Half a world and opposite hemispheres away, Australian native Naomi Levine finds her home in Chicago. While one profanity away from being barred entry into the US by immigration back in ‘99, Naomi is now an official ingredient of the American melting pot (she got her US citizenship recently) – contributing her say-it-straight-up personality and unique baking skills into the mix. As owner of Tipsycake in Humboldt Park, Naomi explains why her ‘crack squares’ are legit despite the addictiveness and shares some insights into the differences between Australian and Chicago fare. So, the next time you need crack, a cake shaped like anything, or a taste of Australia, stop by Tipsycake and kick it with Naomi.
F: So you moved out to Chicago from Sydney. Are you nuts?
N: I moved out here 10 years ago, back in 1999. I don’t really love the outdoors, so trading Sydney for Chicago wasn’t too difficult. Yes I am crazy and I’m not going back. I am a prisoner in Chicago, I have a kid, a building, a boyfriend, so there’s no moving back for me.
F: What is the first thing you did when you went back here?
N: I fought with immigration. They interrogated me regarding my tourist visa…but they can kiss my a** now because I am a US citizen.
F: What do you miss from Australia?
N: The awesome seafood, because it is hard to find it out here. I miss the coffee culture, fresh passion fruit, but enjoying the good Mexican food here because you can’t get it in Sydney.
F: What Aussie creations are proving popular with local Chicagoans?
N: They like the lamingtons, sponge cake, and the caramel fudge, which we renamed the crack squares because we are in Humboldt park and it is addictive. It has been challenging adopting Aussie sweets to the American palate because Australian pastries usually consist of passion fruit and coconut which Americans don’t enjoy. But we don’t use American coconut, and instead source ours from Indonesia. So people don’t get it when they say that they don’t like coconut and then I shove my Indonesian coconut in their mouth and they like it!
F: What is the story behind Tipsycake?
N: I started it back in 2005 because I was sick of working in corporate, and got the name from the Oxford Dictionary of Food (a type of cake that gets you tipsy). I got into it because I saw a need, have the skill and am passionate about it. Our specialties are Australian pastries, like the pavlovas and lamingtons, and three dimensional cakes.
F: Sydney vs. Chicago cuisine?
N: The food is not really comparable; they are very different. Midwestern cuisine focuses on corn, beef and has rich Hispanic influences. Sydney has strong ties to seafood and Asian influences. The coffee culture here is heavily biased towards Starbucks and large chains. In Australia, it is very dependent on independent coffee houses. (On a side note, if you ever try ordering coffee from Australia, it is like being the casting director of a porno film)
F: There are about a billion cupcake stores popping up. What’s that about?
N: The cupcake craze going on is driving me insane. There’s really nothing special about it because anyone can make a cupcake…that doesn’t mean that we don’t serve them – there is a strong demand, so we caved in and are now selling them.
F: What is the most challenging cake design you’ve ever worked on?
N: A 3D Yoda. It took us 2 days and we got the order 2 days before it was due. We finished and delivered it intact.
F: Do you get any strange requests for cake flavors or designs?
N: We usually get unusual requests for designs, but people tend to be conservative with their flavors. We would really like to do unique flavors like passion fruit or coconut but people cringe when they hear it. With regards to designs, you name it, we’ve done it – noses, penises, ears, head, shoulders, toes malaria tablets, and a butt.
F: What neighborhood do you live in?
N: I live right above the store in Humboldt Park. It is a very diverse neighborhood.
F: Where can people find a touch of Aussie in Chicago, food, art, culture?
F: Things to try from Tipsycake?
N: The crack squares and our lamingtons!
F: I hear you make meatpies and that they are awesome. How do we order some and what fillings do you have?
N: Thanks! Give us a call because you have to pre-order them – we make beef filled meat pies and pork sausage rolls.
F: What do you recommend people do if they make the trip to Sydney?
N: Take 6 weeks off! Go all over Australia because you will never do it again. Don’t stay in upscale hotels and instead try a bed and breakfast. Eat local cuisine. Go to the opera. Go to the park. Eat fish and chips. Don’t worry about tipping – there’s none of that 20% ‘tax’ over there. If they want to travel, talk to my friend Olivia from See ANZ Travel – she’ll look after you!