HELL’S KITCHEN — Three years ago, baker Huascar Aquino catapulted to “Cupcake Wars” fame — winning an episode of the Food Network cooking show after garnering high praise from guest judge Jessica Alba — and set up his first bakery in Hell’s Kitchen.
The venture, H Bake Shop, was ultimately forced out of its space inside the Hudson Eatery when the restaurant closed in March, and the chef has spent several months since trying to secure a new home for his business, he said.
“All my equipment, everything, I had to put in storage,” Aquino, 39, said. “It took longer than expected.”
With a small business loan and financial help from family and friends, the chef plans to reopen H Bake Shop — rebranded as Huascar & Co. Bake Shop — in an area with higher foot traffic at the beginning of November, he said.
The new bakery at 453 W. 54th St., at 10th Avenue, will offer the same selection of pastries, cakes and cupcakes that helped H Bake Shop develop a loyal fan base — and win over Alba on “Cupcake Wars,” Aquino said.
For the show’s challenges, Aquino and his sous chef baked avocado cupcakes with caramelized banana, toasted oat streusel and avocado-lime buttercream icing, as well spinach and olive oil cupcakes with tomato marmalade filling and vanilla bean cream cheese icing, and a chocolate cupcake filled with carrot ganache that Alba called “incredible.”
“I was thinking, ‘This [show] has been around forever,” he recalled. “I said, ‘I have to do something really different.’”
Aquino often uses “unexpected” ingredients in his creations, which he makes with organic and natural products, he noted.
While a filling like tomato marmalade might have seemed unusual to American "Cupcake Wars" viewers, it's a common ingredient in the Dominican Republic, where Aquino often cooked with his mother growing up.
After moving to the U.S. more than two decades ago, he worked in restaurants around New York for several years before studying pastry arts at the French Culinary Institute, now the International Culinary Center.
After the bakery's brick-and-mortar location opened in 2013, it quickly developed a loyal following, he said.
“I wanted to open before ["Cupcake Wars"] aired, so when people were looking, they knew where to find me,” he said.
Aquino has also been sought out to do custom creations, including a cake for Gristedes supermarket owner John Catsimatidis that a friend of the onetime mayoral candidate commissioned after Greece honored him with a with a postage stamp.
Aquino is looking forward to reopening his bakery, he said.
“I was already open for two-and-a-half years, and the business was doing good,” he said. “Now I have the experience… [and] I’m very, very excited.”
His culinary success in the Big Apple has come as a pleasant surprise.
“When I came to the U.S., I came here with $11 in my pocket,” he said. “So, I think I’ve come a long way.”