It’s been a while since my last post and that’s been for a good reason – I’ve been busy learning and developing my skills. Practice, practice and more practice makes, well… better – not perfect. Perfection is probably a little unhealthy to strive for but “becoming better” is always a tangible, achievable goal.
I decided in this month’s post that I would put on my entrepreneurial management consulting-y hat and focus a blog post on innovation and its importance – even in an industry as age-old and perceived to be “old fashioned” as sugarcraft.
I received one of the coolest gifts ever for my last birthday from my best friends – an antique first edition of the Lambeth Method of Cake Decoration and Practical Pastries by Joseph Lambeth. A remarkable book first published in 1936, it holds a court as the grand dame of my bookshelf, perched proudly above more modern publications on the myriad of techniques that make up this world known as sugarcraft. The techniques it covers are nearly 3 times my age and reminds me of just how long the art of cake decoration has been around and even more importantly, the innovations that have happened in the decades that have followed.
Once the realm of grandmothers and elderly ladies who have concentrated on classical techniques, pillared cakes, elaborate piping and antique looking sugar flowers, there have been a myriad of changes since The Lambeth Method was published.
Cakes have evolved from old fashioned elaborate and intricately piped creations…..
…. to thoroughly modern styles that still pay homage to age old techniques…
These days, cake decorators are now wearing multiple hats as handy(wo)men, engineers, architects and sculptors. The use of construction tools are a huge area of innovation in the craft.
In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever had this much in common with my super handy dad in my entire life. Nowadays, you’re more likely to find me in the garage drilling cake boards with him and raiding his tool boxes for any handy artefacts that I might find useful in my own cake studio from scrapers to metal rulers to sandpaper and saws. I have a newfound admiration for the incredible handyman skills dad has – everything from learning which drillbit to use that damages paper covered MDF board the least to which glues to use to best adhere styrofoam together, there is definitely a gap in the market for a cake decorator’s handyman short course! In fact, never felt more comfortable in Bunnings (a hardware store in Oz) in all my life!
On my free weekends, I’m usually stalking the aisles of Kmart for butane gas canisters to refill my blowtorch, discount stores for non-slip mats to secure cakes for transport and haberdashery stores for bedding inlay to dry sugar flowers or outdoor camping stores for fishing tackle boxes to store my cake tools… One day, I will publish a glossary for why I buy such things for the unitiated – but for those of you who make cakes for a living or do it as a serious hobby, I’m sure these tales are not foreign to your own experiences.
Kaysie Lackey, an exceptionally talented cake artist from Seattle Washington came to Sydney recently and reminded me again of just how zany handyman skills can become in the world of cake construction. Everything from foam core board, pine wood and plates to plumbing pvc, washers, nuts, bolts and screws were used in construction one of the most insane cakes I’ve seen. It woke me up to just how far cakes have come and how extreme techniques are becoming to create the most amazing gravity-defying constructions.
I also recently did some incredible freelance work with the legendary Anthea Leonard of Sydney’s original sculpted cake studio, Sweet Art, and on my first day I was asked to use a jigsaw to hack off the legs of a dozen Barbie dolls…. We were making a 175th anniversary cake for a huge gala celebration for the Australian Gas Company and this cake was a monster. The Barbies were to represent the AGL ballerinas used in the ads during the 70s and sawing barbie legs off was closely followed by intense mathematical calculations with another Aussie cake industry legend Jean Michel Raynaud to work out how many miniature model street lamps we could wire into a cake board to light up electronically so the bottom tier of the cake could resemble a proper street sidewalk. This cake was so OTT it had everything – and I mean everything. At nearly 2m tall, each tier represented a different stage of the famous Australian Gas company’s rich history. More importantly, it represented an amazing opportunity to work with some of the industry’s most gifted artists.
I’m proud to say that the Australian sugarcraft industry for cake artists has been a hot bed of innovation and talent for some time. Taking the originally French method of using ganache to fill and cover cakes to create clean a highly stable base for contemporary “sharp edge” cake designs, a number of talented people in the industry here have taken innovation to a whole new level.
Then you have the Americans who are just magnificent in cake construction using carpentryand plumbing equipment to create super stable cake stands for all sorts of interesting and gravity-defying shapes. Take Mike’s Amazing Cakes for example – Mike McCarey is famous in the cake world for making seemingly gravity defying cakes which take novelty work to a whole new level – case in point – this beautiful stag that was created by my friend and amazing decorator Sharon Wee under the tutelage of Mike McCarey himself:
Picture used with permission from Sharon Wee Creations (www.weelovebaking.com).
Like in every other industry I see as a management consultant, innovation is the only way we can move forward and break new ground to make processes and outcomes more efficient, more consistent and more repeatable. As the saying goes, it’s usually borne of necessity however those that take the step forward and put something different and new out there are the ones who move the remainder of the pack forward as a whole. To compete, you can either be a cost leader (ie, discount to make a sale) or differentiate to create competitive advantage – in my mind, innovation is the best way to differentiate.
It also builds respect in an intensely competitive industry where you can not only help yourself but help others to progress their skills and build the reputation of the whole industry. Gone are the days of cake decorators being old nanas in the kitchen (although these ladies were innovators in their own time mind you and deserve a LOT of respect!) – it’s time say welcome to a whole new generation of cake innovators and cake decorators – the ones who will move the craft forward and propel it into a deeply respected and revered art form that very few can master and many will attempt to master!
It’s been a slightly more philosophical post this time – next time I’ll cover more of my usual stuff on cakes. Wedding cake season is coming up again and I hope I can also bring you an exciting international blog post too as I revisit my alma mater in New York and catch up with some old cake buddies there!