A young Harlem boy makes banana pudding in his bedroom and won his first baking contest in middle school. Kareem Queeman hopes he will claim even sweeter recognition in June. “I’m looking to steal that win at the James Beard Awards ceremony. I’m looking to become a published author. I want to tell my story. I think my story matters, and it can help someone else.”
Queeman is a semifinalist for the 2023 James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef or Baker. The Maryland bake shop owner recognizes the prestige of being among the 20 semifinalists. “It does show that I am a true baker and pastry chef. I know what I’m doing, and all of these different classes and jobs I’ve done since I was a teenager all meant something and are paying off.”
Mr. Bake Arrives in Riverdale Park
It has taken decades of baking for Queeman to see himself as talented enough to compete with his peers. He went from making sweet treats for relatives, neighbors, teachers and classmates to working in bakeries and selling his creations on the side.
“I built out my house to run as a cottage kitchen. I had my own refrigerator. I bought my own pans,” says Mr. Bake. “I invested in my own business from what I was making at my full-time and part-time jobs,” he says.
The Mr. Bake Sweets, LLC Queeman launched ten years ago became a brick-and-mortar operation inside Le Fantome at the Station in Riverdale Park, Maryland. “The food hall was presented to me in January 2021. I researched the management company and told them I am a business you need to have,” Queeman adds.
The baker’s ghost kitchen was among the first ten vendors when Le Fantome Food Hall & Bar opened in August 2022. Queeman chose Prince George’s County over the District of Columbia for his location. A county resident for 12 years, the baker expresses why he wanted to provide an up-scale, quality bakery for area residents and restaurants.
“I have a great product and love Prince George’s County. I love that it is rich in Black culture. I love the money that comes from us supporting Black businesses and each other.”
Congressman Glenn Ivey (D-Maryland) stopped by the international marketplace to congratulate Queeman on his James Beard Award nomination and community service. After presenting the entrepreneur with a congressional citation, Ivey told WTOP News, “There’s nothing like being able to do a meeting and then have an award-winning chocolate cupcake at the end of it.”
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The pastry chef attributes his success to the love he always puts into his work. “We bake everything from scratch, from our cake batter to the frosting to the fillings you get. We make all of that in-house,” says Queeman. “That’s why we always say we bake with love because I’m baking with intentionality and with you in mind.”
Mr. Bake Sweets changes flavors monthly and offers seasonal specials. The red velvet cupcakes, fudge brownies and banana pudding are top sellers.
Baking for the Neighborhood
The Harlem native’s love of baking began at the age of five. He refers fondly to two women in his family who influenced his passion. “I’m a grandma’s boy. My grandmother gave me the space to bake. She was within walking distance, and I would bake and experiment. I became the family baker as a kid in middle school,” he recalls.
The aunt who taught him how to make award-winning banana pudding also demonstrated how baking could win hearts. “Every holiday, she would make a table full of sweet potato pies and give them out to the neighborhood,” says Mr. Bake. “That was another part of my childhood food stories; watching people salivate and run to my aunt to get a holiday pie. She always gave them away.”
His mother, Patricia Queeman, did not bake, but she was an excellent cook and supported his dreams. Home economics classes in middle school gave the future business owner enough training to become the neighborhood baker. “I always had an entrepreneurial spirit. I always knew I wanted to be my own boss,” reflects the baking semifinalist.
Mr. Bake got his nickname from Jerome Williams, a young friend he met in New York City. “A few months later, it was his birthday, so I made him a cake, and he said, “I’m going to call you Mr. Bake.”
The professionally trained chef later earned an associate degree in the culinary arts at Monroe College in New York City. He also holds a Bachelor of Science in hospitality management and a certificate in restaurant management from Le Cordon Bleu, formerly the French Culinary Institute.
He relocated to Virginia in 2010 and worked as a decorator for Fluffy Thoughts Cakes and as general manager of Crumbs Bake Shop before going out on his own. “Now, I’m passing on my knowledge and gifts to my staff and team. I’m teaching them to bake with consideration and think about what they are doing.”
Rising to the TV Challenge
Queeman’s talents and personality eventually gave him opportunities to become what he had not seen on television. “One thing I enjoy about it is the representation I am showing in my industry. There is no one in food media or sought-after chefs who are Black or Brown and from the queer or LGBT community. No one represents my intersection.”
The Maryland chef has competed on several Food Network shows, from “Girl Scout Cookie Championship” to “Beat Bobby Flay” and “Sugar Rush Christmas” on Netflix. He appeared as a judge on season three of Food Network’s “Buddy vs. Duff.”
Mr. Bake won his first televised cooking competition with a sweet potato cake. It impressed Cake Boss Buddy Valastro, the host of Discovery Family’s “Bake It Like Buddy.”
“He was like this cake is so good, I want the recipe. He said don’t be surprised if you see it in our New York stores,” Queeman recalls.
Most recently, the bakery owner was featured in Food Network’s docu-series, “Bake It ‘Til You Make It.” The program included Queeman’s participation in the National Capital Area Cake Show. The chef received more rave reviews for his work. “They were floored at how well the product tasted; how moist and delicious it was.”
One of the best endorsements of Queeman’s baking skills came from Sherri Sheppard when she co-hosted Fox 5’s “Lion Lunch Hour.” The cupcakes he made for actor Lisa Rae McCoy’s birthday were irresistible. Sheppard had her “Sherri” talk show guests cracking up when she shared a video and said, “He made these cupcakes that were so good I forgot that I was hosting, and I started eating. I couldn’t stop eating! I didn’t realize I was stuffing my face.”
Working on His Dreams
Just as sweet to Mr. Bake is the praise from regular customers. I bought chocolate cupcakes from him for my grandson’s birthday, and they were a hit!
“That warms my heart. All the things I’ve been able to do in my career have been beautiful. Don’t get me wrong, but these moments still bring me back to my childhood,” says Queeman. “It’s always been about creating memories. I’ve always been a big dreamer. I was going to have a neighborhood bakery. I was going do things for the community.”
The bakery owner’s Sweets for the Community program allows him to give back in multiple ways, from speaking engagements and classes to product donations. However, most of his time is spent working on his dreams for the future.
“I see myself as a sought-out chef in the next few years. I want to share shelf space with your Cake Bosses, Ace the Cakes and the Carla Halls, who have supermarket products. I want to become a household name and larger than the location of the state in which my business resides,” Queeman envisions.
For now, the chef is grateful that the James Beard Foundation recognized him as one of the nation’s outstanding bakers. “First, it means to never stop believing in your dream. It also means that as a young Black and gay-identifying man in an industry and world that is not so kind to us, they recognize that stories like mine matter. The work that I have done in the industry has mattered.”