By Haley Frederick
Pittsburgh Current Managing Editor
This is a big year for Jasmine Cho.
In 2019, she published her first book, gave a talk at TEDxPittsburgh, and after bouncing in and out of college for the past decade—trying everything from pharmacy to education—she’ll be graduating with her degree in art therapy this December.
“I’ll be a first-generation graduate,” says Cho, the daughter of Korean immigrants. “I’m really excited about that.”
Cho calls her academic path “the epitome of non-traditional.” She couldn’t quite figure out the right direction at first. Her father has a successful martial arts studio business, but following those footsteps didn’t feel right.
The turning point came during her time in the Americorps Public Allies Pittsburgh program. One of the values they learned was to embrace the assets that already existed in the community, as opposed to building something new.
“So I applied that to myself and that’s how I ended up saying ‘well I love doing pastry the most and that’s what I seem to be best at,’” Cho says. “That program really gave me the courage to move forward on my personal passions in pastry and learn how to connect it to something greater than myself.”
A self-taught baker, she first founded her company, Yummyholic, in 2012 as a foodie apparel brand. After years of juggling multiple jobs, she shifted her main focus to Yummiholic in 2015 and developed it as an online bakery, taking custom orders for cookie portraits and other intricate designs.
Now, in addition to Yummyholic, Cho is full-time at Carlow researching baking as a form of art therapy.
“I had these ideas about bake therapy just from my own experiences getting reenergized in the kitchen and I researched and the closest thing I could find is art therapy, and that’s exactly how I approach my cookies in an artful kind of way,” she says.
Cho sees in baking the potential to treat people with anxiety, depression and many kinds of trauma. She’s partnering with Center For Victims to conduct some of her research on vicarious and intergenerational trauma treatment.
“Working with Center for Victims we talk a lot about how activating all five of your senses really helps to rewire your brain, and trauma is something where whatever happens really stunts you,” Cho says. “[When you’re baking] everything is engaged.”
Other than the therapeutic application of baking, Cho’s main concern is Asian American representation. She creates cookie portraits of overlooked Asian historical figures to share online, and her self-published children’s book, “Role Models Who Look Like Me,” depicts Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who have made history.
“I was thinking from the beginning ‘what can I do that’s bigger than just a bakery, and what do I care about?’” Cho says. “And the social justice issue I care about most has to do with representation because that’s the one that I’m living.”
Cho’s TEDxPittsburgh talk about her activism through cookies has garnered over 40,000 views on YouTube since it was posted on July 7.
“Privilege is when your history is taught as core curriculum, while mine is taught as an elective,” she says in the speech.
Her cookies allow her the opportunity to highlight the stories of people who don’t get the places they deserve in history books. She’s depicted figures like the first Asain American Olympic gold medalist Sammy Lee, the Black Panther Party field marshal and the “anti-model minority” Richard Masato Aoki, and the civil rights activist and philosopher Grace Lee Boggs.
Cho is enjoying the recent focus on Asian representation in Hollywood and admits to watching Ali Wong in Netflix’s “Always be my Maybe” at least ten times. She says she hasn’t identified with a character in a movie so much since “Mulan” twenty years ago.
Locally, she’s encouraged by the work of “badass” women like Kim Dinh and Sabrina Liu, who started a Pittsburgh Chapter of the Asain Pacific American Labor Alliance. According to Cho, change feels certain but slow.
“I do get very hungry for more diversity apart from black and white. Always feeling like a minority of minorities is a struggle I have in Pittsburgh.”
Cho says a common feeling in the community is that Pittsburgh’s Asian population seems transient—people come for college and then they leave for bigger cities with more established Asian American communities. This has made Cho determined to stay.
She looks forward to graduating, moving forward with her bake therapy research, continuing to promote her book, and one day opening a bakery cafe space.
“Ultimately I would love to have my own space to have informal therapeutic cookie decorating sessions for the public and also exploring bake therapy in private settings,” Cho says. “Not only the therapeutic part, but I think baking can become a marketable skill that can empower somebody to pursue their own career path.”