By Rob McMahon
By Rob McMahon
Rob McMahon treads carefully, shadowing wedding cake designers.
If one had to build a list of the most careful drivers on the road, wedding cake designers probably wouldn’t make the top five. But transporting a multi-tiered, edible creation in 27-degree weather will make any driver cautious.
“The slowest I’ll ever drive is when I’m delivering cakes,” said Peter Fong, owner of Vancouver’s Ganache Patisserie. “You’re focusing on moving smoothly, with no sudden brakes.”
After years of baking wedding cakes for friends and family in his spare time, Fong started Ganache three years ago. While the bakery offers a range of desserts, the more lucrative wedding cakes are the focus of the business. During the first summer of his business, he sold 25 cakes – by year two, 70, and in his third season, over 110. The bakery now has three full-time employees.
“The industry is huge,” said Fong. “Every year, it seems like more people are getting married.”
While Fong grew up painting and drawing cartoons, his background is in genetics. While studying at the University of British Columbia, Fong baked at home for friends and family.
“After I finished university, I backpacked in Europe, and saw all the pastry shops,” he said. “I came home, and thought why not make a career of what I love to do – bake.”
Kaeko Kanno said she fell into the business – literally. After studying interior design, she looked for a medium to apply her creativity and eye for detail, and began creating wedding cakes 10 years ago for major hotels. While recovering from a skiing accident that temporarily impaired her mobility, Kanno decided to start her own business. Since then she’s been busy, creating up to two wedding cakes a day, and planning to open a storefront bakery, Kreation Artisan Bakery, in April 2007.
Elizabeth Delesalle, who opened Lizzy P’s Cake Boutique three years ago, also came to the industry from another field. A former web designer and marketing professional, Delesalle moved into the baking industry to apply her creative side. She spent time working at Leslie Stowe Fine Foods to experience the industry firsthand, and was amazed with the work of the pastry chefs.
“The sense of style they had – that Martha Stewart style, classic yet modern – really inspired me,” she said. “It was obvious how much fun they were having, and the end result was amazing.”
Once she decided to join the field, Delesalle enrolled at Vancouver Community College while continuing to work at Leslie Stowe. Soon after graduating, she opened her own specialty cake business, which operates from an online storefront. During her busiest times, Delesalle bakes up to three cakes a week at a rented commercial bakery.
“When you’re involved in every step of designing and creating a wedding cake, it’s a different kind of satisfaction [than working for someone else],” said Delesalle. “Everything’s up to you – from pricing and design to baking and display. You have a sense of freedom at every step.”
The life of a wedding cake designer is a busy one. From consultations and designs to cake building and white-knuckled transportation, designers need to balance the challenge of managing a business with customer service, an artistic eye for design and a sweet tooth.
Since most weddings take place on weekends, designers plan their weeks well in advance, splitting their time between consulting, baking, transporting and building cake displays. As well as needing technical skills, wedding cake designers need to be organized. With hundreds of details to remember, and new clients and events cropping up every week, preparation and time management are key.
“I’m a big fan of lists,” said Fong. “A month ahead of every wedding, I’ve got every detail planned out.”
Every cake begins with a consultation, which takes place up to three months before the event. At the consultation, the designer meets with a bridge and groom to discuss their needs, show off a portfolio and talk about cake appearance, finishing and flavours. Clients explore budgets and designs, which could be inspired by a pre-existing cake or created anew. Fong said he enjoys getting to know his clients on a personal level.
“It’s nice talking to the couples and getting to know them,” said Fong. “Some clients come back for anniversaries or birthdays, and I can watch their families grow.”
Customers taste flavours and discuss colours, shapes and textures. Kanno and Delesalle said most of their clients like simple, classic cakes, with the focus on flowers and other design elements. Some people want specific themes. For example, Fong created a cake display that resembled bags from Chanel and Louis Vuitton. Kanno said some of her clients are interested in cakes that resemble famous buildings. A few summers ago, she built a cake version of the Taj Mahal. During these projects, her husband, an architect, draws up cake blueprints for Kanno.
Fong said his clients often seek him out for his custom-designed flavours like dark chocolate with Szechwan pepper mousse. Delesalle focuses on classic flavours – chocolate or carrot cake with cream cheese icing – and insists on top-quality ingredients when choosing chocolate, fresh cream and vanilla. She said finding a perfect recipe is a challenge, and spends a lot of time experimenting and taste-testing different recipes.
“Some clients are focused and know exactly what they want, while others have no clue, so I’ll walk them through the process,” said Fong. “Some people give me freedom to do what I want, so I’ll create a few designs and work from them.”
Once the consultation is over, as early as possible designers prepare pieces of the cake: flowers, blown sugar swans and other decorations. The cake itself is usually baked a few days in advance – or in the case of Fong’s studio, a full week ahead. He’s able to start so early because he flash-freezes the cakes as soon as they leave the oven, which allows them to retain their freshness. Delesalle said that many people are unaware of the amount of preparation time involved in cake design.
“It’s impossible to have the cake set in less time,” she said. “If you try and build a multi-tiered cake the same day it’s baked, it’s too soft. As well, the fillings need to set for another day before they’re ready.”
Transporting the cake is a challenge. Drivers are paranoid whenever they cruise over a speed bump. Fong said planning a route is also challenging, especially if six cakes need to be delivered in one day. He remembered one day when he drove from West Vancouver to the west side of the city, then over to East Vancouver and ended up in Richmond.
“You get to see a lot of the Lower Mainland,” he said with a laugh.
While Delesalle took a course to learn how to pack a fully assembled cake in a crate and transport it to the wedding ready-made, she said she’s too nervous to try that technique. Instead, she inserts a stick of doweling to join two tiers of a cake to stop it from shifting. Fong places unassembled cakes into box, fitting them tight so they won’t slide or tip while he’s driving. While he hasn’t ever had a cake topple, Fong remembers one five-tier stack that shifted during the ride. While the wedding party stood watching, he worked to repair the damage. Kanno remembers a cake started to slide enroute, but managed to fix it before anything happened. She always carries a kit of tools to mend damages.
The cake display is itself a work of art. Designers decorate the finished cake with sugar flowers, piping and touches of icing. The display should balance the cake and the flowers, and must correspond to the cake design, and to the overall theme of the wedding. Fong said he arranges flowers, petals or candles to accentuate the cake.
“For me, wedding cakes are treated like showpieces,” said Fong. “I want to ensure the cake looks the way I want it to look. The way it’s presented is part of what people pay for – I need to make sure it’s exactly the way they want it to look.”
Working in the wedding industry is quite stressful. Emotions run high, with multiple deadlines to meet and unexpected challenges. To offset the stress, Delesalle said she always ensures she has everything planned and ready as far in advance as possible to prepare for any last-minute emergencies.
Despite the pressure, the three designers all said the finished product makes the stress worthwhile.
“There’s a lot of pressure in the wedding business,” said Kanno. “If you can’t deal with stress, it’s a tough business. But once you create a cake successfully, it’s a fantastic feeling.”