When Cupcakes by Sonja first opened, it introduced Manila to a new world of possibilities when it came to enjoying cupcakes. Its owner and pastry chef, Sonja Ocampo, has grown the brand to become a favorite dessert destination, not just for cupcakes and cakes, but for its evolving menu of sweet treats and experiments, like its Crupcakes and Cupparoons.
Sonja received her classical training in Culinary Arts and Pastry Arts in New York City and there, she honed her culinary skills by volunteering to work with as many pastry chefs in the city as she could. She shares, “My biggest break was when I was accepted at Bouley Restaurant and Bakery. It was New York’s longest running four-star restaurant at the time so I was so lucky to get in. David Bouley and Bill Yosses really took a gamble on me by granting me a sponsorship. I stayed there for two years.”
Lucky as she was, it was “the toughest job I’ve ever had but it was where I learned everything.”
Eventually, she landed a job at Magnolia Bakery, the world-famous and beloved bakeshop that New Yorkers and its visitors have been patronizing for the last two decades.
“That opened my world to cupcakes,” reveals Sonja, “and it was what inspired me to open a cupcake shop here. Cupcakes by Sonja will continue spreading the sweetness by coming up with all sorts of desserts that aren’t necessarily cupcakes and cakes anymore. We’d love to keep on growing, creating and pushing ourselves outside our comfort zones.”
These days, if she’s not working and creating new surprises in her pastry kitchen, she’s enjoying herself at a neighborhood restaurant, exploring new ideas through travel and reading, and generally, seeking new knowledge from any and all kinds of places.
Q&A with Chef Sonja Ocampo
What is your favorite restaurant to frequent these days?
Recently, I’ve been frequenting Bar Pintxos Tapas y Mas a lot. I live in Alabang and good food in that area has always been scarce. Now, we don’t feel so deprived anymore.
Bar Pintxos is such a neighborhood gem. The food is excellent, the vibe is so welcoming, and the place is always bustling with people. I love how it has such a personal feel to it. The owners are always there and they are so relaxed and friendly, almost to the point where you forget that they own the place. You can see their laid back approach in their menu, sticking to simple preparation and presentations, and relying on quality ingredients to do the work. I always get the Pimientos de Padrón, Steak Pinto with Chimichurri, Gambas with Mushroom and Eggs, Beef Cheeks, and Pintxos de Boquerones, Uni and Caviar.
What’s your go-to comfort food?
Noodles. Ramen, udon, or even just a hearty bowl of pasta. It’s always so satisfying and comforting. It never fails to cheer me up, especially on a rainy day.
What are the three top items to keep in a kitchen pantry?
Butter, dark chocolate, and Maldon salt. I make a lot of cookies with them. I snack on the dark chocolate a lot too. And I finish everything from savory to sweet with sea salt.
What are your food inspirations these days?
I eat and travel a lot. And I also take inspiration from other industries and art forms that I care about; some of them have nothing to do with food. I just always try to find ways to connect and integrate it to what I do. I like to dig deep and that process can take various forms — reading, searching, conversing with people, etc. — but it really always comes down to wanting to learn more.
I have an upcoming trip to Silicon Valley in the next few weeks. So I’ve been reading up on design thinking methodologies and startup industries in that area. I’m also researching on the food revolution happening in California. There is just so much concentration of new, exciting, and invigorating food concepts happening there right now.
How do you get out of a food (eating or cooking) rut? What is your recommendation for those who want to try and discover food that’s new and unfamiliar?
I take a break. I’ll step out, clear my mind, and open it back up. Inspiration can be found everywhere, especially when you take the pressure off yourself.
Be open, stay curious, get yourself out there, and also enjoy the hunt. It’s also great to form groups with people who share your passion for food. When someone else is invested in your curiosity, you become more willing to indulge it. And ultimately, you would want your curiosity to benefit others.