Cocofulu and Melissa: Bilingual Baking Classes Seasoned with Friendship
Bake with friends, have your cake, and eat it, too!
Two women—one Japanese and one American—have combined their shared interests in good food and discovering other cultures, creating baking classes with a difference in the process.
Making new friends and eating sweet treats are surely two of life’s greatest pleasures, but how awesome would it be if you could brush up your language skills at the same time? This is the concept for Cocofulu and Melissa—bilingual baking classes in the heart of Tokyo, right next door to the lovely Kyu-Furukawa Gardens in Kita-ku.
The two women behind the business are Yuiko Murata, a trained Japanese pastry chef who also worked in Paris for a year, and Melissa Uchiyama, an American writer and teacher with a passion for languages. They also both happen to be busy moms with young families. The duo has combined their respective talents to offer fun-filled classes where people of all nationalities can practice language skills as they whip up sweet treats while forming new connections and friendships in the process.
Melissa and Yuiko talked to Savvy Tokyo about their respective backgrounds, how they came to launch their business, and what participants can expect from their classes.
Meet Melissa and Yuiko
Melissa hails from South Florida but has called Japan “home” for 12 years now. She arrived in Tokyo just six months after her marriage to a Japanese national who grew up in the United States. “After decades in the USA, my parents-in-law had settled back in Kita-ku in Tokyo, and just around the corner from where Yuiko’s cafe would later be,” she says.
In the early days, in particular, food played an important part in her cultural adjustment. “While love and a sense of adventure brought me here, homesickness was very real at times,” she admits. While she sometimes longed for the familiarity of the country she was raised in, being introduced to Japanese cuisine kept her afloat. “Learning new ingredients and dishes kept me going so much of the time! Food, more than anything, became an exciting, delicious window into my new culture.”
Melissa has pursued her teaching and writing career in the ensuing 12 years while raising three children.
Food has also had a starring role in Yuiko’s life to date. After studying English at a U.S. college, she found herself back in Japan with a hankering to learn the art of pastry-making. She switched from a demanding job at a hotel to work in an international school, which allowed her to study the art of pastry-making on the weekends, which eventually led to her obtaining a “pastry degree” after 18 months. Wanting to take her skills to the next level, she then headed off to Paris.
“I knew I wanted to have my own little café. I thought it would be nice to continue studying pastry in Paris. Waking up at 5 a.m. every morning to work in a Parisienne patisserie and bread shop was tough, but I told myself it was just for one year,” Yuiko recalls. Upon coming back to Tokyo, she realized her dream and established the Cocofulu Café, which she now combines with her role as a mom of two.
It’s All About Teamwork
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The two women first met at Yuiko’s café when Melissa came in as a customer, and they quickly became firm friends. Their husbands were the ones who initially suggested they pool their resources and start offering baking lessons. In fact, Yuiko credits her husband with finding the space for her café. “He scours through ads and enjoys searching for real estate, even as he whizzes by on his bike.” She adds that the Cocofulu Café building was originally, “a beauty salon that had sadly folded and is more than fifty years old!” Yuiko and her husband worked together to renovate the space for the café.
As for the story behind the name of Yuiko’s café, it is a combination of “Coco”, the moniker bestowed on her by co-workers in Paris, and “Fulu (Furu)”, drawn from the adjacent Kyu-Furukawa Gardens.
A previous negative experience at a popular cooking school had shocked Melissa. Eager to immerse herself in the world of Japanese food and language, she attempted to sign up for cooking classes. “You can imagine my dismay when the women at the front desk held up their arms and crossed them inches from my face. ‘Dame, dame! (No way!)’” she recalls. “I was only permitted to choose from a very limited offering solely conducted in English. I would not be able to mix with the Japanese home cooks; I was not trusted to learn a recipe in Japanese. That “dame” played over and over in my mind.”
Much More Than a Baking Class
Despite her past experience, Melissa knew that she and Yuiko could offer a welcoming and supportive atmosphere for others through their shared love of food, so they set up their business. With fully-bilingual English and Japanese instructions, classes are hands-on and every participant makes each recipe from scratch. It’s much more than just baking, though. “We take language-learning further with a writing and crafting activity that ties into the theme,” Melissa points out. “For example, when making gateau au chocolat in February, we read aloud and laughed over vocabulary that expresses love, and wrote decorated love letters to our children, partners, or anyone we liked.”
Combining the best of both Japanese and Western ingredients, their recipes make use of such diverse ingredients as sakura, matcha, key lime, rhubarb or meringue, while Yuiko draws on her professional experience as a pastry chef training, tweaking each recipe to create something truly delicious. However, as Melissa points out, students are also encouraged to explore their own creativity. “We show our baking students where they can play with a recipe and collectively brainstorm in class the most creative, delectable, and seasonally appropriate components and flavors.”
Naturally, the highlight of the classes is when everyone sits down together to chat and to enjoy their oven-fresh treats while sipping on one of the signature cafe drinks from Cocofulu’s menu. Participants also get to take their baked treats home to share with their families—or save just for themselves! Unlike most cooking courses, where participants are obliged to sign up for a course or block of lessons, Cocofulu and Melissa’s classes can be attended as one-off experiences that work in with individual schedules and interests. However, students also have an option to book five classes and receive a complimentary lunch and a recipe binder with Yuiko’s original illustrations.
Women, particularly in Japan, tend to socialize with those at the same stage of life or from a similar age group, and Melissa and Yuiko want to offer opportunities to overcome these barriers. “These classes are a chance to break from that ‘same-old-same-old’ mold that keeps us from learning from and empathizing with other people from different backgrounds, ages, professions, or outlooks,” says Melissa.
Being mothers themselves, the pair fully welcome young children to the classes, and there are always helpful arms willing to hold a baby for a busy mom. While no men have signed up for classes yet, they would also be most welcome.
And it has to be asked—who are the lucky taste testers who get to help out when Yuiko is developing new recipes for the classes? Along with Melissa, Yuiko’s husband and eldest son are happy to take on this challenge, while Yuiko’s mother is “a straight-shooter and she always tells me exactly what she thinks of a new recipe!”
Savvy Special Offer!
Finally, for any Savvy Tokyo readers who sign up for a class before December 31 this year and mention this article, a free delicious freshly-baked cookie awaits you (American-size chocolate chip or white chocolate macadamia nut)!
Where: Cocofulu Cafe, 1-27-34 Nishigahara, Kita-ku, Tokyo
When: Average two days per month; classes from 11 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. and 1:30 p.m. – 3:00 p.m.
How to Reserve: Email firstname.lastname@example.org, call 03-5980-8410, or send an Instagram private message to reserve class space