This holiday season, Valery Jean-Bart, a civil engineer-turned-bakery owner, will make nearly 1,000 cheesecakes for a very special reason.
But the man behind Val’s Cheesecakes, a gourmet bakeshop with two locations in Dallas, never thought he’d spend his days satisfying sweet cravings — until his mother got very sick.
Ten years ago, Marie Jose Labossiere, Jean-Bart’s mom, came to the U.S. from Haiti to visit. The mother-son reunion took a turn when an unexpected trip to the hospital led to a terminal breast cancer diagnosis for Labossiere.
Doctors told the pair that she had only six months left to live. But Labossiere ended up passing several milestones and, in the process, she lived, laughed, loved and baked cheesecake with her son for another four years.
Every week while receiving treatment, Labossiere (who loved to bake at home) thought up new recipes while her son worked as an engineer with the city of Dallas.
“It was a therapy session between my mom and me,” Jean-Bart told TODAY Food. “She would watch these shows on the Food Network and get ideas from different desserts and then on Sundays we would convert that idea into a cheesecake.”
As it turns out, cheesecake wasn't initially Jean-Bart’s cup of tea, but it was his mom’s all-time favorite dessert. By the end of his mom’s life in August 2012, Jean-Bart had dozens of recipes and unique flavor combinations he and his mother had created together.
“I had all these scraps of paper where I had written down our recipes. Every sweet cake I make is a flavor my mom and I tried,” said Jean-Bart.
Soon after his mother passed, Jean-Bart started moonlighting as a baker, to honor of his mom — a businesswoman throughout her life — and her love for cheesecake. But his baking, which was initially healing therapy, quickly turned into something more.
In 2013, a local Dallas restaurant owner started carrying Val’s Cheesecakes on the dessert menu. Jean-Bart spent his nights in the kitchen of St. Paul United Methodist church whipping up desserts to fulfill orders after his regular work hours.
By early 2015, however, “It was getting to be too much,” Jean-Bart told TODAY. “Customers were coming to the church and asking for cheesecake. It was really a lot.”
The civil engineer continued experimenting with new flavors and finally opened the first location of “The Shack,” a small store front designed with all of Labossiere’s favorite colors in mind.
Now, after giving up the 9-to-5 for his new passion, Jean-Bart is opening up his third shop in Fort Worth, Texas, fulfilling multiple catering orders, delivering locally via Uber Eats and cooking up new creations on a weekly basis.
In addition to all of his mom’s favorite sweet flavors, Jean-Bart now offers some very unique savory flavors, too.
Four years ago, he drove to Houston just to try a shrimp and crab cheesecake. “It was amazing, it changed my life, I really mean that,” Jean-Bart said. Since that fateful taste, the baker has treated customers to a brisket cheesecake, a smoked salmon cake and, for one special occasion, a fried chicken cheesecake with mashed potato icing.
“When customers see the savory cakes, I get a lot of gross faces,” the baker told TODAY. “But once they taste it they’re like ‘oh my gosh, give me a jar!””
The whole cheesecake-in-a-jar thing was Labossiere’s idea, too. Jean-Bart said that his mom “always had little jars filled with oils, medicines, teas. And one day she said, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we could bake our cheesecakes into jars like that?’”
It wasn’t until after his mother's passing that Jean-Bart started putting the cakes into jars, but his customers love it. “She must be happy,” Jean-Bart said. “I think she’s smiling up there saying, ‘Yep! That is what I said!”
This holiday season, Jean-Bart plans to offer up two of his mother's favorite desserts: the sweet potato cheesecake and the Neapolitan cheesecake.
“Baking the Neapolitan cheesecake around the holidays was a big thing for her,” Jean-Bart said. In addition to his 12 permanent menu items, Jean-Bart also bakes “special flavors on special weekends.”
Jean-Bart still thinks of his mom in every part of his work. According to the baker, his mother wasn’t just a kind woman but she was incredibly smart, too, so he's carrying on her legacy by growing his small business.
Although not yet available for nationwide shipping, desserts from Val's Cheesecakes are headed in that direction.
“A couple years ago my dream was to just sell cheesecake at a couple restaurants,” Jean-Bart said. “Now the dream's changing. I have big ideas and I think my mom would be supportive of that."
Jean-Bart's story is featured in Uber Eats' new digital series Unpacked, which documents the success stories of immigrant chefs in North America.