For those with dreams of becoming a pastry chef, nothing can be sweeter than working in cake decorating. The industry is getting a lot of attention lately thanks to reality television shows like Ace of Cakes and Cake Boss. But it takes hard work and determination to make it in the business of cake decorating, especially for those individuals who decide to open their own bakery.
“Great cake decorators are usually extremely talented, determined, and driven people,” says Colleen Johnson, lead pastry instructor for The International Culinary School at The Art Institute of California — Orange County. “You must love every second of it.”
Ambition and love of the craft are both key ingredients to working in the cake decorating industry. Olivia Dougherty went back to school for her Baking & Pastry diploma after first working in the architectural industry. She says when the construction industry took a turn for the worse she decided to go back to school. She graduated from The Art Institute of California — Sacramento in 2010 and made owning her own cake baking business a reality with Olivia’s Custom Cakes. She says that a passion for cake decorating is a necessity to make it in the industry.
“First of all, do it because you love it and not because you want to be on the Food Network,” Dougherty says. “Having a natural skill for this craft is always a plus and it definitely helps, but these skills can also be learned.”
And that learning should never stop when working in the cake decorating industry, says Leslie Eckert, chef instructor at The International Culinary School at The Art Institute of Tampa.
“Don’t ever stop learning,” Eckert advises. “Don’t get upset because you’ve made a mistake; it’s a great learning point if you make a mistake. I like the mistakes because we learn so much more from them.”
Johnson agrees and suggests that those looking to become a pastry chef can get inspiration from studying other cake decorators, reading books, and taking a good color theory class.
“Practice makes perfect,” she adds. “It’s not something you can do once and it comes out perfectly; it takes hours and hours of practice.”
Cake Decorating Reality
That reality of cake decorating may not always be reflected on the television shows that spotlight the industry. Dougherty says that while she loves shows like Ace of Cakes, they should be viewed as entertainment and not necessarily reality.
“The cake business is not glamorous and most of the cakes created on these shows would not be cost effective for the cake maker or customer,” she points out.
But the shows do bring attention to the cake decorating industry and have helped change the way people view it – both of which, Dougherty says, are good things.
“It’s great to have all this interest in a craft that used to be left to professionals and homemakers,” she says. “Also, customers expect a higher level of cake decorating when purchasing cakes, which I think helps keep the industry on its toes.”
The outrageous decorating shown on cake-industry reality shows is made possible through the use of fondant, which Eckert lists as the definitive trend for cake decorating today. Fondant is a type of icing used to decorate and sculpt the outside of the cake. It can be used to make flowers, figures, bows, ribbons, and other decorations to place on cakes. While it is not known for having a great taste and it can be pricey, there are some benefits to working with fondant.
“Rolled fondant is great for achieving an almost unreal look,” Dougherty explains. “You can make a cake look like it’s not a cake at all; whether it’s an elegant design or a nonconventional novelty cake.”
More traditional icing, such as buttercream, on the other hand is usually more cost effective and tastes good. But Dougherty says it also demands a higher level of skill on the part of the pastry chef.
“There are many ways to decorate a cake with icing and this requires practice and knowledge of cake decorating techniques,” she says. “If done beautifully, icing can showcase a cake decorator’s skills and talent.”
Johnson agrees: “Between the two coverings, buttercream really shows the true designer. It takes a lot of talent to make that buttercream look flawless. Plus, it tastes so much better than fondant!”
Future of Cake Decorating
But Dougherty says she doesn’t see the outrageous fondant design craze continuing for long.
“In the near future, the trend will be going back to more traditional forms of cake decorating,” she predicts. “Elaborate patterns and elegant piping will make a comeback very soon.”