Rachel Fong’s Kawaii Sweet World success
starts in a Piedmont Kitchen
Interview by Kristina Sepetys
Rachel Fong, a junior at Stanford University who grew up in Piedmont, loves all things kawaii (the Japanese word for cute). She’s high energy and as prone to smile as the winsome confections she cooks up on Kawaii Sweet World, the popular YouTube show she’s produced since 2011.
And now she’s come out with a cookbook. Kawaii Sweet World includes 75 recipes for baking adorable and easy-to-make treats. With helpful resource listings like “The Best Candies” and “The Best Tools,” this cheerful, colorful, impeccably assembled book will delight and inspire just about anyone, and young cooks in particular.
Q: How did you discover kawaii?
I stumbled across it when I was in fifth grade, on a visit to Japantown in San Francisco with my parents. I loved all the cute stuff!
Q: When did you start your YouTube show?
In 2010, I entered a polymer clay charm contest. I loved making miniature versions of food and cute characters from clay. I posted lots of tutorials on the internet. I also loved baking and eventually started baking cute things. I made a batch of banana muffins when I was about 14 and decided to film the process and post. I got a super positive response to the baking videos.
Q: Have you had cooking lessons?
I baked a lot with my mom growing up, and we watched food shows. In elementary school, my parents signed me up for cooking lessons through the Piedmont Rec Center. That class taught me basic knife skills and how to get comfortable in the kitchen.
Q: Where do you get your supplies?
I love Spun Sugar in Berkeley and Piedmont Grocery in Oakland. I usually buy sprinkles at Spun Sugar because they have a great variety of shapes and colors. Often when I’m making desserts, I need a specific shape for a panda nose or the ear of a bunny. And their selection of chocolate molds is amazing!
Q: Any favorite local treats?
Fenton’s Coffee Cookie Dream [hand-crushed Oreos and chunks of chocolate chip cookie dough layered in coffee ice cream] is one of my favorite desserts from Oakland—always love their fun, creative flavors and signature cookies that come with the sundaes!
Q: Do your studies at Stanford involve food?
Yes! I’m majoring in product design, a combination of mechanical engineering and design. I work with the Food Design Research Lab to apply design thinking to food. I’m thinking of taking a fifth year to earn a master’s degree in management science and engineering.
Q: How did you get involved with the Food Design Research Lab (FDRL)?
I took a class in food design technology and really connected with the professor, Dr. Soh Kim, who introduced me to the FDRL. I helped them to organize their annual FoodInno symposiums for stakeholders up and down the food chain. Last year, the focus was food waste. I spent last summer in the FDRL, working on research related to food startups and food systems, from production to waste management. I recently attended the Smart Kitchen Summit in Seattle with a team from Stanford to study food innovation trends.
Q: Your YouTube sets look so professional! Do you have a special place where you film?
I started cooking in our kitchen at home. My family got tired of always having big studio lights set up in the kitchen, and I got tired of always having to take them up and down. So when I was 16, I asked my parents if I could transform a part of the basement into a kitchen set. My parents and I cleaned out an area of the basement, and I chose the colors and painted and bought cabinets from IKEA and installed them. I really wanted lots of mint and aqua-blue and white to make all the colors pop.
Q: Who are your 1.22 million YouTube channel subscribers?
Mostly 18 to 24 year-old females in the United States. YouTube doesn’t track viewers under 13 years old, but I know from other sources that I have a strong following of really young kids. The channel is very popular with Gen Z and millennials.
Q: Kawaii Sweet World—the YouTube channel and now the cookbook—sounds like a full-time job. How do you balance it with studying and school?
Freshman year, when I was writing the cookbook, I’d spend Monday through Friday at school and studying. Friday afternoons, I’d commute home on Caltrain and BART and spend the weekend working on the cookbook and videos. And then I’d head back to Palo Alto on Sunday night. It worked for a year as a kind of sprint project and learning experience juggling all of those things. But I don’t recommend it long-term.
I generally try to keep up with KSW during the school year, but I’m more focused on school stuff. It’s all about time management, trying to find the balance. I’m always thinking about all my interests and the future, trying to figure out how much time I want to allocate to each aspect of my life.
Q: Favorite or most requested recipe in your cookbook?
The Ramen Cake. I’ve made it six or seven times for different occasions. People also really like the unicorn cupcakes because they’re so whimsical.
Q: Are you planning a career related to baking and food?
Definitely! I’m a junior and doing a lot of exploration. I love food innovation and would like to start another company in that space or with some kind of startup. Ideally whatever I do going forward I’ll combine with Kawaii Sweet World.
Q: Do you do have any help with Kawaii Sweet World?
I have a business manager, but otherwise I do everything—planning, cooking, filming, editing, and posting—myself. ♦
Edible East Bay book editor Kristina Sepetys is a writer and consultant living in Berkeley. Her work focuses on the intersection of food, farming, energy, land, water, and sustainable resource use. She can be reached at kmsepetys(at)yahoo.com.
Photo reprinted from Kawaii Sweet World Cookbook. Copyright © 2019 by Rachel Fong. Photographs copyright © 2019 by Andria Lo. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC.