Are You My Mother?

I just got home from the Austin cake show (That Takes The Cake). One of the coolest parts of it for me were the sheer number of decorators who came up to me and said they entered because of my encouragement. They had read my blogs and realized that cake shows would die without people bringing cakes. One of the biggest questions I get is from people asking me what division they should enter. Are they Adult Advanced? Professional? Beginner?

Judging this weekend, I saw several instances of people entering below their skill level and/or below their professional level. Did they do it out of ignorance? Maybe. Did they do it out of fear that they weren’t really a “professional”? Maybe. Did they do it to win lots of awards? Makes me wonder….. I decided that maybe you guys needed help figuring out your divisions so that people don’t think you “entered down” in order to win.

Here are the divisions from the recent Austin show.

While the shows are similar, each show will have its own particular guidelines and you need to follow those. I want to walk you through reading these divisions so that you understand how to classify yourself.

Adult Beginner
In Austin, this means you have basic skills (think Wilton first class), have been decorating less than 2 years, have taken less than 30 hours of classes. If you exceed any of these three elements, you should probably move up. If you have only decorated six months, but are a natural and able to make cakes with very few flaws, you aren’t really a beginner in my eyes. I would not say that you had just basic decorating skills. For me, that is the most telling part of the qualifications. BASIC skills. If you know in your heart that your skills are beyond the entry level basics, you need to move up.

Adult Intermediate
In Austin, this was for people with developing skills, 2-4 years of experience and and 30-60 hours of instruction. I judged this division. I was surprised at the people who entered this category, even though their skills were clearly beyond the “developing” stage. This is not a category for anyone who owns a bakery business or who makes most of their income from cakes. It is unfair to the people who really do have developing skills if you walk in with your refined skills and sweep the awards. If a doctor entered the science fair against your child, you would be pissed. Well I am the surrogate mother of the new, developing decorators and want them to only compete against others of comparable skills. “But I’ve only been decorating two years” you say. I understand. But the length of time you’ve been a decorator is not the only guideline. You cannot pick just that to focus on.

Developing skills means that you have moved beyond the Wilton yearbooks and are trying your own designs. You might do a thing or two pretty well, but your skills across the board are still developing. You know that you have a lot to learn and are willing to admit it. You look at the cakes in higher categories and study them to figure out how they did things, because that knowledge is just beyond you for now. If you can look at the work in higher divisions and realize that your work is equal or better than that…then it is time to move up.

This is where my “Are you my mother” symbolism comes in. Just like the little bird, you have to walk up to each category and say “is this the type of decorator I truly am”? Pay particular attention to the skill level descriptions and less to the number of years or hours of classes. I know people who have taken boatloads of classes, but still have developing skills. I know someone whose first cake in her life won Best of Show. I know people who are entirely self taught, yet incredibly brilliant. Those of you holding your hand out to a customer for money for your cakes, would you feel good justifying your price by saying that you have basic skills? Or developing skills? You should not “enter down” just to win a prize.

Adult Advanced
In Austin, this was for people with more refined skills, 4-6 years of experience and 60-90 hours of classes. These are folks who are considered good decorators by everyone who sees their work. They still do it for friends and family, not for a paycheck. They have really gotten the hang of several different techniques. At the lower divisions, someone might be a one trick pony…be good at just one aspect of decorating…not these folks.

Let’s also talk about classes. What counts towards your hours? Wilton classes and other beginner level classes taught at supply stores do not count. Online classes like Craftsy do not count. You only need to count classes with recognized teachers. An easy way to figure that out is to look at the ICES Approved Teacher list. That will give you a good starting list.

In Austin, this was for decorators with a high level of skill, who have decorated more than six years, have taken more than 90 hours of classes or who work as a decorator. My very first cake show, I had only taken the three Wilton classes and been at the grocery store bakery for a couple of weeks, but had to enter this level at the Oklahoma Show. Was it fair to make me jump all the other levels? Yes. It truly was. I took money for decorating and that made me a professional. I know my skill level wasn’t that high at that time, but it forced me to work harder to do work befitting that division. If you took money once or twice, I probably wouldn’t move you here, but if you get most of your income from doing cakes, you need to enter this division. I personally think that if you have a Facebook or web page dedicated to the solicitation of cake orders, you are a professional.

In Austin, this was reserved for teachers, authors and people considered experts in the sugar art field. This includes people with more than 120 hours of classes. These decorators are known to have mastered several aspects of sugar art. If you take people’s money as a teacher, we should see you here. I do not include Wilton instructors in this statement, just those teaching advanced sugar art skills. I personally think that if you have a CMSA certification, you need to be in this division. If you have DVDs for sale, this is you. If you sell tutorials online or filmed a Craftsy class, this is you.

I was looking at the Divisions for the upcoming North Texas Show and have to say that I love how they described the divisions. I wish I had seen it before I was almost finished with this blog…but they are awesome. Check them out at They are common sense wordings!

North Texas includes hints for entering. They say that if the category seems like it would be too easy, even though you technically could fit there, then enter the next higher category. If the category seems too hard that you should be in, then enter one lower. You are allowed to move yourself higher at any time. You cannot enter lower than you did prior years.

In the end, you have to do what is right for you. If you aren’t sure, ask the show organizers or someone who regularly judges cake shows. In the end, you have to go with your gut.

I want to end telling you about two seventeen year olds at the Austin show. Tyler Gary entered a spectacular wedding cake in the teen division. Could he have entered a higher category? Yes. With his skill level, he could easily have placed in Adult Advanced or Professional. But he was ALLOWED to enter as a teen and he did. Sidney Galpern, also 17, entered Masters. Why? Because she looked at the categories and knew that it was the right place for her. She teaches internationally. She has her own product lines. She sells DVDs. She is exactly who needs to compete at the master level. The point of this story is that you must look beyond the surface to see where someone really fits. Think about what is fair to you and about what is fair to your competitors.

Wherever you fit, I am glad that you are entering. I cannot begin to tell you how amazing it felt as so many of you came to me at Austin and said you entered because of my encouragement. Together, we are keeping cake shows and the future of sugar art alive!




19 thoughts on “Are You My Mother?

  1. Thanks for the article, It is so hard for me to find a category to fit into when I enter a cake show. I am a pastry chef instructor but have only made 3 fondant cakes so far. This year my cake was the OZ cake in Austin and I entered in Intermediate and got 2nd place but there were over 20 entries. Last year I entered as Beginner because it was my first fondant cake ever and won a 3rd place ribbon. I will enter up again because I do not think it is right to stay in a category after you have won a prize. I have never taken a class except in buttercream work and do not sell cakes. I want to move up each time I enter but I have been scared they will see my work and send me down a level. In some things I am very much a beginner and some things I have more advanced skills. Love love your articles, keep them coming! How you got home from Austin and already wrote out an article is beyond me. Very dedicated !
    Thanks! Bren

    • For your next Cake Show, I recommend challenging yourself by creating a different cake and not entering the (same) cake again. Then when you win that award, it will be more rewarding knowing you challenged yourself and learned new skills and techniques. 🙂

      • I have edited this comment to remove specific names and cake descriptions.

        Each show will have specific rules about whether a cake can be entered if it previously was entered in another show. Some shows ban it. Some allow it with the restriction that the cake not have placed first at the prior show. Some say that the cake has to have been created within the last six months.

        If the show allows it, there is nothing wrong with bringing it. While you lose out on the joy and life lessons of creating a new cake, you do get to have your work evaluated by another set of judges. There is always something to be gained from having fresh eyes on your cake.

  2. Ruth, this is very well said and I think it should be required reading for anybody who enters shows. At the Washington State Sugar Artists Show we have a Judge Advocate who vets each entry to be sure that it is correctly placed both in division ( beginner, intermediate etc) as well as class ( wedding cake, foreign technique, hand molded items, cookies etc.). This system is working very well for us. We also have a program for judges which you must enter and complete, then you serve 3 years as an apprentice where you judge, complete the sheets and comments but your scores do not count. Then and only then are the training wheels taken off and you are sent out on your own. This is partly for the benefit of the people who are judging so that they are confident in their knowledge, but it is also for the benefit of those entering the show so that they know they are getting a judge who will treat them fairly. It is also very nice to be able to have an entry reclassified if you find it is in the wrong spot.
    Every show is different and as said, read the rules. I urge people to print them off, read them, re read them, fill out your paperwork and read them again.
    Thanks for addressing this topic!

  3. Love you, Ruth! I’m looking forward to seeing you in Bossier City!


    Gonna try to get a cake in for the competition between claims and my other cakes!

  4. I really do appreciate the comments and the clarifications. I wish they were that clear in the instructions.
    I wish there would have been a Judge Advocate at the Austin show. I saw several entries I had to scratch my head over in terms of the category they were in. One in particular had me going, “beginner – year, right, and I’m Queen Elizabeth.” Next year, I will have to jump two levels to professional because I will be working in a bakery – it will be a hard jump, but that’s the way it is. I sort of wish there were divisions within the professional category – “just staring and terrified” up to “actually know what they are doing and don’t freak out at every opportunity.”

  5. Just because a business name is on a competition entry does not mean that one is working full time selling cakes nor that they must compete at the professional level. I have been baking cakes to sell for almost four years. During this time, until about 6 months ago, I also held a full-time job, took care of my disabled husband, and ran my household. Of course, I did not sell cakes full time or even part time, that would have been impossible. In the six months of last year, I did not sell a single cake, while I worked on getting a house ready to move in to after losing my job. Does that still mean I have to compete at the professional level? I missed the part about moving up a division when you win in that division, so I entered my cakes incorrectly thinking only about the time I have as a seller and number of class hours I’ve taken. I didn’t place, but I wasn’t disappointed. I knew that next year I’d have to move up a category. When you make the statement about just entering to win ribbons, you might want to address the people who have multiple entries in a category and wind up competing against themselves. Those of us who are doing good to get one piece for a category sometimes might not have an opportunity to win a ribbon against someone who has more than one entry in a category. Keeping that in mind, I swear at the show in Austin I saw something that said a judge could move a piece to the correct place if they felt it was not in the correct place, but I rarely hear of that happening. I love to compete, not for the ribbons, but for the opportunity to push myself outside the box, thinking of cake in a different way, and daring myself to come up with something that hasn’t been done before, or in a good long while. I never compete to win… that takes the fun out of it. I compete to know where I stand amongst my peers, to learn, to evolve into the decorator I want to be. In caking, there is never a place for knowing everything. The field evolves, changes, and morphs. We’ve come a long way since Julia Childs thanks to the talent, fearlessness, and thinking outside the box of those like Nicholas Lodge, Lauren Kitchens, Mike McCarey, Marina Sousa, Duff Goldman, Buddy Valestro, etc. The next generation of cake decorators is left with the knowledge that nothing is impossible when it comes to edible art and the courage to try anything. Im thankful for teachers who share their knowledge and allow me to compete with what they have taught me, even if that means I miss something and compete in the wrong category. My eyes were opened to that this year in an accidental conversation. Now I’m smarter an I was when I entered this year and seriously looking forward to the next level, and wherever that takes me. Thanks for the information though. I hope when you judged you judged fairly and not based on this opinion. That would be a shame, especially since you didn’t know the whole story of those business names that might have been included on entries. As you have said in other posts, walk a mile in my shoes before you judge me.

    • Peggy, we have absolutely no idea if someone is a professional or an amateur when we walk up to a cake. We take it at face value and hope that the person is telling the truth. As a judge, we often have the right to move a piece to a higher category if we feel the work is of a higher level.

      I have rarely moved things up, personally and think that is an adjustment that I need to make in the future.

      I am certain your comments did not and will not influence a judge, because we don’t know who made what cake. We are only looking at them to see what is done well, what is done poorly, how well it should be done for someone of that skill level, etc. obviously, a master is held to a higher standard than a beginner.

      The judges don’t determine the categories. Your show directors do that. If you think they should change the definition of a professional or add a category like semi professional, then you and the other entrants should pitch that idea. Some shows say a professional is someone who sells one or more cakes. Some say a majority of your income should come from selling cakes to be professional. Some say 10 percent of your income. It just depends on the show.

    • Why would you think I didn’t judge fairly? I spend a lot of time trying to educate and to write great notes for people so that they can do better.

    • Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought you only have to move up a division if you won the Best of Division in that division, not if you won in a category in that division. I ask because Peggy is the second person I heard that from recently, so I wanted to clarify I read the rules of the Shows correctly.

      • Hi. It depends on each show. Most move you up if you win Best of Division twice, some if you win Best of Division once. I’m not aware of any that make you move up for winning a first place in a category. One show requires you to move up if you win Best of Show.

        Of course, you could also have to move up if you meet the requirements of the next higher division. For example, one year you enter beginner because that is where you fit. By the time the next show rolls around, if you had taken a lot of hours of instruction, you might find you fit the description of Adult Intermediate or Adult Advanced.

        As I state in my blog, every show is different and you have to read the rules for the one you are attending. If you ever have questions, you want to contact your show directors to get their clarifications of the rules.

  6. I look forward to receiving the judge’s notes almost more than getting a ribbon, the critiques always help me improve my skills. I appreciate the judges taking the time to write them out for us.

  7. I never said you didn’t judge fairly. I said I hoped you didn’t judge with your opinion stated here. I personally love the Austin show. No stress seems to be how they handle the event. I appreciate that more than words can say. Ive never had a problem with the way the divisions were described. I believe they are clear enough for the average person to understand. I also know that the show coordinators are available to answer questions before one even enters their piece, so if one was concerned about where they should enter, one could ask. I believe there were pieces that were misplaced this year. If those contestants went with your advice as written above, they would have definitely been in the wrong places. There were pieces at the professional level that never should have been there and would have been better placed in the beginner level. But if they sold cakes, as you stated above, then they should have competed at the level they were in and well.. lets face it, we don’t all mature at the same rate with our caking abilities. I believe that if you follow the guidelines as they are set and you can honestly say you fit in that level, that’s where you should compete. If you happen to win at that level, you’re going to advance quickly anyway. Im sure the show directors would love to hear your ideas about how they could improve the competition. But I believe the guidelines are just that, guidelines. Shows have rules for a reason. I wasn’t forced to start out in beginners because I had never competed before. BUT I did follow the guidelines for the right place for me to compete and I have continued to observe those guidelines. I do know someone who sells cakes and has taken many many classes and because of that would be forced to compete at a much higher level than her skill level or her comfort level – her words, not mine. Because of that, she does not compete and really has no desire to. I agree that a show coordinator might be able to help in that instance, but then the show runs the risk of previewing every cake before it’s placed on a table. I think that is unnecessary and a task that is too much to be placed on someone who volunteers their time in the first place.

    Just because you educate on something doesn’t make you an expert in the field, it makes you knowledgeable about what worked for you, but not an expert. I always thought your competition ideas were great advice, things I definitely had not thought at one time were important. But then, I don’t compete at your level, so it’s a learning process for me. Im thankful for that information, but it will never top the advice given by the very sweet Earlene Moore – don’t ever compete just to win. I believe there is more to life than winning. Sometimes just being able to come out of a situation with your head held up means more. I will never accuse a judge of being biased or not judging fairly. But when you make the points you did in your original blog post, I have to question how you did judge. Names and business names are on the top of the entry forms that are placed with the competition pieces. I don’t know what you have access to as a judge. But then if you don’t see it, how do you know that some of the contestants had a business and should have competed at a professional level?

    Still, it’s just cake. We all have our opinion.

    • Hi Peggy! The names are folded under and we judges don’t see them. I’ve never seen a judge look.

      I only know that some people should have been in a higher category at some shows because afterwards, when they win at the lower level, someone says “Hey, they should be higher”. As I said, in all the shows I have judged, I’ve only had one entry moved up. It clearly didn’t fit, so I asked the show directors for their opinion. All three of us judging made that request on that cake.

      I promise you that I am far from being an expert. I’ve always said my blog is my opinions. I’ve done a lot right and a lot wrong and try very hard to be honest and informative.

      I honestly think that most people believe they enter the right category and do. I believe in the good of people.

      I also entered to challenge myself and to learn new techniques, new flowers or to learn how to do something better that was my downfall on a prior cake. And sometimes I enter just to get that pretty cake out of my head and into the world.

      I had a lot of folks asking me before each show what category they should enter. I hope that folks take my information in the spirit it is intended. To help people understand what the terms mean that the show organizers use.

      I believe it is an honor and a privilege to serve as a judge and would never take that for granted. I love each of the shows I have attended over the years (which is a ridiculously high number)… I am addicted to the spirit if creativity I see on display each place.

      Thank you for engaging in a conversation. I think it always helps to know how everyone views a show, etc. I look forward to seeing what you and everyone else create down the road… But I won’t know who made it until the awards are announced!

  8. Thank you for allowing me to state my opinion and concerns. I’m not generally to create drama in the cake world. There is too much of that in the real world. I too appreciate what the judges say about my pieces. It is how we grow. I have heard some say that judges are very mean with their feedback. I have never experienced that and I’m thankful for the always constructive feedback. It doesn’t turn me off to cake decorating or competing, and it helps me have the confidence to continue. You did judge my division at the show in Austin. I wasn’t upset with what you wrote, but I don’t know how I could have prevented what you were addressing. I know, I could have asked you at the show, but honestly, there is no cure for someone touching your piece at the show and causing a situation. I can’t blame the show volunteers either, they do their best to keep people behind the line. Even I’ve had to be told to watch where I stood on multiple occasions while trying to see a piece that was just that far out of my site. LOL

    in any event, it’s all good, Ruth. I appreciate your advice and your willingness to be a judge and to educate on competing. Once you compete, you see things with different eyes. I think it’s important. But that’s what works for me and I understand its not everyone’s thing.

  9. Hi Ruth… it was great to see you in Austin. This was a great article. Thanks for taking the time to write it. This subject seems to always be a sticky wicket for most of us. I know I will be moving up to a new division at my next competition.

  10. Great article. There was at least one baker from the Dallas area who entered as a beginner at least year’s OSSAS. She win two awards, but she was no beginner. She owned a bagley and should have been in the professional category. The year before, a winner in the beginner category had worked for a local bakery for two years. To me, that is very frustrating. I see that as one reason why some true beginners don’t enter at all. It is off-putting to know that people are putting themselves lower than they should be and creates am unfair competition. I really think there should be someone who oversees category placement.

  11. Great article. There was at least one baker from the Dallas area who entered as a beginner at last year’s OSSAS. She won two awards, but she was no beginner. She owned a bakery and should have been in the professional category. The year before, a winner in the beginner category had worked for a local bakery for two years. To me, that is very frustrating. I see that as one reason why some true beginners don’t enter at all. It is off-putting to know that people are putting themselves lower than they should be and creates an unfair competition. I really think there should be someone who oversees category placement.

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