Unmasking BASK, L.A.'s Underground, Basquiat-Inspired Cheesecake Crew
If, like me, you're single and unvaccinated, you probably spend a good chunk of your precious post-work, pre-sleep hours scrolling through social media. The habit doesn't always spark a lot of joy but it passes the long, pandemic nights. Sometimes, it leads me deep into wormholes of intrigue and drama.
A few weeks ago, I saw an Instagram story in which Lydia Lin, co-owner of modern tea room Steep LA, shared a slice of custardy, caramelized cheesecake so perfect it could launch aGoldenGirlsreboot. At first glance, it didn't look like much but simplicity can be deceptive. Cratering in the middle, the burnt umber exterior gave way to a gooey center quivering like a flan. What was this glorious thing? Who had made it? And how could I get my hands on one?
Some of these questions had easy answers. This concoction was the work of BASK (aka Bakery Atelier Secret Kitchen), the nom de cuisine for a team of bakers operating out of a hidden Los Angeles location to create impossibly sumptuous and delicate Basque-style cheesecakes. I, or anyone else, can order one by DMing them on Instagram and shelling out $35. Beyond that, my internet sleuthing yielded few clues. This is one underground dessert collective determined to fulfill its mission of "bringing light into other people's lives" without revealing the identities of its operatives.
I was coming down from a Brigderton binge at the time so I might've been craving the high drama of Lady Whistledown. Set in Regency England, the series revolves around a Gossip Girl-esque sharer of secrets who releases anonymous missives chronicling the exploits of the town's most eligible bachelors and bachelorettes.
Like Eloise, who is determined to expose Lady Whistledown, I vowed to unravel the mystery of this dessert, whatever dark truths it may reveal. I would unmask BASK, if only to satisfy my curiosity and sudden craving for dairy-based desserts. How would I accomplish this? By doing what any modern sleuth would do. I slid into their DMs.
A few messages later, BASK offered to let me sample a full cheesecake, hoping I'd spread the word among friends. As if I'd ever keep the news of a great cheesecake to myself!
A few days later, during my pre-arranged time slot, I received a DM informing me that BASK's "delivery ninja" had dropped off a cheesecake in the lobby of my building. Gasp! Who would be so devoted to concealing their own identity they'd allow this gem to sit unguarded in a semi-public area where it was vulnerable to dogs, rodents and hungry neighbors? I sprinted down the walkways of my apartment complex like a lion stalking a gazelle and I secured the precious.
As instructed, I refrigerated my cake for a few hours before diving in. Reality rarely lives up to expectation but the BASK cheesecake looked every bit as good IRL as it did on Instagram. It was tender and soft, brightened with a tinge of citrus. Unlike most mass-market American cheesecakes with their dry, bland, overly sweet centers, you could actually taste the cheese in BASK's cheesecake. Sampling the evidence was a crucial element of my Sherlockian investigative technique but it had brought me no closer to discovering the truth about BASK.
Who had founded this cheesecake collective? Why did they want to stay in the shadows? Were they already famous? Were they afraid of fame? Did they have a dark past they wanted to obscure? This Lady Whistledown fan needed answers.
I reached out to my network of spies and informers (read: friends and friends-of-friends who had ordered from BASK), and within minutes, I had a description of the courier. One friend said they were male-presenting and dressed "head to toe in black and wore his hood and black sunglasses." Another friend confirmed the sunglasses and added that the delivery person had been wearing a mask. Was it a safety measure? Were they trying to conceal their identity? Were they also one of the bakers?
My sleuthing revealed the day's delivery route had started in Atwater Village at 9:19 a.m.. The driver then made stops in Los Feliz and DTLA before wrapping up in West Adams at 11:30 a.m. I was delighted with myself. Like Nancy Drew or Nate the Great, I was on a quest to solve a mystery with the highest of stakes. I decided to redouble my efforts. I was going to follow the clues and gather more evidence, no matter how much time or energy it took. Or maybe I'd just request an interview.
Whoever was masterminding BASK, they agreed to answer a few questions via email. From their replies, I learned the group is a "small collective of incredible, artisan pâtissiers who've pursued their craft over several years." They launched BASK as "an escape from mediocrity and corporate profiteering, to bring fanciful benevolence to the world of bakery."
They say they have "over 40 years of [combined] culinary education and professional experience" including at "the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu and other renowned European institutions." Their CVs include stints at "independent food manufacturers, privately-owned bakeries, food retail shops, larger multi-unit restaurant chains and high-end, fine dining establishments."
BASK's bakers say they work in a professional facility. They also revealed that it takes them 24 hours, from start to finish, to produce a small run of cheesecakes — because achieving the ideal texture and flavor is tricky.
Using my newly developed profiling skills, I determined we're dealing with three to four talented pastry chefs who are exasperated by the confines of the corporate culinary world and looking to reconnect with their roots. They're not soldiers of sweet fortune. They're true believers. They want to spread the joy of cheesecake more than they want the fame it brings. Based on the spelling of certain words -- "realised," "endeavour," "honoured" -- BASK probably has at least one European member. They're also art nerds.
For both their email address and Venmo handle, BASK uses the name Jean-Michel Baskiya. "Like many others, Basquiat is a huge influence," they said via email. "In particular, his acclaimed works in the realm of neo-expressionism, we believe, are to the eyes what a great Basque cheesecake is to the mouth."
You don't have to be an expert on contemporary art to spot the dissonance between bright and muted colors or smooth and rigid strokes in Jean-Michel Basquiat's works. The dualities aren't meant to be pretty. If they happen to be, that's beside the point. This ugly/delicious dynamic is a tangible metaphor for BASK:
"We delight in finding beauty in things that are often maligned, not just in bakery, but in life. Taking a product that's not traditionally as visually appealing or widely popular, and making it demand the attention it deserves, we've spent countless hours refining our recipe to create the most delicious, creamy cheesecake, using the highest quality ingredients in precise ratios and under strictly controlled conditions."
While cheesecake shows up on probably half of all dessert menus at U.S. restaurants and it's the namesake item of a restaurant chain with more than 200 locations, Basque cheesecakes are a rarity in this country.
The dessert originated in the 1990s in La Viña, a restaurant in Donostia-San Sebastian, a coastal city in Spanish Basque country. The Basque cheesecake is softer, simpler and less sweet than its American counterpart, which often features cherries, chocolate or other toppings. It is baked at high temperatures so it burns on the top while its center stays gooey. BASK uses three types of lemons to create the perfect note of citrus. They currently only offer one type of cheesecake but they plan to debut a cream-infused, Gui Fei Oolong cheesecake in a few weeks.
But why shroud this in so much mystery? "When living in a city full of stars, it's easy to forget that not everyone has a natural proclivity for fame," BASK wrote to me. "We feel the best way to forsake the lengthy and painstaking endeavour of reputation management is to, well, not have a reputation at all."
As one might expect, the cloak-and-dagger shtick has made Angelenos more, not less, curious about BASK. That's the way BASK likes it although they're resigned to eventual exposure.
"Maintaining some level of anonymity (and freedom from judgment) allows us to remain creative in our artistic expression," BASK writes. "Our hope is twofold. For the special few who do know us, they remain amused by this emerging goose chase in relation to our identities. For those on the hunt, may they enjoy their adventure towards their -- hopefully not, but somewhat likely -- eventual discovery, before joining the aforementioned special few in respecting our privacy."
I didn't entirely fail at playing Eloise in my personal Bridgerton saga. I managed to determine the name of one BASK baker... but I'm taking it to the grave. Somewhere along the line, I came to respect BASK's dedication to their craft more than I cared about unraveling this mystery. Whoever these bakers are, their identities are less important than what they're doing -- creating artful, awe-inspiring Basque cheesecakes. A little bit of intrigue makes them even sweeter.
If you order from BASK, you can pick up your cheesecake at Amboy or Steep LA, both in Chinatown, or you can get it delivered. Their delivery area covers most of L.A., with fees determined on a case-by-case basis. BASK will ship cakes throughout California and out of state. At present, they only makes six-inch cheesecakes. No individual slices.