The Cardinal Sin of Cake Shows

When you attend a cake show or participate in a live cake challenge, there is only one thing that I think you should never, ever do…yell at the judges and show organizers. Sadly, there has been a flurry of this activity over the years. Why is this the cardinal sin? Because it will rob YOU of your reputation in the cake community.

Many of us will remember the year at the Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show when several competitors unleashed all over the judges from England. The scores were low by American standards, but were completely normal by British standards. People were understandably disappointed when they did not receive the medal they hoped for. Some competitors were even mad. Even that is fine. You are allowed to be angry.

You are NOT allowed to scream and yell at the judges. In public. Making a scene. When I heard about this at the OSSAS that year, I felt so bad for the judges. They paid their way over from England to judge that show. They judged as a favor to the show organizers and for the goodness of the sugar arts. They did not write their comments to anger people; they wrote them to encourage people to make a better cake next time.

I thought that the Oklahoma incident was a one time occurrence, but no. At the Connecticut show in 2010, at least one competitor in the live challenge started blasting the show on Facebook after their team was disqualified for breaking a rule. But the worst incident I have encountered occurred at That Takes The Cake in Austin, TX in 2012.   No less than six competitors and their spouses decided that it was okay to scream and yell at the judges for the Showcake competition. I’m not kidding. Screaming in the faces of the judges, wagging fingers and generally throwing a tantrum worthy of toddlers.

Are you kidding me? When did it become okay to not treat people with respect? Why couldn’t they have approached the judges privately to discuss their questions and issues? When did it become acceptable to act like you are on an episode of Maury Povich? The short answer is that it is not ok.

So, if you disagree with the judges, what do you do? You pull one or more of them aside and ask to speak with them. You calmly explain your issues with the judging. You LISTEN as they explain why your cake received the scores it did. You learn from the experience and take that knowledge with you as you compete in the future.

One competitor at Austin was very upset with her judging, but she made an effort to talk to a couple of the judges to find out why her cake was treated as it was. Her initial anger and upset turned to understanding as she learned how her cake was viewed. She wrote me recently to say that the time she took with the judges gave her back so much…she will be a stronger competitor for having taken the time to respectfully talk to the judges. I have so much respect for her and her attitude!

The people who acted out publicly lost so much credibility in the cake community. My goodness people….cakes come and go, but your reputation matters. You have got to act in a socially responsible manner. If not for your own personal dignity, then for the newbies at the cake show. What message do they receive when people throw a fit? There are children at the show – is that the way to behave in front of them? Does that make people get excited about entering the next show?

Remember also that judges are human. They make mistakes. They are generally volunteers who paid their way to a show and are just trying to do a good job. Judges do not always agree on what is the best cake or how a cake should be scored. They can learn from the competitors, if the competitors take the time to calmly explain what was missed.

I judge a lot of shows. I spend a lot of time on my judging comments to try to help people achieve their personal best. I have made mistakes before and am sure I will again. I have competed for nearly twenty years and have been disappointed in scores before. I took it as a life lesson to help me do better. One year I entered a clematis flower in a clematis category. I chose an unusual variety with 20+ petals. The entry was disqualified because the horticulture judge was not familiar with that variety. Why did I assume the judges would know this variety? No clue. The lesson to me was that under the table where my entry sat, I had a clematis book with that flower on the cover. But I did not leave that out for the judges. I did not write them any information to tell them about the variety. In short, I failed to do my job as a competitor so they could not properly do their job. Big lesson learned.

One final message…it is so hard for me to listen to people say they are “devastated” when they don’t win. Really? Devastated? I was devastated when I was diagnosed with an incurable form of cancer. I was devastated when my parents died. Please remember that it is just a cake. They are not judging you personally, just your work that particular day on that particular cake. Losing doesn’t make you a loser or an inferior decorator. It is just a decorating opportunity to do it even better the next time!


17 thoughts on “The Cardinal Sin of Cake Shows

  1. This is very true and definitely something that needs to be addressed in the cake competition world. People do need to understand that judging cakes is not such a cut and dry thing. A judge sees what they see and it is the competitor’s responsibility to bring things to the judges attention with their written explanations. I tell people all the time that are looking for tips on doing well at competitions that they need to be very detailed and specific in their written explanations. All that aside, it’s never ok to throw a fit. What will it accomplish? I ask my kids all the time what they think whining and throwing a fit at me will accomplish. The answer is always, “absolutely nothing”.

  2. Again Ruth, another well written input on what is really important! People need to look around and see the world & put things in prespective. I have entered cake competition and win or lose, I walk away with a some great ideas and input on how to improve myself and my skills. I hate cry babies! I run so far away from these people who can’t take positive critism. It is so childlish. When I go to a show, I try to keep my mouth shut, open my eyes & ears,& walk away with lots new ideas and a new cake friend or two. Like you said it is ONLY cake!!! Count your blessings, look around you and see what really is important in this short life we get:)

  3. I wholly agree. We all get disappointed, maybe even peeved, when we don’t win after putting in lots of work. But yelling and swearing at judges? When I heard that that had happened, I was so ashamed for our show. I’ve also seen a winner openly accused of cheating on another cake board. That is so not cool.

    It’s totally fair to question rules, to ask why things were judged the way they were, or even disagree with judges. It’s completely unacceptable to publicly throw a fit or accuse a winner of cheating. It’s shameful that some people don’t know the difference.

    Good on you for calling it out.

  4. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!!!!!!!!! after reading this article inspired me to enter a contest in our local area. I have been afraid of what people would think but IthinkI will go for it……………..Thanks again for the inspiration!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. Thank you. Thank you for taking the time to write such a well crafted and true commentary. I believe that if you remove the cake references this could be applied to almost every area of competition these days. I hope that baking and decorating competitions are as sweet as their art but I also hope we can continue to speak out about the behavior across the board. It is never appropriate. Never!

  6. agree with everything you said here. I read Earlene Moore’s information on competing when I first started decorating. Still took me two years to enter my first contest, but I was better prepared for it taking her advice. I compete to push myself to the next level, do cakes I might not get to do otherwise, and to learn. First lesson, how far outside my comfort zone I can push myself. You can’t grow if you continue to do the same old same old. You cannot compete to win. You compete to learn and find your place. The judges feedback is so important no matter if you place or not because it prepares you for the NEXT time. If you are going to give your customers the best you have, how will you know it’s your best unless you continually push yourself. Competing sets the bar for me in my business. If a judge would look and be disappointed, how much would a paying customer be disappointed who may not know any better? We put so much of ourselves into our craft. We have to love it, but if you compete to win, you’re just asking for stress. I have enough stressors in my life without having to stress over cake. It’s supposed to be fun! Keep it that way, take your lumps and move on. I’ve never had a perfect cake, even at competition. I’ve competed two years now. I have placed both times. The ribbons are nice, the recognition wonderful and embarrassing for me, but the fact that I grow each year, the biggest reward. Thanks for writing this Ruth. Just reiterates Earlene’s ideas of competing.

  7. Unfortunately I believe that this is not only a problem with judging cakes, but how the disrespect of people seems to be so prevalent in every aspect of life. Why do people feel that it’s okay to scream at others, etc. I am finding that this also applies to anyone in any competition or any realm of life. Please, people, remember what we should have been taught. “Treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves” Common courtesy seems to have been left by the wayside.

  8. Very well written Ruth. As you stated, cakes come and go but your good name will be with you for the rest of your life (and sometimes beyond). It is important that we all remember to keep our integrity in line. Disappointments will come our way, but we all can learn something. I’m thankful for those whose skills are greater than mine. I want my cakes to be the very best that they can be and I always want to be willing and humble enough to take corrective criticism and grow from it.

  9. Wow! I thought I was the only one who noticed some of this behavior. I have entered many shows, some of my work was my ultimate best (ok so that what I thought) and some not so good. Each cake I have entered has been a learning experience. I find it mind blowing when I hear “my cake was better than the one that actually won”. The cakes we do are art, art is subjective!

    I remember the first wedding cake I entered I was hurt by the comments because I thought they were attacking me. A few years later I can see why the comments were made, they were made to help me improve not attack me. If you enter a competition with the sole purpose of winning then I think you have already lost. You try your best and hope to win. If you do then you are pleasantly surprised and if you don’t then you are not hurt. Thank you for Judging as I know you have left more than a few helpful comments on a few of my cakes.

  10. It goes both ways. At OSSAS last year a judge called a competitor a “Talentless Hack” to her face!! She is NOT talentless and her entry was fantastic! Luckily the contestant was respectful while the judge ripped her apart claiming she had used molds on things that were hand formed and pretty much calling her a liar when she tried to explain how she had done certain techniques. That judge deserves not respect at all!!!

  11. What do you do when you don’t know who the judges are? I have had judges sheets from very helpful suggestions (usually from you and Peggy Tucker) to some that were no more than 4 words on a torn piece of paper. I like to win, who doesn’t but most of all I want to get better. The recent Austin show one comment I got was the top was not as complicated as the bottom, what would have been more complicated? I would have liked some kind of idea or suggestion. I thought it was very detailed, I come to shows for input and a lot of times I leave with no idea of what to work on its just a little deflating.

    • Always feel free to send your cake photo to me and I will help you with input. They may not have wanted to suggest specific techniques. A lot of times, the bottom tiers are elaborate or very well done and then people run out of time or ideas by the top tier.

  12. Very well said Ruth. At the end of the day, cake is just cake. Any constructive criticism you receive will only make you better. If one doesn’t realize that, then they will never be able to move up to the next level in any type of career. To not have respect for someone who has taken the time to really look at your work and give you feedback good or bad is just wrong. Sorry to hear that the judges have to deal with this type of drama.

  13. I’m really sad to hear this happened. I apparently was clueless it did. Lol I was in that division and placed 4th. I was so excited because I hadn’t placed anything the year before and this was a huge challenge. I did it for meme and not about the winning. I was really shocked that Nicholas Lodge took the time to come over to explain to me the judging. I’ve had scores I didn’t like but it just encouraged me to do better.

  14. You are absolutely on point. My theory is that so many people were raised, or raised their kids, with the idea that “everyone” is a winner. No one is allowed to fail anymore. No one gets second place. No wonder people can’t deal with crticism.
    Any questions should always be handled in a courteous, professional manner.

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