The middle child of five daughters, Najla Aswad grew up in the kitchen, watching her mother and grandparents cook. She catered her first party at the tender age of 14, and was running a bed-and-breakfast in New York at the ripe old age of 21. She moved to Louisville eight years ago, and quickly established herself in the baking world. If you have ever had a “scramble” at a farmers market or had a scone at Heine Brothers, Najla probably made it. But the big question we all have for her is, how do you pronounce your name?! Meet today’s FACE, Najla Aswad.
People know you for your baked goods, but tell us about your past life as a caterer in New York.
I’ve been self-employed for nearly 30 years. I was an innkeeper at the age of 21 in a small hamlet in upstate New York. That business cultivated my work ethic and necessitated wearing many hats to get the job done. I started a restaurant in the inn, which ultimately flourished into a full-service catering company for the next 24 years. I met my husband in New York while I was catering an event. As they say, “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,” and the rest is history. We’ve been married 20 years this past August. We moved to Louisville for his job in the spring of 2006 with our three kids (now ages 16, 14 and 10) when they were all under 7 years old. I started over with what was just a sideline to my catering company: Najla’s Specialty Foods.
What made you decide to concentrate on baking?
My entire family cooks from scratch; that is all we know. My Lebanese grandparents grew everything they ate, and my German grandparents were dairy farmers, so I was literally born into a ”farm-to-fork” family. Food was cherished and traditional dishes celebrated. My mom sat her five daughters on the counter while she baked, and I think that was where the joy of baking came from. I catered my first party at 14 years old, but desserts were always fascinating to me. They were visual edible works of art. I had a bottomless cookie jar at my inn, which was a fixture of your stay there. Guests kept saying,” you should market these, they are incredible,” so I did.
Where can we eat and buy your treats?
I started with cookie dough sold in the frozen food section of specialty foods stores. When I moved to Louisville, I added scones, muffins, brownies, spiced nuts, bodygood® bars, granola, specialty cookies and custom baking products for restaurants. We provide many of the pastry items for Heine Brothers Coffee, Quills, Sunergos, Rainbow Blossom, Paul’s, Southeast Christian Church, Whole Foods, Lucky’s and EarthFare, to name a few. We also ship our products nationwide to specialty food companies and have an online store najlas.com and a small shop at 8007 Vinecrest Ave. in Lyndon.
Do you eat sugary treats all day, or do you have no taste for them?
I enjoy a treat now and then, but now, especially with the holiday cookie season, I enjoy savory flavors more.
How did you create your niche in such a short time here?
Louisville gave me a collective hug when I arrived. I have grown my business around loyal customers and their needs. Their palates are daring and experimental, and they know quality. I have watched the restaurant scene explode, and like New York, you have to deliver quality every day to survive.
How do you say your name? And tell us about your family background.
Najla is my paternal grandmother’s name. She pronounced the “a” like a soft “e” and the “j” like “nej-la.” My mom is German-Scottish-Irish, and my Dad is Lebanese. My husband’s family is Russian.
What’s the biggest misconception about your job or your business?
We hand-craft thousands of pounds of products every week. It’s a very physically demanding job and very detail-oriented. There is very little glamour behind the scenes. The food business finds you, I think, but once you get the bug, it is hard to shake it. If you don’t love it, you won’t last.
What is inspiring you right now?
The fusion of ethnic cuisines, my daughter’s love of baking and how food still connects people together.
What is the biggest life lesson you have ever learned?
I left New York for Kentucky at 40 years old. I had a successful business and three little kids. My husband and I had a day to find a house, a school and a place for my business. I learned that despite a few missteps, I will always land on my feet if I have love, patience, humor, a supportive life partner, passion for my work, but above all else, health.
Who is your mentor?
My parents. They are the most loving, nurturing, hardworking, supportive, patient souls on this planet, and it is my fortune to be their daughter. They cultivated my strength, work ethic and competitive spirit with myself. They helped me be a nurturing mom and a supportive wife and partner to my husband.
What is the best advice you have received in business?
Be on time, be flexible, listen, be kind and work hard at what you love. The rest will take care of itself.
If you were not in your current job, what would you secretly love to do?
I would secretly love to be a talk show/cooking show host.
What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
I was a competitive figure skater from 10 years old until I went to college.
What is your favorite place to go eat?
I know this sounds old-fashioned, but our favorite place is around our own dinner table. Since I cook professionally, cooking for me is a joy and relatively effortless to throw together. When we go out as a family, it’s Mojitos, because the tapas are a perfect portion, and the kids get exactly what they want. And Bombay Grill for Indian.
Where do you like to shop?
I mostly shop for my kids because I always raid my mother’s haute couture closet for classics. But I really like the boutiques here for unusual, one-of-a-kind statement pieces.
What is a treat you do for yourself?
Massages at Elements or lunch with a friend, since I rarely eat lunch.
What is your weakness?
Saying “no” and asking for help.
What is your favorite thing to do in Louisville?
Discover a new store or restaurant, or take in a show or sporting event. There is always something new to discover. I relish the ease of life here.
What are three things you cannot live without?
Ocean breezes at least four times a year, my iPhone and my Suburban — I live in it with three busy kids!
What are you reading right now?
What are three of your favorite things right now?
Dead sea salt hand cream for my tired hands, the spirit of the holiday season and home.
Thank you to Najla for letting us into her wonderful-smelling world and allowing us to taste-test everything. For more about her products, visit najlas.com.
Thank you to Krista Walker for the beautiful pictures.