My last day of high school was only a little over a year ago, and yet here I am today celebrating another last day.
Today was my last day of classes at the Institute of Culinary Education.
During this program, I have had the opportunity to learn from true masters in this industry like Chef Simon Cass, Chef Penny Stankiewicz, Chef Jeffrey Yoskowitz, and Chef Kathryn Gordon. I have met incredibly talented individuals in both pastry and culinary who I hope to collaborate with one day in the future, and I have proven to myself that while this industry is tough and unforgiving, I still love every minute of it.
However, the most important thing I learned in my journey through this course hasn't been a technique or a recipe–it's been a sentiment a chef shared with me. I'll get to the message at the end...
My final project assignment was a fully decorated three-tier wedding cake. This cake turned out to be one of the most creatively straining cakes I’ve ever constructed. The day before the first design draft was due, I sat hunched over my dining table sketching until 1am. Nothing I drew looked cohesive or interesting and I was desperate to challenge myself and create something dynamic and unique. The prompt was “autumn wedding” and I really wanted to capture the feeling of autumn without designing something that was tacky or childish.
Chef Penny, my chef instructor for my final module and founder of Sugar Couture was the one who taught me my most important lesson. She said something to me that changed my entire outlook on cake designing and art in general: “Creativity is a muscle just like every other muscle in your body. In order for it to get stronger you have to exercise it. You can’t sit around waiting for ‘inspiration’–inspiration isn’t going to strike down upon you every time you’re designing a cake. You have to sit there and struggle through bad ideas until something usable comes around.” My view of art has always been that you were either blessed with a naturally creative mind or you weren’t. I have always resented the fact that ideas never came as easily to me as it seemed to come to my classmates and colleagues.
When Chef Penny said that to me I realized that I wasn’t the only person working in a creative field that doesn’t feel creative all the time–and that was incredibly comforting. The night I had to design this final cake, I very much struggled through the creative process. I sat there for hours googling autumn flowers and leaves, swatching colours, sketching, erasing, and sketching again. It wasn’t until I stumbled across a random stock photo of crushed leaves that I thought to myself–Could I translate this texture to cake? Would it look cool?
Soon after that eureka moment, I stumbled upon acorns laying in the grass at a park. I picked one up and immediately knew that I would somehow incorporate it into my design. I had forced myself to find my inspiration and it had resulted in a beautiful cake I was very proud of.
Of all the things I learned from my months at culinary school, what Chef Penny told me may have been the most important to me. I wanted to pass this message along to anyone who reads this, and any artist who doesn’t always feel creative.
I am sad that we are done, but I am also excited for what’s to come! I wish all of my classmates luck on their externships and future endeavors! I hope to see all of us succeed one day. And a special thank you to ICE for an awesome 100 classes.
I had just come home from class when I realized I had a voicemail. It was from a number I didn’t recognize, and that usually means it’s a potential client.
Well this potential client happened to be Dame Diana Rigg: English actress who was currently in New York performing in the Broadway show My Fair Lady.
What was it like making a cake for someone as iconic as Diana Rigg? I remember the event planner in the voicemail hadn’t referred to her by name but instead told me that he needed four cakes for “a well-known actress’ 80th birthday party.” Like any sane human being, I immediately began searching for all actresses in NYC who were 79 and had birthdays in late July. I asked my boyfriend when he got home and he said, “maybe it’s Meryl Streep!” We then proceeded to look up Meryl Streep’s age and realized we had just insulted Meryl Streep by thinking she was 10 years older than she actually was.
This order was the biggest order I had ever gotten. They were asking for two sheet cakes and two 10” cube cakes all made with vanilla cake, vanilla buttercream, and filled with lemon curd. I knew it was going to be an insane amount of labour and ingredients, and I knew that LEMON CURD was not a very stable building material. The order was placed months before the event, and the weeks leading up to the event were the most panicky weeks of my life. I had spent the past weeks ordering bulk ingredients, doing geometry equations I never thought I’d do again to figure out how much batter was needed, refining and altering my lemon curd recipe, and mentally trying to figure out the best methods for production, structure, and transportation. This cake was a result of tireless planning and ridiculous logistical organization. Every single step we seemed to encounter a problem that needed solving.
The night of production I enlisted the help of my incredible boyfriend and a friend from culinary school. My boyfriend and I hauled several boxes of ingredients that we had been storing in our studio apartment over to the kitchen we’d be working in. The three of us worked non-stop in the small, dimly-lit, hot basement kitchen of a local bakery for almost 10 hours. I had never worked with so much cake batter, buttercream, and damn lemon juice all at once before. Without the help of my boyfriend and my friend I am convinced I couldn’t have pulled this off. They were endlessly helpful.
By the time the cakes were fully baked, the buttercream fully whipped, and the curd fully set, it was time to assemble the four cakes. Each cube cake had 7 layers of cake and 3 layers of structure just to ensure they would both make it to the venue the next day. By 2am, the cakes were done, my feet were tired, my face was sweaty, and I was delirious–but the cakes were fucking done. I had dreamed about this moment since I got the order.
After the delivery, the event planner I had been coordinating with sent me some photos of Diana when the cake was unveiled. Seeing those photos and seeing her smiling face, she made me almost forget about how hard it was to make it happen. I’d do it all over again if I knew it’d make people as happy as it did. And I was unbelievably proud because I had proved to myself that I could handle this industry and this massive order.
That’s what it was like making a cake for Dame Diana Rigg. An unforgettable experience.