Tag Archive | cake decorator

Lines Drawn in the Sand, an open letter to Cakes Decor

My heart is heavy right now and this is a very hard article to write.  An editorial appeared on Cakes Decor recently and has divided my little cake community in ways I never thought possible.  You can read that editorial here.  I am going to address each of the points made in the editorial giving my opinion on them.  And it will be just that:  my opinion.  I also intend to discuss the MANNER of the editorial.

Before I start, I guess I better give my background…just in case you haven’t read the “About Ruth” page or don’t know who I am.  After all, I was told today that I am just a writer and an attorney, not a “real caker.”

I started cake decorating around 1994.  I worked for Quail Plaza IGA, first as a cake decorator, then as the bakery manager.  In 1999, I was named top Bakery Manager in the world for all the IGA’s.  I then opened my bakery.  I started with just me in 400 square feet and it grew to 16 employees in 4000 square feet.  We made hundreds of cakes a week.  I closed my bakery at the end of 2011, to travel and teach advanced cake decorating.  I have made real cakes.  I have baked them.  I have made styrofoam cakes.  I have baked from home, worked for others and run my own commercial shop.  I truly have been in most every bakery/caking situation you can name.  I am a Certified Master Sugar Artist, one of very few in the world today.  I have won a ridiculous number of medals at cake shows.  I have been published in numerous magazines.  I’ve done the tv cake competitions and won.  I’m incredibly far from perfect, but feel like I have sufficient background to talk to you about this editorial.  Oh!  And before someone brings it up, yes, I practiced law for years.  I AM A CAKE DECORATOR.

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To begin, I want to talk about the tenor of the editorial.  This is America.  We have the right to free speech and to express our opinions.  I love that about America.  In law school, we were taught that our rights extended to the end of our fingertips, but not so far as to touch someone else.  And that is paramount.  Yes, we can say whatever we want…SO LONG AS WE DO NO HARM.  For instance, if I walk into a crowded theatre and yell “fire!”, inciting a panic and someone is harmed running out of the theatre, I would be liable for those injuries sustained.  It only makes sense.

In today’s world, cyber bullying has become all too real.  I wrote about it previously in my blog called Unsweetened.  The editor chose to use derogatory labels such as “faker caker” to put down people who do not offer cakes for retail sale.  Apparently, you are only a “REAL” caker if you sell your cakes.  Does this mean that your grandmother is not a real caker because she decorates just for family?  Does this mean that a retired bakery owner is no longer a real caker?  If your state or city prevents you from selling, did you just become a fake decorator?  And how many cakes does it take to be real?  If you get one order a year, are you real?

This happens from time to time in the athletic community.  People will say that you aren’t a real runner if you can’t run a certain time per mile.  Or you aren’t a real triathlete if you haven’t done a full ironman.  In the end, it is just an effort to put someone else down and to raise yourself up.  Here’s the problem with that:  when you try to make someone seem like less, you never ever make yourself look like more.  This is why I belong to several Facebook athletic groups that are inclusive of those #pathetic triathletes or #backofthepack runners.  If you run, you are a runner.  If you decorate cakes, real or styro, you are a cake decorator.  If you decorate cakes for the sheer joy and delight of it and make no money, you are a cake decorator.  If you teach cake decorating skills in person or online, you are a cake decorator.  Please, do not let this editorial make you feel unworthy.  You decorate.  Let’s celebrate that!!

Now to address the fallacies in the article.

Decorating a styrofoam cake is easier.

Sometimes, it IS easier.  Sometimes it is way harder.  The thing is, styrofoam is light and moves around on you.  The edges can be very sharp and tear your fondant.  Generally, I think it takes about the same amount of time to decorate the outside of a real cake vs. a styrofoam cake.  The decorating part is unchanged.  As we always told our customers at my shop who looked at our styrofoam displays…they were styro inside so that they could stay on display without drawing bugs, but every item on the outside was exactly as if we were decorating their cake.  It is true that the styrofoam cakes won’t bulge and are generally pretty stable when stacked.  If you work with the right cake and stacking techniques, the same is true for real cakes.  I have friends that have stacked real cakes 6 and 7 tiers high and driven with them on back country roads in Texas and Louisiana without any problems.

Classes should be taught in real cake.

Sure, when possible.  But it is not always possible.  Let me give some examples.  At many mini class events, they are held at facilities that have in-house food vendors.  Teachers are not allowed to bring in their own cake.  You must purchase cake from the vendor.  Those are often not the type of cakes you would use to carve and create structured cakes.  For that reason, a teacher may choose to use styrofoam.  Sometimes, students fly or drive to take a class.  Taking home a real cake on a plane, or shipping it home, is not always realistic or desired.  The better question is, did the teacher demo or provide info on how to do the project in real cake?  I have first hand knowledge of many teachers who teach structures and know that they do.

A few teachers, including the one who said I wasn’t a real caker,  posted that they only teach with real cake.  That is great!  I’m so glad it is something that you can do where you teach!  My Wilton classes always used real cake.  I am glad I learned with it…at the beginning.  Would I need to have it in real cake now to understand the process?  Probably not, but I’ve been caking for a long time.  If you are newer and NEED to see it done in real cake, then by all means look for those classes!  Read your class descriptions carefully and choose the ones that are right for you.

Designs done in styrofoam are not realistic to be done in real cake.

Didn’t we learn anything when a certain decorator belittled another on his gravity defying cube cake??  She said it was a nice piece of styrofoam, but couldn’t be done in cake…so he cut into his cake and proved her wrong.  I remember when the Topsy Turvy cakes were all the rage.  Colette Peters and Polly Schoonmaker pioneered these and everyone said it couldn’t be done in real cake.  But it could.  And across the country, it was!

I always think of cakes for competitions and photo shoots as your couture runway shows.  This isn’t the ready-to-wear commercial line of cakes…these are the dreams, the fantasies, the desire to explore the ultimate in possibilities.  While it is highly rare that one of those cakes is practical to be recreated for a customer, it is also true that many of our trends arise from them.  There is a difference between commercial cakes and competition cakes…I covered that before in this blog.  I know that sometimes it is hard to explain the difference to a customer, but that is part of your job:  educating your clients.  I had competition cakes in my display window and was always able to design a commercial approach to it for my customers.  That is your creative challenge.  If it simply isn’t possible or feasible for any reason, just be upfront with them.  Your customers deserve your honesty.

The fake cakes aren’t realistic to be done for customers.

You might think this is the same as above, but not really.  The editor said that the class designs were so “wonky” that they weren’t realistic for a customer’s budget.  The editorial implied that people should not take classes for cakes that they can’t turn around and resell.  I addressed the factors that help me decide whether to take a class here.  Many people do not take a class solely to recreate that project for retail sale.  Sometimes, they take class to meet the instructor.  Sometimes, they want to learn the techniques from that class to use on a different project.  Who really cares if a class is realistic for retail sale??  What if it is my child’s dream cake?  Can’t I take that class?  The project, in the end, is just the embodiment of the techniques taught in that class.  Let each student decide if it is right for them.

Cake shows should require all cake designs to be real cake.

The editor probably doesn’t know this, but one show tried that.  Cakes had to be real and you could only spend a limited amount of time working on them.  Awesome.  Then the cakes arrived.  And the work was very limited and commercial looking.  The show organizers were surprised, I think.  Those viewing the cakes were disappointed.  They didn’t want to see the cakes they could get at their local shops and grocery stores; they wanted to see the magical side of our art.

There are shows overseas that require the cake to be real.  There are chef organizations that require real cake.  There are divisions at cake shows for real cake.  If that is what you want to make, then please…enter those!  There are rarely enough sculpted cakes at shows.  If you do enter that division, grab my tips here.  I’ve looked at class projects and thought “I would never make that in a million years!”, but others looked at the same class and saw a project they couldn’t resist.  Who am I to say that they shouldn’t take it?  Often, they don’t recreate THAT project…they take the skills and knowledge gained in class to create something else.  And isn’t that what education is all about??!!

Fake cakes should be labeled as such.

So, this has been the biggie in all the Facebook groups.  Don’t act like it is a real cake if it is a fake one.  I honestly don’t recall anyone trying to mislead the public on this.  I’m not sure I even care.  I can look at a design and determine whether I personally am able to do it in cake or not.  I can’t look at it and determine whether or not YOU can do it.  I’ve seen cakes that seemed almost “too perfect” to be real, but then a slice was cut out of it and my jaw would drop.  There are people with skills far beyond mine.  I’m not threatened by that.  There are people with skills below mine.  I’m not better than them because of that.

I’ve seen work by many highly talented sugar artists and I cannot tell whether it is one of their real cakes or their fake cakes.  Why should they HAVE to tell people one is styrofoam?  What does it matter?  So many cake decorators said they felt better by the editorial because it made them feel ok about their work.  People, I want you to feel better about your work regardless!  You are creating an edible artform and doing it to the best of your ability today!  Don’t stress about whether someone else’s cake edges are sharper or their buttercream is smoother.  If you personally aren’t happy with how something looks, that’s different.  Take a class or practice on a dummy to improve.  No other artist’s work makes yours less.  Your customers, friends and family all love YOU.  They love your cakes.  Don’t be distracted by things outside your business or hobby that have no means to hurt you.

Don’t do fake cakes if you can’t do a real one.

This is where I felt like the editorial really missed the mark.  Are there actually a bunch of cake decorators running around making magnificent fake cakes who don’t know how to make a real cake?  I cannot think of a single one.  Not ONE.  Is there a community of cake artists out there teaching classes but they don’t know how to bake a cake?  Seriously??  No.  I can think of several decorators who work on styrofoam for projects, but also have numerous baking tutorials.  I would trust any of them to make me a cake.

Why was I hurt by this article?

This is a tough industry.  The hours are long and the pay really isn’t great.  As artists, we already second guess ourselves and our work every single day.  We know that when we post our work online, it is being judged by every set of eyes that sees it.  We need to find ways to build a strong, supportive community.  Dividing people into groups, especially with a derogatory term like “FAKER CAKER” is just a means to make someone feel less about themselves.  Why, oh why, would you want to try to hurt someone?  I know when the decorator told me today that I wasn’t a real caker, I was shocked and hurt.  I’m sad for her.  I left her group, so she won’t know that I have a really good background of information and could have been a helpful adviser in that group.

Today, I would like to celebrate all of you who make cakes.  Thank you for keeping this beautiful art form alive.  Thank you for sharing your talents with the world.  Just thank you.  

 

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The Cover Band

Step into a smokey bar somewhere and you’ll find a cover band. They make a living singing songs made famous by others and getting as close as they can.

This encompasses many beginning cake decorators. They are recreating something designed by another artist. There is nothing wrong with this, so long as you are honest with yourself and others. My bakery seemed to create a lot of hits by Anne Heap and Lauren Kitchens. We never, ever acted like it was something we dreamed up.

Every now and then, brides and customers let us work with them on a custom design. On those days, we were closer to being a singer/songwriter. We were sugar art DESIGNERS. We created something different.

To me, people are cake decorators, cake designers,or a combination. Cake DECORATORS recreate cakes from Pinterest, books and the Internet. Cake DESIGNERS sketch and create designs for their customers. Both are sugar artists.

I think many of us are a bit of both. There are some notable exceptions who refuse to do cakes they have not personally designed. While that works for them, I find that the majority of bakeries that do a bit of both are the most profitable.

Are you a cover band or a singer/songwriter? Or are you like me?

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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.