The Town’s Baker
Yahshimabet Sellassie runs a thriving baking company.
Photo by Melati Citrawireja
Yahshimabet Sellassie is an Oakland native with a successful baking company. She provides Red Bay Coffee with their shortbread and granola. She does popups, selling her cookies and cupcakes to loyal fans. She’s even made a few lofty, labor-intensive wedding cakes. She’s also 14 years old.
Sellassie opened her business Yahshi Bakes, which she runs with her mother, in 2015. She grew up baking with her family and learned from her parents, who both cooked in restaurants. But as she grew older, she started broadening her influences, spending hours poring over cookbooks and watching YouTube videos of different baking techniques. Her parents encouraged her to follow her passion, and around the same time she started her business, she auditioned for the Food Network show Kids Baking Championship. Her recipe for a lemongrass raspberry cake earned her a place on the show, and she was the first runner-up during the show’s 2016 season.
“Ever since I was younger, I’ve always wanted to be on the Food Network. It was like a dream,” she said. “It was a crazy experience. The kitchens were huge; they had all the materials. It was a really great experience.”
Sellassie has encountered the occasional naysayer. “My age changes how people perceive me,” she said. “I’ll get people saying, ‘You’re too young.’”
But she’s focused on running her business, which has garnered praise from people like Ayesha Curry, celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson, and the fans who tell her on Instagram what an inspiration she is. She hosts frequent popups, and takes private orders for desserts, like her spicy chocolate raspberry cupcakes (featuring chocolate cake infused with berbere, cayenne, and chili pepper) or an orange cardamom coffee cake.
One of her favorite things to do when developing recipes is taking a traditional dessert and tweaking the texture, like in her chunky, fruit-studded granola, or adding an unexpected spice usually found in savory applications. She also likes the artistic challenge of baking, of producing a beautiful dessert with perfect swirls of frosting or drizzle of sauce. “With baking, there’s a lot more art involved and you can be really creative,” she said. “I like the precision and science of it. It’s kind of like an equation.”
But sometimes, she can be too much of a perfectionist, she admitted. “Anything I’m putting out, I want it to be my best work and something that I’m proud of,” she said. “If I’m not, I feel really defeated. I’m working on not having such high expectations of myself.”
It’s the same advice she’d give others who want to start baking more. “Don’t be afraid to mess up. I’ve messed up so many times,” she said. “You can’t expect for something that you don’t have experience with doing to turn out great.” (Her other main piece of advice? “Don’t use box mix.”)
It can be hard for Sellassie to balance Yahshi Bakes with her school work. But she’s eager to keep expanding her business, especially through partnerships with Oakland businesses like Red Bay and Mamacitas Cafe. “Our vision for Mamacitas Cafe is to uplift and shine light on the unique talents and contributions of young women of color in Oakland … Yahshi is truly the embodiment of our mission and we could not be prouder that she belongs to our extended business-family!” Shana Lancaster, cofounder of Mamacitas Cafe, wrote in an email to the magazine. “Her enterprise is particularly important because the exceptional quality and professionalism of Yahshi Bakes boldly challenges assumptions that the greater public has about what youth, and particularly youth of color, can contribute to our local economy.”
Keba Konte, Red Bay Coffee’s founder, agreed. “The reason we stock granola from Yahshi Bakes is because the quality is exceptional, her sourcing is mindful, and her customer service is on point. I also really value doing business with young emerging entrepreneurs,” Konte wrote in an email. “Mostly, the granola is simply delicious.”
And as she continues to grow, Sellassie wants to use her prominence to give back to her hometown. At her popups, she’s held coat drives and donated money to MISSSEY, an Oakland organization that fights sex trafficking.
“I was born and raised in Oakland. I love the people and the Bay Area. I have a lot of family and friends who always supported me,” she said. “I’m trying to start a bigger message with my baking because it’s not just about the food. It’s really where it comes from and what we can do when we’re in a position of power. If I have people who are looking up to me, what am I doing with that? Because that’s a responsibility. It’s a privilege. So, I’m really trying to give back.”