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How baker Joceyln Delk Adams found success by staying true to her matriarchal roots

Cookbook author and TV personality Jocelyn Delk Adams share how honoring her family roots brought her success and the secret to accomplishing your dreams.
The Grandbaby Cakes founder says she never intended to be in the public eye. For her, this path was always about one thing: family.
The Grandbaby Cakes founder says she never intended to be in the public eye. For her, this path was always about one thing: family.Courtesy Audrie Dollins
/ Source: TMRW

We are all works in progress; even the successful women you see owning it on Instagram faced stumbling blocks along the way and continue to work hard to stay at the top of their game. In this series, we're sitting down with the people that inspire us to find out: How'd they do it? And what is success really like? This is "Getting There."

Home bakers likely know Jocelyn Delk Adams from her bestselling cookbook, her spot as a Food Network judge on "Beat Bobby Flay" or her regular appearances on TODAY. But the entrepreneur, whose cakes brought her fame, never intended to be in the public eye. For her, this path was always about one thing: family.

When she was 5 years old, Delk Adams' parents would pile the family into the car in Chicago and drive 10 hours down to Winona, Mississippi, to visit her grandmother. As soon as they arrived, Delk Adams would scurry into the kitchen to join Maggie May, or "Big Mama" as she was lovingly known, in the kitchen. There, the smell of sugar-drenched peaches baking filled the balmy Southern air.

"Peach cobbler — she knew it was my absolute favorite," Delk Adams told TMRW. "She would have it coming out of the oven as soon as we got there."

For Jocelyn Delk Adams, baking is a ritual to honor her family's roots.Courtesy Audrie Dollins

By about 7, Delk Adams went from watching Big Mama's process to really engaging in the family tradition of baking, which for May stemmed not only from love but from necessity.

"She lived in Winona, Mississippi, basically forever. She was one of the younger children of eight siblings. She was one of them who learned to cook and bake to feed her older siblings while they worked on the farm," Delk Adams told TMRW. "She instinctively figured out how — it was a necessity but she loved to do it."

As the years went on, May, who passed away in 2018, worked at a chicken hatchery before going into nursing. Her husband, Delk Adams' grandfather, was one of the only Black employees at the Mississippi Light and Power Company. Throughout her medical career, however, May's truest passion was always nourished most in the kitchen kneading bread and baking pies.

"Cooking and baking is a very important part of who we are we as a family. It's almost like a ritual, a way in which we preserve our traditions," Delk Adams told TMRW. "For instance, my Big Mama had this incredible roll recipe. I remember when I was first learning it. Big Mama always went through tutorial as she made them — we do that in our family. We study the elders and learn about the recipes in a very unique way. I have pages and pages of notes on recipes."

Delk Adams always relished this process of storytelling through generations — retelling history through confections for friends and family to devour at the kitchen table. But she never intended to profit from it, nor did she realize she had (as her kin calls it) "the baking gene" until her 20s.

Before creating Grandbaby Cakes and publishing her first cookbook by the same name in 2015, Delk Adams worked a typical nine-to-five in licensing at Ebony Magazine. For colleagues' birthdays, she brought in homemade cakes that were so well received, some suggested she start a baking blog.

"I never thought it would be my life’s work — I am so grateful I did it for the joy," Delk Adams told TMRW. "The positive part is when you spin passion into business you're going to work harder than everyone else. Everyday I'm excited to get to work, excited about what I've created, community."

With that being said, the TODAY Tastemaker said turning passion into a breadwinning (baking pun intended) endeavor also has its challenges. The mom and social media star said it was a big shift to make a hobby (something meant for relaxing with little pressure attached to it) into a business with so much sudden expectation attached to it. From personally responding to Instagram activity to booking spots on TV to partnering with brands like Stitch Fix to promote products, Delk Adams' work can feel like it's at times 24-7, and that's of course in addition to parenting and developing recipes.

"You become the face of a personal brand and people want to hear from you. When I started, there weren’t a lot of African American women succeeding in this business. That pushed me to be in the front, to do well so others could come behind me. That’s always helped me to want to do better and be an inspiration for others," said Delk Adams, who considers the NAACP Image Award nomination her greatest achievement to date (of which there are many).

"When I started, there weren’t a lot of African American women succeeding in this business. That pushed me to be in the front, to do well so others could come behind me."

Jocelyn Delk Adams

When it feels like she's working all the time, Delk Adams carves out "cultivate inspiration days" to recenter and focus on honoring her family legacy. These times help her stay in touch with the reason she bakes in the first place. It fosters the feeling she got when Big Mama held her grandbaby's first cookbook and called it "the most beautiful thing I've ever seen."

Having had so much encouragement from her mother, aunts and grandmother — all of whom she says were exceptional bakers — Delk Adams is adamant that all girls, especially young Black girls like her 3-year-old daughter, know they can do anything and to remember to care for themselves along the way.

“I think its important to note that oftentimes the one thing Black women don’t think about is self-care. As you're building an empire, business, hopes and dreams, taking care of yourself is equally important. You can succeed," she told TMRW. "I've run myself into the ground where I can't work for two days. Finding ways to really truly focus and practice self care in the midst of having goals and dreams is the way you actually achieve them. That balance is crucial."