Melt-in-your mouth creamy, deeply caramelized and notoriously hard to come by nowadays, Charles Chen’s Basque cheesecakes have burst onto the Bay Area food scene. Basuku Cheesecakes, founded by Chen, has gained a cult following during the pandemic and now boasts pop-ups in San Francisco, Oakland and Palo Alto as well as national shipping.
Barely a year ago, Chen, a food consultant, began baking for the first time as a hobby during the pandemic. He was intrigued by Basque cheesecake — a fusion of a traditional Spanish cheesecake and a Japanese style souffle cheesecake that has become increasingly popular — and a friend’s tips helped him perfect his own recipe.
Chen’s cheesecake quickly caught on, with his chef friends posting about it on social media and the cheesecake mania snowballing from there. Chen, who had never expected a business to grow out of his cheesecake experiments, found himself inundated with orders that were quickly overwhelming his kitchen.
The cheesecake maestro compared his sudden success to getting “struck by lightning,” from the perfect timing of starting pop-ups during the pandemic to the growth of his social media — where Chen has amassed a following of almost 13,000 cheesecake fanatics.
Despite his rapid growth, Chen is still a “one man show” who bakes roughly 150 cheesecakes a week and struggles to keep up with the tide of demand. Dubbed the “most coveted cheesecake in the Bay Area” by fans on Instagram, Chen’s cheesecakes have spawned plenty of longing comments from fans who desperately want to get their hands on one.
“I did not make this cake for it to be something that was exclusive,” said Chen, who recently finished a 33-day stint in the kitchen without a day off. “I’m working six, seven days a week.”
As for Basuku Cheesecakes’s future, Chen says a permanent storefront is the next step, but he has no intention of expanding his menu beyond his iconic cheesecake.
“I’m not a baker, not a chef,” Chen said. “I like to specialize in one product and I try my best to make that one product as best as I possibly can.”
Chen may not be professionally trained, but he’s far from a newcomer to the industry, saying that his perfectionist approach to his cheesecakes comes from a lifetime of growing up in food and beverage.
“My family had a Japanese restaurant, which operated for 30 years,” Chen said. “It’s just what I do, it’s in my blood, I live and breathe this stuff.”
Despite all of his success, Chen still feels pressure to produce the best product he can.
“[When I’m] speaking to bakers who’ve been doing this for 25 years versus a year like myself, I say, ‘Every single time I put something in the oven, I’m still nervous,’ and they’re like, ‘Well, that’s because you care.’”
Aside from keeping up the quality of his cheesecakes, Chen also cares about putting down roots in the community. Chen, who has recently used his social media platform to raise awareness about violence against Asian Americans and support fundraisers, said he wants Basuku Cheesecakes to not only be a go-to for tasty cakes, but to be a brand for people to rely on in rallying the community.
Working with Oakland businesses, Chen was able to raise $13,000 in donations for the organizations Asian Americans Advancing Justice and Stop AAPI Hate, a number that rose to almost $40,000 with the added support of Silicon Valley companies.
“Right now, the community needs something to bring us all together,” Chen said. “And whether it’s a cheesecake, whatever it is you know, I’m just trying to do my part to do that.”
Basuku Cheesecakes’ pick up locations:
The Morris in San Francisco starting at 5 p.m. on Wednesdays
Nightbird in San Francisco from 10–2 p.m. on Thursdays
The Commis Restaurant in Oakland from 2–3 p.m. on Thursdays
Vina Enoteca in Palo Alto starting at 11 a.m. on Fridays
For more information on how to pre order and frequent updates, check out Basuku Cheesecakes on Instagram.