How This Japanese-Style Basque Cheesecake Became So Popular There Are Counterfeits
The biggest cult dessert of 2020—"a mash-up between the traditional Basque cake and a Japanese soufflé"—continues to enrapture the Bay Area. Its creator, Charles Chen, is now plotting nationwide shipping.
Charles Chen didn't expect his weekend project to become that successful, but success had come for his Japanese-Basque cheesecake with all its Internet-era consequences; four-hour lines in the cold. Hundreds of emails. Knock-offs!
Chen, a culinary consultant who's based in Oakland, is the man behind Basuku, a 6-inch, incredibly photogenic Basque cheesecake made with Japanese-inspired techniques. Currently available for weekend pre-order and pickup at four restaurants in San Francisco, Oakland, and Palo Alto, as well as through "flash sales" Chen organizes himself, the cakes have been tantalizing locals, their demand exceeding supply. So much so, that, overwhelmed but delighted, Chen is looking to expand well beyond the Bay Area.
In what is now a common scenario, Basuku was born when the pandemic put the brakes on the restaurant industry. Chen, then a consultant to the restaurant group behind the now-closed, Michelin-starred Maum in Palo Alto, was working on a couple of online projects, the sustainability of which was becoming questionable. He decided to try making something while stuck at home, just to combat the boredom. He picked the Basque cheesecake because it seemed easy to make; over the course of 2019, the slightly burnt, rich dessert, originally from La Viña cafe in San Sebastian, has exploded in popularity.
After tackling a few recipes online, he saw an image of a cake a Japanese friend made, posted on Instagram; the texture and coloration captivated Chen, so he asked her for tips. After Chen implemented his friend's techniques and played around with cornstarch and whipping processes, a new type Basque cheesecake was born - he calls it "a mash-up between the traditional Basque cake and a Japanese soufflé."
In the name of transparency, Chen just started listing his ingredients on the Basuku label, confident his technique can't be replicated. "It's all about the ratio," he said. While his food industry friends demanded a "funkier" flavor when given samples, he opted for the ultimate crowd-pleaser, a cake that's dense and fluffy, with perfectly burnt edges and a hint of vanilla.
On the restaurants' ordering systems, the cakes sell out in 40 seconds, and once, announcing he's about to sell 40 cakes featuring seasonal flavors via email, Chen got 1,100 messages within an hour. The incredible popularity of Basuku can be attributed to the lucky combination of timing and the product itself. When Basuku first appeared on social media in June 2020, "people were looking to latch on to something comforting and approachable," Chen says. Using the widespread love for cheesecake as its Trojan horse, Basuku landed in people's kitchens, offering an unfamiliar thrill in a familiar format.
Then, it didn't hurt that the pretty, minimal cake was moonlighting on the accounts of food industry influencers and key players. Plus, during the pandemic, customers got accustomed to a downpour of home-run, Instagram-advertised baked goods by passionate bakers. The question has become—what will be the next must-have semi-secret treat?—and Basuku quickly became the answer. But, "I think it's more than a random fluke," Chen says, adding that the cake's ingredients have been chosen with zero compromise in mind, let alone scale. For example, he has opted for fresh cream from the local Alexander Family Farms as its base, betting against restaurant-supply cheaper versions.
When Chen found out, a few months ago, that someone was trying to sell fake Basuku frozen cake mixes on Instagram, he was mostly flattered. "I think it's a sign of the crazy times we live in," he laughs. "These food trends take off insanely. Mostly, let's be honest, it's because there's no spotlight on restaurants at the moment."
As demand keeps growing, Chen is looking at bigger spaces to bake from—he currently runs his operation from the kitchen of Vina Enoteca in Palo Alto, which is one of his wholesalers—and is plotting a nationwide shipping service.
But even then, when he'll nail the packaging and launch it in the end of February, he says, there will be no more than 10 to 20 cakes a week available. "I will test this out," he says. "I don't want this to become another email lottery, but nationwide." But then, something tells us he might be surprised once again.
Basuku cheesecakes are $35 for a 6-inch cake, or $45 for seasonal flavors, on Instagram.