Tag Archive | cake competition

I’ll Be The Judge

Lately, I’ve read some complaints about judges at cake shows. It prompted me to ask my friends what made a good judge and what made a bad judge. I received some great comments and thought I would share these thoughts with all of you. 

I should preface by saying that I have judged at or competed at over two dozen cake shows. I have served as Head Judge for one of the largest shows in the U.S.  I am regularly asked to train new judges. I am also serving on a new ICES committee to establish guidelines for certifying judges. 

 
Here are my notes for those who judge or aspire to judge at a cake show:

Judges should know the rules

At a recent show, the cakes had a height restriction. A few of the competitors complied, but others noticeably did not. Surprisingly, the “too tall” cakes were the ones that placed, without mention of the height infraction. Good show directors will provide you with a copy of the rules when you judge. Good judges will read those rules!  

When you find a rule violation, the judge has to decide whether it is so egregious that you must disqualify the entry, or simply lower its placement/score. For me, this depends on the level of the competitor. I am frequently more strict on professionals and masters, but try to give the lower levels a break and just reduce their score. 

If a judge blatantly ignores the rules, it puts a black mark on the entire competition. It makes competitors doubt all the rules. Following the rules is paramount. 

Judges give constructive feedback

This is such a biggie!  “Good job!” gives the decorator no useful advice. Even worse is no comment at all!  As a judge, I try to tell the person something I like, then something they can improve, then end with a positive note. 

Helpful notes can include information on what judges look for:  covering your board, adding a ribbon around the board, evenly piped borders, smooth cake covering, using gumpaste instead of fondant. It is NOT helpful to redesign the person’s cake for them. You must be able to tell them how they could improve their work on their chosen design. 

Rude comments are unforgivable. Judges have not been invited back for comments they leave. Words can hurt and we judges have to be incredibly careful in HOW we say what we say. The last thing we want to do as judges is to discourage someone from playing with sugar. 

Put your preferences aside

This may be the hardest thing for many judges. When we see ourselves reflected in someone’s entry, we react favorably. The key is to not allow your personal preferences to make you score something higher than it might deserve. I can think of two instances when someone I was judging with saw a cake that could have been in their portfolio. Instantly, they both declared that cake first place. I had to work with them to see if it truly deserved first place. 

A judge may hate yellow cakes or gory cakes or whatever personally, but must judge those entries in the work presented, not on how they feel about the design choices. It isn’t always easy. Judges are human and I’m sure we all let our hearts into our evaluations. They key is to be conscious of that influence and to try to minimize it. 

Judges must know a wide variety of techniques 

I believe the best judges are well rounded decorators. If you only do buttercream cakes, it could be hard for you to judge proper royal icing techniques or gumpaste flowers or sculptures. You should keep up with current trends. You should know what a proper version of most techniques looks like. 

It is even better if you, as a judge, have actually worked with a variety of mediums. You will then be better able to troubleshoot and help guide the competitor to a better entry. 

Judges Should Not Be Overly Critical

Feedback is great, unless you become abusive in your words. I have seen judges mark every cake low and justify it because they treat everyone the same. Seriously?  If the judging scale goes to 10, you CANNOT limit the scores you give to a high of 6 or 7 or whatever. 10 does not mean perfect. It means that it is excellently crafted. 

We get that you are the best decorator in the world (in your mind), but you don’t build yourself up by tearing others down. If your judging sheet is a nitpicky list of errors, without also celebrating the things done right, you need to take a step back from judging. You are not helping the contestant with your hypercritical attack of their work. You must be able to find balance in how you both judge and in how you give comments. 

Judges Are Not Just Cheerleaders

Yes, we want to encourage the entrants, but not every cake warrants an 8 or above. This is the flip side of the overly critical judge. If you just tell some one it is beautiful and that they did great, what have they learned?  Even the most incredible pieces of art I have judged have had one or two areas where they could improve. 

Judges owe the contestants their honesty. You must be able to be realistic about the entry and be able to tell the person what is wrong as well as what is right. 

Judges Do Not Rush The Process

Judging is hard work and will kill your back and your feet by the end of the day. Some judges love being known as a judge, but don’t take the time to properly do the job. There is no prize for speed judging. If you are just going to gloss over the process, you should not be judging. 

Judges Do Not Dominate Other Judges

Every now and then, you’ll run into the judge who is loud, opinionated and dominating. They run roughshod over their fellow judges and their opinion is the only one that counts. This is really just another form of bullying. 

When I judge with someone for the first time, I start out asking their opinion for the first few categories, so we get a sense of each other and so that we each get input in the process (for consensus judging shows). Judges need to be willing to listen to their fellow judges and to respect their input. 

Judges Show Up For The Job

If you are tasked with judging, you need to show up on time and ready for the job. Most judges will wear their chef coats, to add an air of professionalism to the process. Judges should not cancel on a show unless their are legitimate reasons. When you agree to judge, you are agreeing to pay your way there, put yourself up at a hotel and to do a job. If you need to teach a class to cover expenses, that is fine…but when your class doesn’t fill, it does not relieve you of your commitment to the show. Finding qualified judges to take your place at the last minute places an unfair burden on the show. 

Judges Pay Attention to Details

Nothing frustrates a show director quite like having to track down a judge who left a score card incomplete. Judges have a duty to make sure that each score sheet is filled out properly. Competitors who find part of their sheet without a score are rightfully upset. Would they have placed higher?  We must always take the time to look over our sheets to make sure that we have filled everything out. 

Judges Help Promote the Show

Cake shows will die without support. As judges, we often have a social media following and can use that to help the show. We can put the information in our newsletters and on our web pages. We can share the event on Facebook. We can encourage people to enter. 

Judges Do Not Enter Categories They Are Judging

Some competitors do not think it is fair for a judge to compete. I personally have no problem with it and have done it many times. In that situation, the show director is notified that I entered and I am not assigned the Master division. Since judging is anonymous, my fellow judges who are assigned the Master category will not know who created what cakes. There is no unfairness to other competitors. 

Often, the judging panel is largely comprised of Masters. If some of them don’t enter, the Master division looks very empty. We need every possible entry for cake shows to thrive. 

Judges Are Available Afterwards To The Competitors 

Some shows have a designated time to meet with the judges. The judges will show up for this “kiss and cry” portion and help explain to a competitor why they received the score they did. Sometimes the competitors may contact the judge after the show. I feel just as strong a duty after the show to help them understand what they did right and how to fix what they did wrong. Numerous competitors have sent me pictures of their entries and asked for critiques, even when I did not judge the show they attended. I think that judges should always stand ready to offer advice in this manner. 

Judges Will Read The Information From The Competitors 

Many shows allow the competitors to write notes for the judges about what they did and how they did it. These notes are often crucial to a better understanding of the entry. I have seen judges dismiss a cake, until I point out the novel approach used by the competitor, as explained in their notes. Just as a competitor should not assume that the judge knows every flower variety, the judge should not assume that they know how something was done. 

So that’s it. Really, it boils down to being a good person. Play nice with the other judges. Be kind, but fair in your comments. Give comments. Do the job you accepted. If you do those things, you will find that you are a good judge. 

Like a Broken Record

With cake shows coming up hard and heavy, I keep feeling like I need to give advice to the entrants. I touch on this in an upcoming article for Edible Artists Magazine (I am a columnist for the next four issues). I wanted to really go into detail about why this is a significant issue in cake competitions.

If you come up with a great design for one tier, it does not become MORE great by doing that same pattern on three more tiers. Let’s look at it from a judging standpoint: on one tier, you have already showed me everything you can show me of that technique. Why add the other tiers? Are you showing the judges something more? (To me, this is a big difference between a cake for a real event and a competition…the customer only sees the pretty tall design, not the fact that one technique was done into the dirt). Simply put, for each new tier added, you should be considering what that tier adds to your competition package. Are you at least doing the same technique in a different pattern? Is there a style or design change that makes it more visually compelling?

I don’t mind when designs alternate on tiers. Even though two tiers repeat on a four tier cake, you are showing two different design and technique elements to your judges. If you plop the same exact mold on every single tier in exactly the same place, what do YOU think you have shown the judges?

The next part of this issue is trickier. Some people get stuck repeating a cake design over and over. Everyone who walks into the cake show knows instantly that it is their work. Perhaps you always do a single tier cake covered in stencil work using metallic colors. Perhaps you always do tall square cakes with hand painting. Perhaps you always do faces/busts. Perhaps you do plain cakes with the same flowers in the same three colors.

I can hear you now, screaming at your computer: “but that’s my signature style!” Yes, yes it is. And that is great for branding yourself for your classes or your bakery. But if you are trying to stretch yourself and challenge yourself as a decorator, you must leave your comfort zone behind. I forced myself to do this at cake shows. I often challenged judges, after they were done judging, to pick out my cake. I knew I had taken my art to a new level when they could not figure out which cake was mine.

Am I asking you to give up on what you do best? Not at all. If you love painting on cakes, change the oversized square into a shorter hexagon cake. How will that panel size challenge you? If you love sculpting faces, try an animal or try a torso this time. Take what you are good at, but push it to the next level. If you always work in a defined color palette, add one new shade or go lighter or bolder. Change it up and you may find yourself inspired in new ways!

I hope you will think about these words. Judging is supposed to be blind and I honestly love it when I have no idea who made a cake. I cannot wait to see what you guys make this year!

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It’s What Inside That Counts

A lot of decorators have been writing me lately as they prepare for upcoming cake shows. Many are doing sculpted cakes and are nervous about what is allowed for competition. I thought it might be nice to give you a judge’s perspective on this category.

I know we aren’t supposed to judge a book by its cover, but in cake, we do. Your sculpted cake will be judged on how well you DECORATED, as these are decorating competitions. Judges will look at how well you covered the cake, the difficulty of the design, your neatness, the difficulty of the techniques you used on it, etc. I often see cakes that excelled on the outside, but they don’t score well because the inside was overlooked.

Use a proper cake
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It seems that people want to use their yummiest cake for the inside, without regard to how that cake holds up. You have to divorce yourself of the thought that people will be eating this cake. They won’t be. It is going to be hanging around for several days to a week, at least. You need to use a firm cake that will not settle. Bronwen Webber always told me she preferred pound cake for this.

One of my mentors, JoEllen Simon, used to compete in major chef competitions. She told me that her team learned to over bake the cake. Make it dry. If a pin was inserted into the cake to ensure it was real, crumbs would come out, but the cake itself was essentially a briquette. You basically bake yourself a dummy cake.

I cannot list the number of shows I have attended where the sculpture started to sink and compress as the show went on. I have seen icing buckle as the sides become lower. Please don’t spend all the time on the outside without first giving yourself a good foundation.

Use proper supports
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For some reason, newer decorators think that they cannot or should not use supports inside the sculpted cake. The exact opposite is true. You MUST have support for the weight of the cake. Gravity will not care that you are at a cake show. You are allowed to use your own supports, a purchased armature or stand or whatever you need to make your cake hold up throughout the event.

One year at a show, a decorator created a dragon and had hired someone to build her armature. Another competitor felt this was unfair. But remember that the judges are only looking at the decorations. If you are allowed to use plates and pillars from Bakery Craft, dowels from Wilton and cake circles from your supply store, then you can certainly use PVC and pipes from Home Depot or Lowes.

For every cake I have seen buckle from using too soft cake, I have seen double that completely collapse or have part of the cake take a nose dive. Headless figure sculptures become the norm when supports are not used. I saw a stacked waffle cake, with NO SUPPORT BOARDS AT ALL UNDER EACH TIER, that fell over and barely missed taking out multiple other entries. If you don’t defend against gravity, it will win every time.

Show your process
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Every sculpted cake category I have judged has asked for three in process photos. Nothing makes a judge sadder than having a stunning entry that they have to disqualify because the competitor did not provide the three photos.

Please, don’t give us photos that show who you are! We are judging blind with regard to names, for ultimate fairness. Don’t give us pictures of you mixing the cake or coloring the icing. We need three phases of the carving. Pic one: the stacked cakes prior to carving. Pic two: the cake, as carved. Pic three: any stage during the icing process. We also like to see your structure, but you don’t have to take a picture of the armature. The people attending the show, however, are always grateful to know how you supported the cake.

Use cake.
This should be a given, but many people want to do the entire piece from Rice Krispie treats. If the rules say cake, then the bulk of your piece must be cake. Some shows will give you a firm percentage that must be cake. You ARE allowed to use Krispies or styrofoam only where necessary to complete the design. Modeling chocolate can also be used where needed.

Size doesn’t matter
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You can do something life size or tiny, it doesn’t matter to the judges. The key is to have all proportions be proper. The larger your cake, the more surface area of decorating you have to get right. Last year, the Best of Show winner at Austin was a small bust of Willie Nelson. The cake was impeccably done.

Don’t be afraid to enter
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You will learn a lot as you create your entry. You will bring joy to the spectators. You will become a better decorator by challenging yourself! I cannot wait to see what you guys create!

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When the Lights Go Out

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Yesterday, the organizers of The Art of The Cake Show announced that, due to low registrations, they were canceling the show. They didn’t just cancel the 2013 show, they canceled it forever. Many of us who have supported this show were heartbroken. Not all shows are created equal. Each has something that sets it apart from the others for me. For Art of the Cake (AotC), it was their “Most Artistic” category.

While they judged the cakes on technical merits like every other show, they wanted to reward someone who designed a cake in a non-traditional way that really showed off the ART in sugar art. Becky Rink and Anna Weisand, organizers of the show, are both well known for being inspiringly creative, out of the box designers. They brought their passion to their show. They brought their love of sugar to the competition and encouraged everyone who entered. They honored traditions of old with their buttercream only live competition and they kept their show on the forefront by bringing in teachers that were not on the “sugar art teaching circuit”.

The people who have been to this show know what a loss this is for the sugar art community. In our current world of “let me tell you what you did wrong” mentality, people wrote them emails telling them how they messed up. Seriously? Who does that? These two fabulous women just had to lay to rest one of their dreams and people take this opportunity to judge them? So wrong and sad.

Yes, there are lots of shows, but there have been for a while. Yes, the economy is tight, but it has been for a while. Yes, cake tv has changed the landscape of sugar art, but that started years ago. The plain and simple truth is that everyone loves to go look at the cakes, but few are willing to bring their cakes. I have written several blogs about why we need to enter cake shows. I still believe it to be true. If no one brings a cake, there is nothing to look at.

People thought this was about low class enrollment (which might have also been true), but the simple fact is that there weren’t enough cake registrations to make the show break even. They offered goody bags and prizes and other incentives to get people to sign up by the date when they HAD to know whether the show was viable. On the last day of registration, there were still bags available, which means that less than 50 people had registered. There were more people planning to enter. For some reason, we cannot seem to register early for things. I wrote about this the other day in my Pot Calling Kettle blog. We cannot procrastinate. Shows, cake classes and events have hard deadlines for when they look to see if the event should take place. With money so tight, organizers cannot take a chance that the numbers will improve. Because sometimes they don’t and the event will take a loss.

Someone wrote me saying that it was too expensive to enter without wanting to win. Fine, want to win. I don’t care what gets you there. Just get there. Think about it this way…if you don’t practice a new technique on a show cake, then you are practicing on your customer. I, for one, think my customer deserves my best. I wanted them to have work that I KNEW I could do. A competition cake was my only chance to stretch and grow as a decorator. It made financial sense for me to build my portfolio by doing competition cakes. It made sense for me to become a better decorator. I consider myself to be a pretty well rounded decorator and I owe that ALL to cake shows and the mentors I met at them. I had to invest in MYSELF and my SKILLS.

I entered shows while working at a grocery store bakery and while running my own bakery. It was not easy. I will not lie to you about that. I would work long days at the bakery, then lock the door and start working on my show cake. The week before a cake show I was incredibly sleep deprived. The hardest time I had, I drove 90 minutes to the show on a Friday night and set up my cake. I drove 90 minutes home, then worked all day Saturday on my weddings. I had a bridal show on Sunday. The second it ended, I drove 90 minutes back to the show to pick up my cakes. I didn’t see any of the show. But I contributed to the show. And, more importantly, I learned new techniques that year. I would never recommend that type of schedule, but want you to understand that I do get it. I had to weigh business against cake shows every time I entered.

There are a number of cake shows on the horizon. Off the top of my head, there are shows in New Jersey, Austin, Colorado, San Diego, Virginia, Kansas City, Manchester, London, Germany….just between now and April. I hope that you will consider attending one. If you sign up for my newsletter, I list all the shows, dates and web links so that you can get more information. What one technique have you been dying to try? What flower have you always wanted to make. What do you wish you had a display of for your customers to see? This is your chance to grow. Just so you know that I will lead by example, I took my AotC refund and used it to register for That Takes The Cake Show in Austin in February. I cannot wait to try something new.

To conclude, please mourn with me the end of an era. The AotC show was a great event. Becky Rink and Anna Weisand were great show organizers. I hope that someday their show will be resurrected, but in the meantime, I want to thank them for great times and great memories.