How did you get involved in cake artistry? Was there a point where you knew that was the career path you wanted to take?
I originally got my start as a pastry chef. I went to culinary school and received my degree in pastry arts in 1991 at the Baltimore International College, which is now Stratford University. I worked for several years at various places and finally ended up at a restaurant in Glendale, Calif. I soon realized that there was a cap on the level of creativity one can achieve as a pastry chef in general.
There is a lot of production and, as it turns out, people want comfort when it comes to desserts and it was nearly impossible to get a person to order anything that was not crème brulee, chocolate lava cake, cheese cake or some kind of apple dessert. I picked up a copy of InStyle magazine one day and saw some amazing cakes and one of them came from a place in Beverly Hills. I realized that this is what I wanted to pursue and I did.
I went directly to them but was turned away and told to get more experience and then come back. I went and found a job and learned the fundamentals of cake decorating, which mostly included filling and icing cakes with some decorating like piping skills and buttercream flowers. I later went back and got a job at that Beverly Hills bakery which is one of the best in the country and discovered my inner artist.
I wavered for a while about committing to cake decorating because the money is not very good as an employee. I went from making high salary to seven dollars per hour. I went back and forth between this and pastries as well as special effects makeup. In 1999 I moved to Seattle and decided to focus on making cake decorating my career when I realized I need to make art to be happy.
What are some of the different characteristics of cake art? What are the different aspects of cake design that someone who didn’t understand the profession would have never thought of?
The fun thing about creating out of cake and frosting is that it is a mixture of all the mediums. It encompasses sculpting techniques, oil painting techniques, watercolor techniques, drawing and free form, etc. That is what I love about it, it’s never boring. You really have to be comfortable with a wide variety of techniques and perspectives.
One of the most overlooked aspects of cake design that people don’t think about before starting their own business is experience. So many people these days rush and put themselves in a position where they can’t grow. It is vital that you have experience before starting your own business. Otherwise you will stunt your creative growth with all of the other priorities that come along with having your own business.
You will get stuck in an endless loop of making what you know which is very little. Besides working for other people, having an art background of some kind is needed to really be able to compete these days. You want to be well-rounded and many overlook the old-school decorating techniques like proper filling and icing of a cake, piping techniques, and general buttercream design.
Explain the process of creating a cake design from start to finish? What are some of your methods? What do you start with? How do you work? Etc.
For me, that process is a little fly by the seat of my pants. I occasionally don’t know what I’m going to do until I do it. It usually starts with talking to the client either in person or over the phone. Because we are so customized, there is a lot of explaining to do about the cost and quality we offer that others do not. When we figure out their budget and the general theme or style they like we figure out a design. They usually just leave that completely up to me and it is then a complete surprise when they actually see it.
Most clients trust us for that. For the wedding clients, I will do a sketch as part of the process so they can see it before the wedding. For the birthday cakes I sit down five-to-seven days before and roughly sketch something out if needed so I know what kind of decorations I need to make. And for weddings, that sketch is figured out in advance. A few days before the event, I bake the cakes and then fill and frost them. I usually like to finish them up a day before the actual event in case there are any problems that need to be addressed.
I have various methods that I use which I picked up from working with various talented cake designers. Depending on what I want the final outcome to be, I will choose different methods for finishing the cake. For example, I have to decide whether it is best to pipe something on with frosting, or cut it out of fondant and create it that way. Do I paint something or add the color directly to the frosting or fondant?
I tend to work very quickly and fawning over my work is not my style. I am particular but I do not have obsessive compulsive disorder. I had to learn to work very quickly because the environment here in Hawaii is brutal. When I first started, I worked in an incubator kitchen which had no air conditioning. Let’s just say I had to get creative with my techniques and figure out ways to make it work. In fact, my style and what I’m known for in general has ultimately been dictated (shaped) by this. I am now thankful for the struggle in the first three years of our business.
Do people still have trouble accepting cake design as a legitimate art form? I imagine it has become more and more widely accepted, but do people still doubt it?
Yes, I think people have a low expectation of cakes and don’t realize how much work and skill it takes to create what they are asking for. They are purchasing art in the form of cake, not just eggs, butter, flour and milk. I think all of the television shows in the past seven years have made more people aware of the kind of work we do, but they still don’t understand that is costs more than a sheet cake from your grocery store. To some people, it’s just cake. To others it’s a center-piece that everyone can gather around and appreciate as the focal point of the event.
Talk a little bit about your experience in culinary school. What was it like? What are classes like? How much hands-on experience does one get versus classroom lecturing and teaching?
I have to say that if you are going into cake decorating only, then culinary school might not be necessary. You can learn on the job. I found that it surely helps in making everything taste good, but your money might be better spent on art school and apprenticing at various cake shops. Culinary school was great, you learn the basics. But be forewarned though, it does not teach real life. You are in a bubble in school and many think that when they leave, they are chefs.
You have to pay your dues when you get out and you soon find out that you hardly know anything at all. Working in a kitchen is hard, hard, hard work and not like culinary school at all. To survive in a real world kitchen, you must have a passion in food above all to survive. Be prepared to do the worst tasks possible like washing dishes or mopping. That’s what happened to me and many I know. You have to work very hard to get respect from others first. As I said, pay your dues, it will build character.
You seem to have bounced around in your career? Is that common for a cake designer? Why did you move around to so many different shops?
Yes, I have bounced around a lot and in the culinary field in general, that’s normal. You want to get as much experience as possible and learn as many perspectives as possible. Everyone works differently and it’s good to know the different ways to the same end. You want to be able to say, “yes, I can do that,” when a client asks for something and be able to produce it beyond their expectations.
You don’t want to be experimenting on them for the first time. That will hurt your business. I first learned in buttercream and those techniques helped me later to come up with design elements to work into fondant design that others do not do as much.
What made you go into business for yourself? Was it hard at first? Is it still hard?
After working many years for other people, I started having too many of my own ideas. When working for others, you have to design and execute in their style. Over time that can get old. My wife is from Hawaii, where our business is now, and I did my research and found that there was nobody here doing what I wanted to do. There was the possibility of filling a void or gap in the market. We moved to Hawaii and started Cakelava.
It was extremely hard. Words cannot describe how hard it was. First, people here do business differently. The heat and humidity is brutal so supplies are hard to get. Convincing people that what we offered was worth it was difficult and finding a place to work out of was nearly impossible.
Yes, it is still hard. A lot of opportunities have come my way such as television and a cook book. The book, which is scheduled to be released in 2013, was the most difficult of all, even above starting the business. Both of those, as well as the day-to-day operating of the business, are still very hard. I think if it’s not then something is wrong, at least creatively speaking.
What are some of the things people should know before they go into business for themselves? Do you have any advice?
The most important thing to know about owning your own business is be prepared to work harder and longer than ever before as well as feel the most fulfilled. Do not go in unprepared. Do all your research and make sure you can work at the level in which you wish to be viewed by your customers. Wait and get more experience if needed. Never give up or quit, no matter how hard it seems.
Now you teach a class? Is that fun or just something you do for business purposes? How is it different from being the student to being the teacher?
Yes, I’m currently teaching all over the world. I do it to give back. I currently work alone and have no need for employees so I want to give back what was given to me by others. Plus it is fun and I get to travel to exotic places. It was a weird feeling being the teacher.
I mean, I remember when I was the student and thought I would never get there, yet here I am. It is a tremendous responsibility to teach others. I want them to be able to get as much from the experience as possible. You don’t want to fail the student or class.
How hard do you need to promote yourself and your designs in order to make a name for yourself?
This is very important. I’m lucky that my wife handles the marketing. You have to get your name out there. You do this by always doing the best work you can. You can promote your name very easily through social media and a blog. I guess it was hard for us but really that was not my goal. I just wanted to do good work and never waiver in my creative integrity and people just seemed to notice. I feel very lucky that people seem to like what we do.
What advice would you offer to students pursuing an art career of any form?
The best advice I can give is to be true to yourself. Never create in order to please others, that never works. Learn as much as you can from the best. Never give up on your dreams unless you actually stink at it. In that case, be honest with yourself and move on.