with time young kids today are learning something productive, which they are passionate about, along with their formal education.
Who would you list as your confectionery inspiration and why?
Honestly, none other than my sister. She is the one who taught me the basics and always told me to keep on experimenting with the measurements (which were a disaster once!) but the credit goes to her.
Which contemporary international confectionery artist personifies the ultimate baker for you? Why?
Jordi Roca. The guy is simply amazing with his baking skills. I’ve been watching and following him since 5 years and he’s the most creative baker of this era.
401 The Bakers– how did the inspiration and continual success behind this project come about?
Faith in Allah, motivation, devotion, honesty, loyalty within and with the customers and hardwork. All these things when combined together led to success.
As a male, how do you feel people in our patriarchal society react to what is generally seen as a female culinary art?
Oh, it is always a shock for female customers! I haven’t yet formed a proper office so whoever wants to come over to place an order or to describe the design in person get a shock when they see me. But like I said, the mind-set is changing with time. Had this been early 90’s I guess I might have died by now with stress of “Log kia kahein gey, HE BAKES?!”
What lies ahead for 401? Will you guys create a concept store, a boutique bakery?
For sure, we have a lot planned. 4O1 is basically is a highway in Ontario, Canada. The idea was generated when I used to travel on it. Stopping over at a fuel station for fuel, grabbing a hot cup of coffee, I used to see a lot of old couples, who I assume were the shop owners, baking fresh brownies and muffins for their customers. That idea, of targeting the main highways and motorways of Pakistan and establishing thematic customised bake shops along with a small dine in for coffee lovers enroute to their destinations, is my eventual aim.
Even some of your wildest and most out-there cakes show remarkable restraint and artistry– what is your biggest challenge while executing your vision for a particular order in the face of client demands?
Neatness, fine quality and amazing taste.
Your diversity as an entrepreneur and baker seems to be in line with your overall vision for 401– do you see yourself as a baker who can also run a successful business or as a businessman blessed with a unique ability to bake perfectly?
I must say a baker who keeps on telling himself to work even harder to become one of the best businessmen of his field.
What would you categorize as your favourite 401 memory?
Our first customised birthday cake for a cute little princess who was turning one. Her parents came to know about us and wanted to try me for the big day. I was trembling with excitement but with fear as well because they were very particular and I had no plan to ruin their event. The cake turned out to be a major hit. There was no piece left for me to taste but I followed my sisters instructions of playing with the measuring cups. That was the best feeling when every couple in the party asked me to stay as their personal guest on their weddings, anniversaries or birthdays– that was when I told myself ‘You just unlocked a new level for yourself’.
What kind of culinary trends would you like to see emerging in Pakistan over the next couple of years?
Pakistan has always been a trend setter in its own way, from food streets to food parks– I’d say the way things are going right now, I am sure a lot of investment can be done in restaurant and hotel business.
Finally, what do you know now that you wish you’d known when you were just starting out in the baking biz?
I learnt all these things with time and experiences. What I know now is that it takes time to become someone, something. To earn respect you have to work in a way that everyone around you start praising you and follow you not only on social media but in real life as well.