All young people come to a point in their lives where they must decide on their career and what they want to do with their life. It is far more preferable to make money from a profession one enjoys, but for many, finding such a career is difficult. I believe cake decorating is one that does not go into that list. I see endless possibilities to express oneself and feel motivated for doing something enjoyable while making a living. A coincidence brought me to the pastry kitchen when I was 17. I fell in love from the very first day with the whole concept of pastry in general. With all respect to chefs, I noticed that it was very different from cooking. It was a craft where an artist can perform visual art in greater freedom than many other related professions. Visually, you can only do so much with food, but with cake, the skies the limit!
Pastry art and cake decorating is the combination of artistry, carpentry, architecture, engineering, chemistry, painting, sculpting, and computing. Then of course there’s baking, cooking and more.
Materials used in pastry art are so flexible and versatile that you can create working platforms beyond the kitchen bench. For example, sculptors use clay or stone to perform art. Clay has only one condition of elasticity that all techniques must marry with. The quality of stone carving can be achieved only in one direction which you can chisel out but not add on. Without going too deep with philosophy, let us see what areas you can work on to become a good cake decorator. In this article, I would like to express my thoughts on what it means to be a pastry artist with the hope to help you find a gateway to a new place with a new title…a good cake decorator. There is a great demand for pastry chefs and an even greater demand for pastry artists as there is a significant difference between the two. We all know how to become a pastry chef, and in my opinion, the following issues are critical and worth considering in order to achieve a certain level of knowledge that will lead you to become a good cake decorator.
I’d like to start from the very beginning of the journey where we have to understand and accept that artistry is the most important ingredient of the recipe. Where do we find that? Well, it is in you and you just have to find out how to release it towards your fingertips under the supervision of your brain. Usually, when we meet people for the first time, we tell them our name and follow with what we do for a living or hobby. Sometimes it could be “I’m an engineer”, or it could be “I’m a doctor”, or maybe “I’m a window cleaner”. If we’ve studied or had qualifications we are allowed to add professional or casual titles to our names. Even if you greet people with “I’m a rocket scientist”, they will give you the benefit of the doubt, but if you say “I’m an artist”, often people’s first thought is “Oh yeah, sure!”. It sometimes feels like it is a little arrogant and strange to call yourself an artist because you sort of have to prove it first. It is a title that should be determined by others opinions and not your own. It is kind of similar for pastry chefs, and one must go through quite a few stepping stones to become a pastry artist or a good cake decorator. Basically the following matters are the stepping stones.
2. Enthusiasm (oil)
This is probably one of the most essential needs in all aspects. It lubricates every action and produces all the extra energy needed to complete that last painful part of an exercise. While most would say “no need” or “not necessary”, a person with enthusiasm will say “I will do the most I can”. If you have the willingness to achieve the title of ‘artist’, you must have an ample reservoir of this “oil” inside you.
All art is copied from somewhere or something. The key here is to find the right thing to be copied. If an artist is painting a picture from their imagination, they are still copying from their mind or their imagination. So the whole ‘art’ thing is really, nothing more than copying something. Even the most original idea that we think came from nowhere, probably came from somewhere in our subconscious, which is known to store every single bit of information it has ever come across in our lifetime. So even when we think we aren’t copying, we probably are. Of course, it’s not ok to just plain copy someone else’s work but it’s ok to copy specific elements from different peoples work to make it your own. In other words, be inspired by someone else’s work. Today, with the internet, there is an almost infinite amount of information and material that is accessible to us to draw inspiration from. So put your special cake decorator glasses on and look at the world around you while trying to visualise everything as if it were made out of chocolate, sugar and cake.
4. Personal Development
For me, life is a school, and we learn all the way, to the end of it. You will never graduate from this school unless you want to give up and stop learning and start folding back. You have to develop yourself by filling your memory with as much information about pastry art beyond a teacher’s instructions. See what others do. See what magazines are talking about. What is happening in another part of the world? What is the story behind popular recipes and methods? Find yourself a mentor or two. Which country is famous for what products or designs? Who is well known as a pastry artist? What did they do to achieve that? Can I also do that? Google it. Join the groups. Socialize with like minds. Bring number one and two together to achieve number three of yours.
I strongly believe we were all born with the ability to create things, and every one of us has the artistic ability with different depths inside us. Some of us need to be boosted with additional training. This may not necessarily be pastry art training. Take some training with drawing, painting, modelling etc. Pastry art is visual communication so any skill or ability that helps you communicate an idea visually with your cake decorating is a privilege to have. While you surf the internet ocean of information, trying not to drown, don’t forget that physical books are like little islands that you can step on and rest on. So carefully select and collect some books to create your own little library of knowledge.
Some of us are content with what we do and resist doing it better while some of us are never satisfied with what we do and are constantly challenging ourselves. We must believe the reality of perfection is that we can only get closer to it but can never reach it. So always trying to do so, will always leave us somewhere along the way dissatisfied with our efforts. Every time we try to make something perfect, we will fail because there is simply no answer to what is perfect. Thank God for that! It would be like knowing the exact time of your death. Imagine travelling until you find the wall of infinity, what will you find behind the wall? So if you want to be an artist of any kind, never stop searching for perfection, and find your motivation and voice on this road of discovery.
7. Product Knowledge
I always said to my students, you can be a better driver if you know what is happening mechanically, when you accelerate. Same for us in the kitchen, we can be better pastry chefs if we build a relationship with our recipes and ingredients. We have to know their attitude in different conditions. Let’s think about chocolate as an edible substance. Sometimes it works like clay if you add some glucose in it, and sometimes like a stone which you chisel out, but you can also add on. You can paint with chocolate when you add additional cocoa butter or pour it onto trays in any thickness, and cut it into shapes at the right time that immediately stand vertical. You can pour it in moulds. You can add some alcohol in it to pipe nice curves, and the beauty is you can combine all these into one even using chocolate as glue. What freedom! You can even make moulds out of other pastry substances like gelatine. Different sugar dough and mixtures like pastillage, marzipan and royal icing also offer multiple possibilities in their own attitude. You can only learn these kinds of basics when things happen and if you don’t miss the chance to observe and record. Pastry artists without basic pastry knowledge will struggle somewhere along the way. My best advice is to look at the relationships between ingredients and their optimum ratios in combinations.
There is one worry about the product knowledge which is how we deal with chemicals. I believe the amount of chemicals being used conveniently in the pastry industry, has caused the decline in developing young chefs. I don’t think we can avoid it completely, but we can minimize the use of it and try to learn traditional methods and be proud of it.
Pastry artists must practice in an economical sense and be employer-friendly. It also goes even if you are the boss of yourself. You may not hold your job as a pastry chef if you try to be a pastry artist and take longer to produce a picture frame than the picture itself. A good example; Chinese brush painting is when the artist can draw a goldfish in a matter of seconds but it is still highly recognised as an art. They have developed methods upon methods to be able to do it so well and so quick and they never stop asking the same question… “How can I do it faster and better?”. They must find an answer to this question every time. So, after all cake decorating is a profession that should be sustained with sufficient income and as much as we would like to, we should try not to mix it with an art execution that has no time budget.
9. Computer Literacy
Today’s technology renews itself at a very fast rate. Not only cake decorators but every single profession must keep up with these constant changes in technology. It is important not to miss the train. Become involved with technology to try to find different and more innovative ways to do things to stand out from others. This means photography, graphic design, digital marketing and social media, web design and development, research, spreadsheets and so on. All these things can be tremendously useful for cake decorators and their businesses.
Take some pastry art courses wherever possible. If you are unable to attend any classes due to economic or geographic limitations, there are plenty of online resources that are affordable and accessible to learn from and expand your knowledge. You have to equip yourself with as many individual technical methods as possible. How to temper chocolate, how to whip a cream, how to make a sugar rose, these are just a few of hundreds of individual methods that have been learned with their special points of what makes things good or just okay. The bigger your repertoire, the better cake decorator you will be.
Now it’s time to prove yourself and find out if you are ready to be called a pastry/cake artist. Competitions are the way to go. I competed in five international competitions and have won 15 gold medals, mostly with distinction, and have twice been awarded most outstanding pastry chef and artist. I also ended up judging those competitions, and it was during this time that I learnt the most. After every competition, your perception changes and you want to try it again and again. Each competition has to be taken as a serious project and you have to be a project manager. The main tasks of a project should be chopped into smaller doable steps to be able to properly visualise and organise your available time and create a schedule for executing a detailed plan. This is where you learn self-discipline, or else you will leave everything to the last minute and fail.
If you succeed in all the matters I’ve mentioned, you can be considered a pastry artist who can decorate cakes. If you also develop your artistic skills in parallel to productive professional knowledge, most probably you will be asked to lead others. Being a good leader, starts from the point that you yourself become a mentor for others, and knowing at which point it is time to start teaching and encouraging people with what you have learned.
When you have finished reading this article and you think you are not where you want to be, you have to go back to the day that you first wanted to decorate cakes and start your journey again. Find some answers to the question “what would I do differently?” Exactly at this point your pastry art will start developing. Today, I believe people’s comments that say I am a reasonably good cake decorator, but I have to add something else to that. I also understand the crucial importance of basics. This is all that I have done to be called a pastry ‘artist’ who decorate cakes GOOD.