Tag Archive | judge

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. 



On August First, a room full of decorators will attempt to become Certified Master Sugar Artists at the ICES Convention in Reno, NV. (If you are not familiar with ICES, please check them out and consider joining – http://www.ices.org). When people see CMSA after my name, they often ask what the letters mean and what it means to be Certified. I thought this was the perfect time for a blog post on all things related to certification.

Let’s start with a definition.
Adj. 1. certifiable – fit to be certified as insane (and treated accordingly)
insane – afflicted with or characteristic of mental derangement; “was declared insane”; “insane laughter”
2. certifiable – capable of being guaranteed or certified; “a certifiable fact”
certified – endorsed authoritatively as having met certain requirements; “a certified public accountant”

Clearly, the second definition is the one we are really using, but I find that people use the first almost as often when speaking of the Certification Program. When I took the test, the program was truly in its infancy and people thought that I had lost my mind to try for my CMSA. After all, wouldn’t I be embarrassed if I didn’t make it? Did I really want to be judged in a live situation? Isn’t it better to do the cakes without being under a time limit? Sometimes people look at the certification cakes and think that the adjudicators must be crazy to give someone CMSA status for those cakes. Sometimes we adjudicators think we must be insane to take on our role and several THOUSAND emails. I will tackle all of this and so much more! Please note that these are my opinions only and that this post is a quick overview of the program. I could not possibly put everything in this blog….well I could, but it would be really LONG! Here’s my cliff notes on Certification:

1. What is involved in becoming certified?

Certification testing only happens at the ICES convention. You can sign up about a year in advance. You must pay a fee and fill out an application form. It is first come, first served – we do not make a judgement call as to whether you are ready. You decide if you are ready. You will have to file a plan by a set date. The adjudicators will review your plan and notify you whether – on its face- the plan meets the minimum requirements.

On test day, you have 8 hours to complete a three tier cake, a single tier cake and a non-cake display piece. There are several dozen techniques divided into four technique levels (1-4) and you must do one from each level. The technique levels are assigned point status the same as the level – a level one is worth one point. You have to do a total of 8 techniques during the test and those techniques have to be worth 21 points. You get to choose the ones you do. You are judged on how well you perform every aspect of that technique, by its traditional standard. You receive a score from 1-10. If you receive lower than an 8 on ANY technique, you cannot be a CMSA. ( You can achieve Certified Sugar Artist, CSA, if you do not score lower than a 7 on ANY technique, but fail to achieve CMSA status).

It isn’t enough to do your chosen techniques well, you have to also cover a cake in fondant, ice a cake smoothly in buttercream, have a clean work process and – perhaps hardest – put together attractive pieces that do not look like you randomly stuck 8 techniques on them. Please understand this isn’t going to look like a major cake show competition piece most of the time…unless you are incredibly fast, that simply isn’t possible!

2. How hard is it to get CMSA?

It isn’t a cakewalk…no pun intended. On any given year, 16-24 people attempt certification. Our lowest year, only two people became certified masters. On our highest, it approaches half. Those numbers might seem daunting, but the scarier number is those that fail to complete the process. Every year, we lose several people during the plan approval process. Every year, by the lunch break on test day, we have several tell us they are so far off track that they will not finish in time. Every year, the conditions in the room are tough and it affects almost every candidate.

You have to remember that you are in a new environment. It might be too hot, too cold, too drafty, too dark, too anything for you that day. Although we warn them not to do this, someone always finds themselves working with a different type of fondant, royal or buttercream icing, often with disastrous results. You could have won every major cake show in the USA or your country, but that doesn’t guarantee you certification. As adjudicators, we have to look at only what you do on test day. We cannot compare your work that day to work you have done in the past. It is just your work done that day!

You are also not judged in comparison to anyone else. The adjudicators do not compare one person’s lace points to another’s…only to the recognized standard. It does not matter who else is taking the test when you are. You only have to do YOUR personal best, in relationship to the standards for the techniques.

The test is hard enough that some people have taken it two to three times before achieving certification. Some have received CSA status, but keep trying again for that elusive CMSA. Does that make them “certifiable”, as in crazy? I think not. I think it shows how very badly they want certification and how incredibly dedicated they are to achieving it.

3. How do I get ready for certification?

First, you need to go to ices.org and download all of the information on the test. Read everything you can get your hands on. As an adjudicator, I find that people often put together plans that show that they have not fully read the handbook. There is nothing as frustrating to an adjudicator as to have to directly quote a rule from the handbook to a candidate who designed a plan that does not meet the rule. The plan must be written with the complete guidance of the handbook. The handbook isn’t perfect and cannot possibly tell the candidate everything, but it tells them so, SO much. Every year, the handbook is revised and tweaked in an effort to make everything as clear as possible.

Second, you need to have an arsenal of skills that you can do at MASTER level. That often means taking classes with the best teachers on the subject. That means that you have to be able to do more than the minimum standard for that technique. A master does more than the minimum. This is not the time for “It’ll do”.

Third, you have to put together an achievable plan. I recommend that you design one that will take seven hours, not eight. You need that cushion because, invariably, something is going to go wrong. For me, it took almost an hour for me to get my extension work strings to stop breaking. If I had made an eight hour plan and lost that hour, I would not have finished the day I tested. I would not have those pretty letters at the end of my name.

Finally, you have to practice. A lot. And then some more. And then again. The adjudicators are surprised at how often we can tell that people did not sufficiently practice. This is especially true for people who work at a leisurely pace. Working against a clock is incredibly difficult if you are not used to it. I will admit that I did not practice my entire plan before I went. But, I worked in a very busy commercial shop and was used to playing “beat the clock”. This could have gone poorly for me and, looking back, I see that I was really lucky and blessed that my lack of practice did not bite me in the butt!

4. Do I really need to be certified?

That is a question that only YOU can answer. For me, it was important. I wanted to be the first from Oklahoma. I knew I was working to become a respected instructor and I felt like those letters gave me validation for that career path. Did I NEED it? No. Do those letters earn me any more money? No. Did achieving a CMSA mean that the cake tv shows wanted me on their shows? No. Did I WANT to be certified? Yes. Do I believe in the program? Absolutely. Do I think that having CMSA after your name will come to mean more as the program progresses? You bet.

5. Who are the adjudicators?

There are two types of adjudicators. When the program started, someone had to be able to decide who passed the test and who did not. The ICES Board approved six Honorary CMSAs. These six ladies carried the program the first year. As people achieved CMSA status, some have moved into the role of adjudicators. The Test Administrator and the Certification Committee Chair for the Board have selected the CMSAs they believe are qualified to adjudicate. Not every CMSA has the background, skill or desire to adjudicate.

Three of the Honorary CMSAs no longer adjudicate. It now takes nine adjudicators to handle the load on test day, so that means that six people are ones who passed the Certification test. There was a working thought that eventually the Honorary CMSAs would not be needed as adjudicators. Whether that happens or not does not matter much to me. I respect ALL the adjudicators and am excited that this year we are starting to train Apprentice Adjudicators – people with CMSA certification who have not judged as much as the current adjudicators. We are hoping to build such a large, talented pool of adjudicators that we could test more people or at more than one time during the year.

The adjudicators travel at their own expense to convention, two days early. They answer hundreds and thousands of emails about the Certification plans. They help edit and write the handbook. They are currently working on an adjudicator’s handbook. They are part coach, cheerleader, counselor, advisor, judge, jury and role model for what it means to be a CMSA. They are often the face of the program. I am honored to be part of this group.

6. When do you find out if you passed?

The announcement is made Saturday night of convention during the awards banquet. No one reads the names of those who fail to achieve certification. First, the Certified Sugar Artists are introduced. Then the Certified Master Sugar Artists take the stage. YOU would know if you did not meet your goal, but ICES will never announce that. No one wants to embarrass anyone. You can fill out a confidentiality agreement and you will be told before the banquet where you tested. You cannot tell anyone or talk to the other candidates about how you did. You are not told how anyone else did.

7. I think I want to take the test. Now what?

Come watch this year’s test! Spectators are allowed and we want you to see what is involved before you take the test.

Email me. I wrote a Girlfriend’s Guide to Certification. I am happy to share it.

Talk to everyone you can find who has taken the test and get their advice. Listen to their information. They may save you from committing a costly error.

8. Applaud those who take the test and honor those who achieve certification on any level.

The people taking the test on Wednesday are brave and deserve our respect for reaching for their goal. This will be a long, tiring day for everyone involved in the certification process. When you see the cakes in the Cake Room…think to yourself -could I do all that in eight hours? The next time it takes you hours to decorate a zebra stripe cake at home, think about people trying to do extension work, plus seven other skills in that amount of time. It is truly impressive that people are able to work under pressure in a foreign environment and be able to create master level work. I am incredibly proud of the candidates and wish them all the best of luck. I hope that some of you will consider going for certification. It won’t be the easiest thing you ever do, but it will be one of the proudest. Are you certifiable?