Shortcuts & Cliff Notes

I was an English major in college and was a voracious reader. They could assign
mr a mountain of books and I would dive right in. I wanted to EXPERIENCE each
story, each plot line, each character. I quickly learned that my reaction was
not uniform. Some folks wanted a good grade, but didn’t want to read the book.
Some folks would buy Cliff Notes and use that to get by. And they mostly did.
Get by.

Recently, my friend Scott Russell posted a query on his Facebook
page asking whether anyone else was bothered by the newer decorators who want a
step by step tutorial on every single cake they attempt. The reactions were
strong. Before Facebook and YouTube became such prolific things, a decorator
trying to figure out how to do something had to take a class or open a book or –
can you imagine….experiment on their own! By and large, the decorators that
you see posting pictures of amazing work are able to create that because they
have experience.

Many jobs require experience before they will hire you.
Anyone can say “I am a cake decorator” and start taking orders. Some customers
might demand that you be experienced, but most probably just assume you know how
to make their cake.

I was at convention and overheard a young decorator
asking one of my friends how to build a structure for a dragon cake with open
wings. My friend had not created a cake like that before and said she would have
to think about it to work out the proper structure. The young decorator said she
would keep asking around because the order was due the next week. My question
is: what on earth was she doing taking an order like that when she had no clue
how to create it? What pushes us as decorators to say “sure, I can make that”
when we really don’t know how to do it? Are we afraid they will think less of

I used to be guilty of this too. I would take orders that scared the dickens out of me. Sometimes I had mentors that I could ask for advice, but
mostly I spent time doing things the right way and the wrong way and gaining
experience. That experience gave me the confidence to turn down orders that I
did not think were realistic for me to do. It allowed me to tell the customer I
wanted to do some research first before committing. That experience also made me
a better decorator. I learned lots of ways NOT to do things. That saved me time
down the road, as I knew not to repeat those mistakes.

In this crazy, fast paced life, we all seem to be looking for a shortcut. We want to be famous
NOW. We want to do cakes like we see on tv NOW. We want to be the best, but we
don’t want to put in the work it takes to get there. You know who I respect?
The people who decide that they are going to keep at something until they master
it. I had a student in a modeling class who was unhappy with the eyes she drew
on her figure. The next day, she came into class and showed me the entire page
of eyes she had drawn working on the process. How cool is that?!!

One of the people on Scott’s page said that someone asked them what would happen if
the mixed two colors of candy melts. The person told the decorator that they
should mix one of each together and SEE what happens! Research and
experimentation are the keys to becoming a stronger, more skilled decorator.
While I strongly believe that we “older” decorators have an obligation to share
and teach, I do not think we help anyone out by handing everything over on a
silver platter. We can start them on the right path or give them some direction,
but we should not be writing step by step tutorials for other people on cake
orders they took. They must accept some responsibility and let go of the cliff

Get dirty. Get messy. Screw up. Fix the cake. Learn. Grow as a
decorator. Experience the learning process. Don’t settle for being a shortcut
decorator. Please note that I am not saying to never ask questions or to never
ask for help…but don’t be afraid to give something a try first before you ask
for help. Enjoy the journey.

12 thoughts on “Shortcuts & Cliff Notes

  1. Ruth, this was a good subject that you chose. I was just asking that question from a decorator who I helped with a cake order for a cake she did not know how to design. I said to her, why are you taking orders for cakes that you can not produce? Her reply was that she did not want her customer to think she could not make the cake and run the chance of losing a client. I assisted her, but I felt that it was all my work and she would not be able to produce another one if she was ask to do it again. Therefore, would I be wrong not to help her next time?????????

  2. This is a great subject, thank you for writing about it. While I have followed many online tutorials and techniques found in books (classes are not available where I live) for the most part I have taught myself by experimenting with cakes. I always try out something new with my family cakes so I gain the experience that way. I love helping people out when they ask for advice but I find it hard when people constantly ask for advice instead of experimenting themselves. Decorating cakes can be so much fun but you need to constantly challenge yourself to keep moving ahead. Thanks again for posting this!

    • I spoke today with the young lady who did the dragon cake. I am so excited to report that she worked out the support system and rocked her cake! She was never one asking for step by steps, only for advice on one aspect of the cake.

      I love that she pushed herself, but obviously had enough experience and perseverance to do the design. It is great to try something new, as long as we are willing to put in the work to achieve it. This is one young decorator who is going to inspire others. And that makes me smile!!

  3. I have 2 comments on this subject. One is that I agree with what you wrote. What I try to do is to learn/perfect a technique THEN try and figure out if there’s any short cuts. The second is that I work with someone who will take orders for stuff she hasn’t done before BUT for the purpose of challanging herself to figure it out which I greatly admire her for. Thank you for the great post.

  4. My favorite mode to be in is R&D! Research and design is an important part of what we do and I think it is the most fun. When I take a class I am there to learn new techniques, not to copy someone else’s cake. Then my mind starts firing away on how I can apply what I just learned and make it my own. My workroom is full of little baubles that I’ve figured out and like. It is a great way to show a client how you can make their project special – something that nobody else has seen before. Often I get an idea, figure it out, and then see a finished cake that someone else has made and done the same thing. At first that dissappointed me. Then I got over myself and realized that I was on the right track if others found that particular design idea attractive. September is for R&D. Making dummies and experimenting with ideas. I hope you have as much fun playing in the sugar as I am. XOXO

  5. My whole cake career is trial and error. While I fret and worry over every hurdle I come upon I know that when it gets tough and I sucessfully get thru it I just learned something very valuable for some time down the way. It will be my new skill or tool in my cake arsenal for the next hurdle, and there will be another one.

  6. I could not agree more. I am a ‘new’ decorator and I have taken a lot of classes, bought a lot of books, driven my engineer husband CRAZY with designs and stayed up late many nights re-doing my messes. I worry that I won’t be able to do what I promised but so far, I have known my limitations and stretched myself. I LOVE the challenge of cake decorating!!

  7. Puritans worry when you say play in the same sentence as work. But, the adventurous play in the sun.
    Thanks for a good article.

  8. Thank you for this post! I’m a new decorator and have been feeling kind of silly spending so much time trying to figure out how to do something only to go online and find someone who’s done it and posted a tutorial. Now that I think about it (after reading this post of yours and slapping my forehead), I realized I’ve learned so much more during that time than just how to do that certain thing. Thanks for the Aha! moment!

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