How Kareem Queeman carved his path to success
But the James Beard nominee doesn’t think of himself as fully baked — yet.
Kareem Queeman’s first cake failed, but he said it wasn’t his fault. The oven in the public housing where he lived with his mother and older brother didn’t work correctly.
“They didn’t give us adequate appliances. That’s how they treated us,” said Queeman, who calls himself “Mr. Bake.” “It wasn’t a failure in terms of quality of the cake,” said Queeman of the boxed mix cake he made for a family function when he was eight. Though it came out lopsided because only half the oven worked correctly, “it satisfied [my] immediate curiosity of ‘Wow, I just made my first cake by myself … and I want to do it again.”
He did it for the next three decades, and this year the 36-year-old Queeman was nominated for Outstanding Pastry Chef or Baker by the James Beard Foundation. Queeman, who owns Mr. Bake Sweets in Riverdale, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C., didn’t see a lot of queer Black bakers on his rise to the top — and that, he said, is something he’s spent his career fixing, one cake at a time.
When he was a child in the Sugar Hill neighborhood of Harlem, Queeman said he saw few good male role models. “Being Black in the 1990s was the Central Park Five, OJ, Rodney King, HIV/AIDS— it was all negative. I saw how society looked at us,” said Queeman. His mother taught him to “project masculinity before any kind of weakness,” he said.
His historic neighborhood did have wealthy Black families living in the brownstones across the street from his public housing. And he caught glimpses of gay Black men “who were loud and proud to be themselves.” But he also saw how his “community was being underserved” and how that could lead to drug addiction, alcohol addiction, sex work, and jail. “I always questioned the status quo,” he said. “That’s always just been innate in my spirit to question things that don’t seem right.”
He remembers visiting his grandmother’s apartment and staring out the window, thinking about his future rather than watching cartoons. “Something inside me was saying, ‘I want to do better. I want more. I want to impact my community and that was a driving force for me,” he said. “I wanted a way out.” He also wanted to give back to his community. “I just felt like my community needed to be uplifted and needed positivity.”
And he continued to bake.
In middle school, Queeman signed up for home economics and was one of only three boys in a class of 30. He chose Washington Irving High School because the public school launched a restaurant entrepreneurship program. Queeman was a member of the program’s first graduating class in 2004.
His mother, who died in 2017, “knew she had a child who was different — air quotes,” said Queeman. But he said he never came out to his mother, who was plagued by health issues, including diabetes and drug and alcohol addiction. Instead, he said, “I just lived it. Literally. I just started living and inching little by little toward learning about being Black and gay in America.” When he was 16, he found his “refuge” in Greenwich Village and learned about extended families, ballroom culture, and drag queens. “It opened me up to a whole new world. And then I started to say, ‘This is the type of freedom that I want.’”
His mother didn’t want him to pursue a career in food because “that wasn’t something a boy should do.” Queeman didn’t listen, following instead the “passion that was burning inside of me.”
He enrolled in the culinary program at Monroe College in New Rochelle, New York and told her of his plans the day classes started. There, Queeman found the same situation he would soon see throughout the culinary world — few to no queer Black men. Though he graduated with an AS in Culinary Arts and a BS in Hospitality Management, he thought his only career path would require hiding the one part he could. “I already had two strikes against me: Black. Male,” said Queeman. “It’s hard to navigate spaces and have people take you seriously for your craft and expertise being a Black man or just being black,” he said. “[So,] I hid a lot of who I am, my queerness when I went into the kitchen.”
It would be another eight years before Queeman figured out that he was the one who was going to change attitudes and expectations and “do it boldly.” His strategy: “Put me on every network that I possibly could, every cooking competition, every cooking show, to move with intention, so that the people in charge would see what was missing.”
He launched his plan in 2015, and it took him three years to land a show that aired. Sometimes getting cut in the final casting, sometimes getting cast in shows that were never broadcast. “Coming from New York, understanding that hustle and bustle and grind, I applied that to create space for me. I tell people all day, ‘I don’t need a new table, I am the chair and pull myself up to it.’” When he got Bake It Like Buddy, the other food competition shows started falling into place.
There was Beat Bobby Flay and the Girl Scouts Baking Championship on Food Network in 2020, then Sugar Rush Christmas Season 2 on Netflix later that same year. In 2021, he was cast as a judge for the Cake Boss’ “Buddy vs. Duff,” Season Three. And, most recently, he found a role on the reality TV show, Bake It ‘Til You Make It, on the Cooking Channel’s 2022-2023 season lineup.“That was pretty much my little secret sauce. I have a big personality, so why not use that to my advantage,” Queeman said. He was also on the Food Network’s The Big Bake. Celebrity cake artist Ron Ben-Israel, a judge, told Queeman his chocolate cake was “perfect,” and that he “wished I made it!”
While delighted by Ben-Israel’s comments, Queeman said, “I can’t tell you why he felt that way. I just bake with love.” Queeman sells a cupcake version of that cake at Mr. Bake Sweets. He uses chocolate cake as his standard cake batter for all his chocolate cake desserts. He also sells a Hummingbird cake that “all the judges loved” on Sugar Rush Christmas, Queeman said, although customers will have to wait until fall for another chance to get it. The Hummingbird is a banana nut-based cake with crushed pineapples in the batter for a “rich moisture and island taste,” said Queeman.
While Queeman said he likes to bake new things and “love[s] to play with flavors I know go well together,” don’t ask him to make what he calls “dessert treats” like cake pops or dipped chocolate items. He’s not a fan. But do ask about his banana pudding, which is always on the menu. He got a recipe from his mother’s older sister, Aunt Janet, now deceased. While Queeman said he’s “changed it up some, but not by much,” he’s unsure about the origin of the childhood treat he’s been making since high school.
Earlier this year, Queeman was nominated by the Beard Foundation in the best baker category. “The world around me was changing, and they were ready, in the food industry, to make a change,” he said. “I’m also instilling hope in everybody else to say, ‘Yo, I, too, can show up as my authentic self in any space I choose to occupy, and I will be okay. You are going to take me for who I am, or don’t take me at all.’”
Throughout his rise in the food industry, Queeman has also worked to create space for other openly gay queer people. In the D.C. area, he’s teamed up with the Wilton Cake Company and the non-profit Us Helping Us, one of the largest Black LGBTQ resources for HIV/AIDS and housing in the country. Through the non-profit, he teaches cake-making skills to at-risk Black men battling drug addiction, homelessness, HIV/AIDS and mental health issues. And he works with King Arthur Flour to bring free classes to homeless youth in Southeast D.C. through a partnership with Supporting and Mentoring Youth Advocates and Leaders (SMYAL).
The programs go beyond baking. “[We] talk about what it means to be Black and queer in the world today and how we can defend, shoot our folks up with resources,” said Queeman. “We actually talk about life. And we talk about how I got to where I got to.” And he reminds them of the gifts that they already possess. “I’m like, everything you need is right inside of you already. You just actually need to start doing the work.”
He’s also returned to Harlem, where he launched an after-school baking program at his former middle school and held events to raise money for Harlem Pride and Harlem Girl Scout Troops.
As for himself, Queeman’s still strategizing his future, which will always involve cake because “Cake is my first love. I’m never going to stray away from cake.” He said his goal is to host his own show on one of the large platforms. “There’s still yet to be an openly Black or brown baker or even queer chef who is saying, ‘This is who I am and I am also a phenomenal chef or baker, but I’m also a queer person of color.”