Cathy Fan started baking to heal herself. Now, her designer cheesecakes and cookies are in demand all over Auckland – and beyond.
On a recent Wednesday, Cathy Fan caused a bit of a scene. The part-time baker was setting up her stall at Britomart’s regular food truck lunch event when queues of fans began forming. By the time the market opened at 11.30am, her lines were longer than any she’d seen, snaking from one side of Britomart Square to the other.
Those at the back of the queue sent friends to the front to ask Fan about the likelihood of anything being left. She could only shrug – she was too busy packing slices of cheesecake into boxes and dealing with the sudden onslaught of customers. Organisers snapped photos. They’d never seen anything like it.
A week later, Fan giggles at the memory. “I bought 33 cheesecakes,” she says, thinking she’d over-catered for the event. She sells those for $22.50 a slice. (One slice, Fan says, is “two-to-three servings”.) Within an hour, they were all gone, as well as all of her two-packs of brownies ($18) and four-packs of cookies ($28).
That’s become a regular experience for Fan, a full-time electrical engineer and part-time baker who operates her small bakery Fankery out of an industrial kitchen in Glendene. Since she started offering her products for sale last year, her take on upmarket bakery staples, all with her own personal twist and a rotation of flavours, have become a massive hit.
Fan, 23, doesn’t have a permanent shop, instead preferring pop-ups, collaborations and takeovers in borrowed venues around Auckland. Recently she’s popped up in Takapuna, Parnell and Ormiston. Last weekend, her Grey Lynn pop-up sold out. If you’re hoping to attend her Slow Lane restaurant takeover in Elleslie this weekend, you’re out of luck: pre-orders for those sold out well in advance too.
Why? Her delightful Instagram page is one reason. There, she shows off gooey cookies (she recommends microwaving them for 15 seconds), layered brownies and cheesecakes that come in a variety of flavours, including matcha, oreo, lemon uzu and black sesame. The colours pop, velvety purples and gooey yellows advertising Auckland’s most sought-after treats. (It helps that they also cater to the algorithm-driven TikTok trend of everything being saucier now.)
The main reason, though, is Fan’s use of mochi – a spongy medley of glutinous rice flour, water, sugar and cornstarch kneaded together which results in a product with the consistency of tough marshmallow. It adds layers and texture, and melts in the mouths of customers.
It is, says Fan, all about that mochi. Her most crucial ingredient is a taste of her childhood, when she grew up with her grandparents in Shanghai. It’s also the thing that helped her overcome a recent health scare. Without mochi, she wouldn’t have Fankery. In fact, she might not have anything at all.
Standing in her gleaming Glendene kitchen stirring a pot of deliberately burnt butter, with cheesecake tins stacked in one corner and trays of free range eggs piled high in another, Fan says she never thought she’d become a baker. Before Covid, she was focused on her career. She’d just started working as an electrical engineer for AECOM, and she was also bodybuilding, bikini modelling and working as a personal trainer on the side.
Food was fuel and nothing more. “I weighed everything,” she says. “I tracked the micro-nutrients of carbs, fats, protein.” It was a disciplined lifestyle that meant many hours in the gym, before and after work. Often, she’d be in bed by 7pm, missing out on social events. “I didn’t eat with family. I didn’t eat with other people. And I didn’t eat out because then I didn’t know what I was eating … it’s a very lonely journey.”
Once Covid hit, Fan was stuck at home, unable to go to work, or the gym. She began gaining weight, and felt miserable. When her grandfather died during lockdowns, it made things worse. She was diagnosed with hypothyroidism and says it was because of the stress of her lifestyle. “I was so fatigued. Walking up a hill was impossible.”
Sick and tired of being sick and tired, she decided to try something else. “I either stay in my room and feel sad all day, or I bake some food that makes me happy,” was her thought process. On a whim, she decided to bake cookies. She’d been craving mochi, and decided to stick small rolled balls inside her chocolate chip dough. She still remembers that first bite. “I was like, ‘Woah, this is amazing.’ It was pure happiness. It had been the longest time.”
The following day, she put mochi in a batch of brownies. “That came out great.” Then – “Don’t ask me how” – she tried it inside a cheesecake. She used her brownie mixture – that’s what the burnt butter is for – then piled layers of mochi and cream cheese filling on top. It worked. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is a new concept.’”
She started out gifting her creations to friends, then began selling the occasional item through an Instagram page. Word spread, orders began coming in. In November, she decided to try markets and pop-ups. Now, in her commercial kitchen, she has catered weddings, cooking up to 12 cheesecakes at a time. Even with two part-time staff, her capacity is maxed out.
Fan’s done all this while working full-time. You could often find her in her kitchen, on her laptop, juggling the two. When did she sleep? “Later than I would like,” she says. A few weeks ago, she tried to quit, but they wouldn’t let her, so they came to an agreement: a sabbatical. Fan’s using this time to expand: she wants Fankery to become her full-time job, with a permanent shop rotating an expanded range of flavours. “I do want to do this full-time,” she says. “I don’t want to go back.”
That means long hours in the kitchen. Fan no longer has time for the gym, instead getting her workouts carrying pots and pans full of sauces and batters around her kitchen as she prepares for Fankery’s weekend events. The orders keep coming in, her fan base continues to expand, and there’s pressure on supplies: before chatting to The Spinoff, she’d visited several stores trying to track down a free range egg supply. She had no luck. “We use four in each cake,” she says, hence the price.
Yes, sometimes people baulk at paying $22.50 for a slice of cheesecake. Fan points to rising inflation, packaging and ingredient costs. “They don’t think about the effort that goes into it,” she says. But her happy fans far outweigh any negativity. At Britomart last week, she’d noticed a pre-order came from an address in New York. She thought it might be a mistake. But soon a woman arrived with an American accent to pick up her treats. “She’s like, ‘I’m here on honeymoon. But I saw you on Instagram and told my husband we have to try.’”