Cakespeare in the City: Episode 3 – Celebrities, Chefs and more cakes!

It’s been another few weeks and I’ve had a whole new collection of crazy experiences – crazy good and crazy busy. Which means posting has been a challenge. Throw in a couple of bouts of illness and jetlag from a trip to London and you have one very tired Cakespeare!

As I sit here and reflect, it’s nice to take a moment to really savour all the surreal moments I’ve been having on a daily basis here in New York.

All the while, my own personal Jiminy Cricket sits on my shoulder constantly reminding me that no matter how tired I feel and no matter how challenging it can be to get up at 6am every morning to churn out cake after cake, this is all a huge privilege and luxury and that in the not too distant future, I will have to crash land back to reality and normality. It certainly has been strange living in a bit of a bubble!

A brief aside….

Now I know that I haven’t really talked a lot about my actual cakes or New York experience in the last couple of posts and have neglected to post photos of these up. Even my mother has complained that I don’t tell her enough about my New York experience! So I feel I should explain myself.

We’re nearly up to 1.5 months in the Big Apple and I’m only just starting to feel a lot more settled in a regular routine of a 6am wake up, hopping on the subway to class (all the while thinking I’ve left something important at home which I did this week- my chef pants!), climbing a bajillion stairs up and down subways and at the FCI, manically changing in the morning to mise en place before class starts and then carrying my massloads of equipment and tools down to class like a saddled donkey.

An average day usually means a lot of baking or prepping cakes for decorating before lunch and then we settle into decorating in the afternoon. By the time we’ve had lunch at Family Meals cooked by the FCI Culinary Level 4 students, the afternoons feel very short as we have to have the place cleaned up by 2:30pm and be out of the kitchen. Today was the first day we actully spent the whole day just doing decorating and no mixers came out from the storage room.. It was total bliss and yet crazy hectic in a totally different way!

Classes have become a lot more intense in terms of content covered and the schedule every day is totally manic so there really is a lot less time for me to whip the camera out and snap photographs during class. And my hands are usually covered in some kind of sugar or grease which makes photography difficult. I generally have to cart my cakes home to properly photograph them in my rather dark apartment where lighting is not the best.

So here’s a mini gallery of the cakes I’ve made in the last couple of weeks – they were all fairly straightforward in terms of decorating and it’s not my best work but bear in mind that most of my cakes I’ve done in the past I usually spend 3-4 nights doing whereas these cakes were done in around 1-1.5 hours on average! Maybe 2 hours of solid decorating time at most. So given that, I am actually pretty pleased with the results. They represent the foundations upon which we will be building much larger, more complex cakes as the course steamrolls ahead into Unit 3.

After class each day, it’s usually a brief jog or home to just relax for an hour or so before heading out for dinner or cooking dinner at home. I also hop online to catch up on the days emails, facebook messages and weekend planning to maximise my time in New York. Not checking my emails during the day is in itself is a stark change in reality considering that, back home, I carried a blackberry with me everywhere and would check emails pretty much every 10-15 minutes. With no cell phones for the majority of the day in class, it’s certainly been a nice partial disconnection from the mobile world.

Connecting with the girls in class has also been a really interesting experience with a whole range of talents and personalities to really get familiar with. The environment can sometimes feel like a pressure cooker with high intensity, quick pace (Chef constantly rides us about timing and getting cleaned up on time) and often even small things like waiting to use shared resources can seem to add that much more complexity to the day. What I’ve observed is that there isn’t a single person in our class who is fabulously talented in their own way and every person has a story – I don’t know them all extremely well yet but I’m starting to and bonding with the girls has been a really interesting experience. We unite over a common experience and working in such close quarters every day makes this a very unique and strong bond. Naturally there have been some that I’ve bonded with quicker but we get rotated in terms of teams (pairs) and superteams (fours) every unit which means I’ll get to run the whole gamut of personalities by the time this class is through – more life experience to clock up! I’m also the second oldest person in the class which is a little different for me as I’m used to always being one of the youngest at my day job. None of these girls have worked a corporate job before and most are just starting out and working out what to do with their lives. Whilst I’m never one to feel old, I definitely think that my life experience has helped me to connect with nearly all the girls in the class.

Back to Cakes and Celebrities…

Ok so I’ll now get to the real point which is what I’m sure most of you have been waiting to read about: famous people.

No doubt those of you who follow my facebook page would have realised that I had some encounters with two legends of the pastry world in the last couple of weeks. The first was a demonstration that Ron Ben-Israel did on wedding cakes and silicon moulding (which I’ll talk more about later).

The FCI has a unique student volunteer program where if you’re quick enough, you can usually help out some of the most famous chefs in America or assist at some of the most prestigious culinary events around including the James Beard Awards, even if just for a few fleeting hours. A few weeks ago I was allowed to assist Jacques Torres one week later at his croissant and bomboloni demo which was pretty much AMAZING. Having now been on both sides of the demo experience at the FCI, it was actually more fun to be in the audience but I absolutely loved being behind the scenes and having rare, privileged access to work with a total master for just a brief few hours – every single minute of which I’ll remember for a lifetime!

Jacques Torres can probably be best described as an extremely energetic Frenchman – a real character. He exudes a crazy vibe in every sense of the word – from his quirky  quips to oddly screwball jokes and almost child-like level of energy about even the smallest of things. He literally bounces around everywhere and is constantly on the move and yet with certain small things, he is very precise and concise. For example, when he asked me to lay out some pre-made croissants on a sheet pan to bake, he wanted exactly 4 rows of 5 evenly spaced and the sheet pan had to be landscape, not portrait in orientation.

I arrived at the FCI theatre 1 hour before the demo was to start and no mise en place had been done – I mean nothing. It was a totally different setup in the kitchen and about 1/10th of the size of the kitchen I was used to working in. No organisation whatsoever and I had no idea where to find anything.

Jacques then asked me to make 3 quarts of pastry cream (just under 3L) and asked if I knew how to and even though I nodded the expression on my face must have told him otherwise as he then proceeded to write down all the ingredients for me to run 3 floors up the stairs to get. The best part was the instant nodding and obliging that happens when you mention what you are doing or getting is for Chef Jacques – nearly everyone just clears out of the way or helps out. It was pretty cool. Even when we had to invade the evening pastry class’s oven to bake extra croissants to take home after the demo, Chef Jacques popped his head into the class to see how I was going with the ovens and nearly every head whipped around to say “hi Chef Jacques”. Pretty damn cool.

After numerous trips to the bread kitchen to fetch flour and sugar, checking the ovens and bread prover (which by the way looks like a giant wine fridge and actually just speeds up the gluten formation process in doughs) I then helped to fill around 120 amazing bomboloni (essentially Italian doughnuts filled with pastry cream), I was allowed on occasion to stand behind Jacques during the demo to assist him with cleaning up different implements and bringing him simple things like an egg wash to then glaze the 60 or so pre-made croissants for the audience.

By the time I got home I was pretty much spent. I literally had to sit on the couch for 30 minutes before I could move. My reward? a box full of croissants and a fist bump from Jacques Torres. Oh and he did make special mention of us little oompa loompahs out the back after the demo was done and the audience gave us a nice round of applause to say thanks for our hard work. In two hours we turned out 60 croissants, 80 chocolate croissants and about 120 bomboloni. All in a kitchen the size of my bathroom. After the crowd dissipated, Chef Jacques apologised for making me run around so much but said that I did “really really good – excelent”.  Maybe if I liked baking en masse more I could work for him one day! Pity high volume work is not really my thing…

For my full gallery of pictures at the Chef Jacques demo, click here.

Chef Jurgen, me and Chef Jacques Torres

The Sweet Genius

So Ron Ben-Israel is a famous man now. Mostly in part due to his rather eccentric characterisation as the host of the Food Network show “Sweet Genius” where he is portrayed as a bit of a mad Willy Wonka-esque pastry chef/cake master of a “million dollar cake empire”. I’m not sure the show really does him justice but it apparently just signed a 3rd season and he has garnered a huge following from it.

So much so that Chef Ron commanded a packed house at an unadvertised event and even a small child of one of the Culinary students came along bearing gifts of colourful erasers and an older lady who smuggled a bottles of Everclear alcohol (Aussies read this as up to 95% alcoholic turps) from across the border in New Jersey for mixing with decorative lustre dusts and applying to fondant. This stuff is so strong that it’s illegal in the state of New York.

In what ended up being a 2 hour long demo, I really got to experience Chef Ron at his finest from a dead centre front row seat. There were moments where his strict adherence to his “no talking whilst I am demonstrating because it’s distracting” rule felt a little confronting to watch but overall, it was still a marvel to watch him at work. He exudes a sense of rigour and control which I can only really explain by his background as a ballet dancer which would have been extremely regimented and disciplined. At points we were asked to wait til he was ready for questions and he asked for no talking from the audience a few times whilst he was demonstrating as he found it too distracting. However he is also extremely funny and knows how to make the audience laugh which is probably part of the reason why he’s gained such a big following.

Whilst stacking this cake, Chef Ron asks “Is it straight…? The cake I mean..”

Chef Ron walked through the entire process of a wedding cake from construction to dismantling it for service. There were so many interesting pointers that I took away from the demonstration but in the interests of keeping you awake, I’ve chosen the top 10 most interesting points.

** Non-cake decorators feel free to scroll ahead to the next double asterisked comment!! **

  1. Granite is the best surface to roll fondants and doughs out on. Stainless steel has bumps so it is less preferable.
  2. Ron still uses the old-fashioned technique of using a piece of string to work out how large to roll out fondant to cover a cake
  3. Ron never uses cornstarch to prevent his fondants from sticking to a counter surface – only powdered sugar. And he has a mirror in his bakery to see the back of cakes whilst they are being covered or constructured
  4. Ron uses a mitre box for cutting dowels which can be purchased from craft supply stores – he never uses shears as this can splinter the wood and always sandpapers dowels before inserting into cakes to remove all traces of splinters
  5. The only non-edible materials on Ron’s cakes are ribbon to trim edges of his masonite boards and adheres these with non toxic kids glue
  6. Ron’s paper scissors kept separate to fabric and fondant scissors – each have their own little ribbon!
  7. Ron uses a smoked fish slicer from Bowery to cut the cake because it has no “teeth” like serrated knives and is super sharp
  8. How to cheat if you get cracks! Chef Ron uses a little confectioners buttercream to fill in the cracks
  9. Ron believes all cakes (especially those with buttercream) must be refrigerated and that fondant that sweats is a myth – it only happens if you have a bad fridge or no air conditioning! (I must say I’m not a 100% convinced on this one – in my experience it definitely still gets sticky)
  10. Lastly…. *drumroll*… Satin Ice is apparently now developing a new formula which makes it more resistant to tears and cracks which a lot of people have apparently complained about in the past!

Fundamentals of Silicon Moulding

This is a complex topic which requires a whole post in itself but I’ve just noted the quick points here for the most enthusiastic of decorators and those who wish to compare techniques. Overall, it was exceptionally interesting for me to observe the types of innovation and interesting decorations that Chef Ron has created or discovered himself, whether through walking through a store that sells vintage door handles that make pretty swags for cakes or creating the most amazing hand sculpted replicas of the most intricate brooches from sugar before creating a silicon mould to make identical replicas a hundred times over.

All the complex silicon moulding technique aside, I had to make a mention of this particular point for my teacher in Sydney – (Lorinda!!). For quick jobs, Chef Ron uses amazing mold putty to make moulded decorations because it is FDA approved for food. This is the quick putty of choice for Lorinda too and I loved that he pulled out the same box that I’ve seen her pull out in her class! Just makes me realise that she is definitely world class! This stuff is pretty much as the box says – amazing! It consists of two play-doh like compounds that when mixed together and pressed onto an object takes exactly 3 minutes to react and bond then 20 minutes to cure before becoming a bake-proof, wash-proof and fully food safe non-toxic silicon mould. If you think about all the things you could make from a mould the possibilities are totally endless.

Chef Ron shared tray upon tray of his most interesting moulds with us from some of his past projects.

The best part of Chef Ron’s demo was when he whipped out some pre-made petals and started assembling a black sugar peony right before our eyes whilst he spoke rapidly about sugar flowers. This is really when he was at his “ooh ahh” best. He then pulled out a travel steamer to gloss up the petals and then sprinkled on rainbow dust to give the flower an ethereal and almost eerie feel – the effect was totally, totally stunning. Each petal had been textured with silicon imprint mat and individually wired before being wound tightly with florists tape… it took him a total of 5 minutes to create this amazing flower. Now THAT is sweet geniusness at its best.


** Non-cake decorators feel free to stop scrolling here!! **

Here’s a pic of the final cake:

Testament to his level of rigour and discipline, Chef Ron also dedicated time to explaining how to properly dismantle a cake:


And to top it all off we all got a few slices of cake – a deliciously moist vanilla and chocolate butter cake with peanut butter filling. Talk about YUM – for a hater of buttercream, this stuff was GOOD.

Layers of Chocolate and Vanilla buttercake with peanut butter filling. Yum. (Notice too how thin the fondant is at only 2-3mm).

Me with the man.

A great lady named Dorothy

The average person would probably never have heard of Dorothy Cann Hamilton. But this lady has done so much good in the culinary world, she is pretty much connected to every famous chef known to man in some way or another. As the founder of the French Culinary Institute (now re-branded to the International Culinary Center), Dorothy has been knighted by the French Government for all her work in the culinary arena.

As an international student, I was invited to a cocktail evening at Dorothy’s apartment which allowed us a glimpse of New York from a high rise apartment in the Upper West Side.

She welcomed us as family – recalling during a short speech about how when she was an international student, she found the experience overwhelming without support and that sometimes having family away from home can make the experience abroad that much better. Her goal was really just to let us know we had a family on tap through the FCI and that long after we graduate, we could always return “home”. Sounds cheesy when I write it – much more inspiring when she said it!


Dorothy is also someone who can command a room just by being present and yet make every person feel like they’re her best friend – she is a true master in the art of conversation. I was in awe observing her as she worked the room and gave every individual unique attention. She also had an uncanny ability to remember every one of our names and she never forgets our face. I had a great chat to her about the food scene in Australia and the program I’m in. Since then, she’s been back in our class a few times bringing VIPs through on school tours and each time she stops to say hello and ask how I am, addressing me by my name.  All because I met her once and shared a couple of champagnes with her in her apartment. That’s pretty a special skill.


Just in case you haven’t seen enough celebrities in this blog yet…

Part of the hectic after school planning means I find out about as many culinary events as I can and then try to go. I managed to score a last minute ticket to a sold out event at the DeGustibus Cooking School in Macys Herald Square to see April Bloomfield do her thing. April is best known as a female version of Jamie Oliver in the States, best known for her love of all things porcine and for her three amazing restaurants – the Spotted Pig, The Breslin and The John Dory Oyster Bar.

In fact the first weekend we were in New York, we had already organised a table of ten to share in a whole roasted pig in a 3 hour feasting extravaganzy (my version of a crazy extravaganza):

Here were some of the dishes we were served at the great tasting demonstration:

I don’t eat usually chicken livers but this chicken liver toast was amazing..Sweet and delicious

I make split pea and ham soup a lot but mine never tastes as good as this one!

A filipino rice dish adapted by April – very flavourful and hearty.

April’s banoffee pie with Dulce le Leche made from scratch (ie boiled for 5 hours!)

Me with April

To round off a mammoth blog post, I thought I’d finish off with one last famous face from home.

Testament to the power of the FCI brand, many famous mega-stars walk its corridors on a daily basis. Bumping into Curtis Stone at lunch was pretty special too! ok so maybe my classmate Marcia and I dropped our lunchplates and practically ran down the corridor in our whites to get a photo with him… but I just couldn’t resist sharing this special picture with you all! As the new host of “around the world in 80 plates” on the Bravo channel in the US, his face is plastered pretty much everywhere in the city. I think this guy is probably one of the most successful chefs around having conquered both the US and Australia.

This man requires no captioning..

Until next time…

I will have to stop here and blog about my Carlo’s Bakery experience in my next post on the best bakeries in New York City… I fear that the majority of readers have probably fallen asleep but I had so much to say this week, I really couldn’t contain myself to just one topic!! In my next update, I’ll cover internships, midterm madness week and more cakes of course!!

3 comments

  1. fascinating! When are you back…I’m thinking i need to commission you for my 30th birthday cake!

  2. Hi Amy, I am thrilled to be able to read it all….what an epic in such a short time, feel exhausted just reading it, amazing how you do it all, sheer adrenalin…

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