Nina Notaro on winning gold and winning over clients
By Laura Aiken
Nina Notaro laughs a lot. It’s one of the first things you notice as soon as you begin speaking with her. She has an obvious sense of humour about life, but make no mistake – her cakes are serious business. Notaro and her husband, David Latour, own Cake Studio, Winnipeg’s first by-appointment-only bakery. Here, the couple collaborates to deliver a truly one-of-a-kind cake to every client, the vast majority of whom are about to be wed.
“I’m passionate about what I do. I love it and when it stops being fun I’ll stop doing it, but for now, every couple, every client, is a new cake adventure.”
Notaro is the designer and decorator while Latour is the head baker. The duo employs two women; one works days, the other evenings. And sometimes the cakes require the help of an engineer or a welder. Notaro leaves Mars as her imagination’s limit, and the practicality something to get practical about after she has done her sketching (and doorways and freight elevators have been assessed to make sure the cake will make it in). The results speak for themselves: cakes with elements that defy gravity, details of incredible originality and sugar flowers so realistic you kind of want to smell them to check. It is here, in the sugar work, that her life in wedding cakes began.
Notaro grew up with parents in the grocery ownership business, and she owned an ice cream store for 15 years. She had just sold the ice cream store and was in the market for a “what’s next?” when she became fascinated by sugar blowing techniques seen on the Food Network. She asked around for where she could learn, and received recommendations to study at the Louis Riel Arts and Technology Centre’s one-year pastry program.
She was asked to make her first wedding cake in school, and ended up spending two years at the institution as a teacher’s assistant. This gave her time to practice her skills, time that ended up with a big payoff. In 2008, she competed in the IKA Culinary Olympics and International Culinary Exhibition in Germany. She competed as an individual in the wedding cake and pastillage category.
She came home with a gold medal for the wedding cake and a bronze in pastillage (“It broke,” she adds with a rueful laugh).
“It’s a massive show. Countries around the world compete. If you can go, it’s great. If you can come back with a medal, it’s like woo-hoo…now what do I do?”
And thus Cake Studio was born shortly thereafter, in 2009. She says its closed-door, no retail, by appointment model is popular in the U.S., but it was a first for Winnipeg. Her structure of the business has given her a point of differentiation and assisted her workflow.
“I wanted to give our clients a really good sense of being pampered, of ‘this is most important to us and thank you for coming’… It’s kind of like a behind the scenes look into what we do, it’s a little bit different.”
The 1,600 square foot bakery has a showroom where consultations and tastings take place. The bakery is open for couples to see into. No baking is done that hasn’t been sold, and cakes start at a $500 minimum. It’s a custom shop set-up designed to cater to a once-in-a-lifetime event. And she isn’t typically going to ever make the same cake again, which suits her perfectly.
“I’m a one-of-a kind of person. I don’t like doing a bunch of the same thing. I like to do one-off, very unique things, so it’s not boring.”
On the work side, Notaro appreciates that it allows her and the staff time to sit and get in the zone when doing something as detailed as sugar flowers without having to worry about a retail customer coming in to move attention away.
To see her cakes, you have to wonder if there is a fine arts background somewhere in her past. There is no official one, but she was fortunate to receive natural talents that she nurtured.
“My mom always tells the story that as a kid — I don’t think I walked until I was one and a half — I was happy to sit in the crib with crayons and paper. I always drew. I painted; did all the womanly things of yesteryear — knit, crochet, sew, cook. Who knows where it comes from? My mom is pretty crafty.”
From this artist’s eye often comes something that appears pretty precarious. She created a football smashing into a cake that had to be counterweighted to balance the physics of it all. It’s cakes like this that require the insight of an engineer, and when her typical plastic tubing won’t do the trick they have a welder to call who will make just the thing. There’s a tool shop in back where anything structural that doesn’t need to be sent out is created.
Notaro’s creative inspiration can come from anywhere. When it comes to working with clients, she finds couples’ Pinterest boards to be very helpful as a starting point. It’s all about ferreting out the couple’s story.
“It’s getting to know our clients and who they are as couples. What makes them tick…some of the most fun cakes have been just through what the couples have said.”
One of her favourite cakes came about post initial sketches, when she asked how the couple got engaged. The groom proposed in New York City during the intermission of The Phantom of the Opera.
“I’m like, I have the perfect cake! I tore up the sketches and said this is what we need to do, and I did a Phantom of the Opera cake for them. It had the mask, and the rose on the stage, and a lit chandelier; it was gorgeous. Their whole wedding theme became Phantom and it looked amazing. Who knew, right?”
Even though Notaro’s designs are typically unique depictions of the couples’ personalities, trends still play a role in what people are looking for. Fashion is her No. 1 go-to for trend-watching, and the Pantone colours also play a big part.
“We’re still seeing metallic, metallics are huge, but the trend now is going towards warmer tones, like coppery bronze and rose gold.”
She finds that candy mixes added to the buttercream, like Oreo and Skor, are nostalgic and will likely always be popular. She is seeing a trend towards more exotic flavours like lavender, rose, clementine and honey. And of course, boozy cakes are still an in vogue request.
She offers to do the dessert table for her clients as well. Eclairs are huge here, she says. Latour took courses with Barry Callebaut so he can make molded chocolate bonbons in-house. Covered strawberries and cookies are all part of their repertoire, as are family recipe requests, such as the Mexican wedding cookie she once did. It is all part in parcel of delivering something highly personal. It’s why she’s added edible hockey pucks to the back of cakes, and made replica “fur babies” for couples whose pet won’t be joining them on their special day. She relishes the special touches she can add to the cakes that make them a reflection of her clients.
“I don’t have a personal style, I have a standard, and that means that I can emulate anything that’s out there, but it’s going to be to our standard, which is really, really picky.”
A day in the life
Notaro and Latour, partners in business and life, can seem on the serious side showing up to present their cakes in crisp whites.
“It’s part of what we do. People always comment we are always so professional because they see us deliver in our whites and when they see us out, they say ‘you are nothing like that!’ We are a fun couple. Life’s too short. We can be pretty goofy sometimes, like really goofy, but what we do is serious, so there has to be a balance otherwise you go crazy. Weddings are all year, so we don’t have much time off. It’s every weekend.”
She accommodates up to three cakes per wedding date, although if one cake is quite complicated she will avoid booking others on that day. Weddings are often Saturdays, hence Fridays are typically nuts. They have never missed a wedding (touch wood, she says), crediting the pastry chef in her for always thinking of the worst-case scenarios. She always makes extra sugar flowers and packs a kit with emergency tools and fondant if needed, just to be safe. While Notaro admits with a laugh that her housekeeping at home may not be as detail oriented as her approach to cakes, she says she knows what’s important and what’s important is what gets done.
“I won’t allow our work to be thrown out the door because our couples deserve our best, that’s what they’re paying us for. We’ve been entrusted in this really huge part of their day and everyone at the wedding will see it, judge it, and judge us and judge the couple.”
For the love of weddings
A small percentage of the business – perhaps 10 per cent or a bit higher, Notaro estimates – is special occasion cakes. This arose through follow-up requests from existing clients who went on to need cakes for a baby shower and then a first birthday. There’s a little corporate business too, but it’s a small slice of Cake Studio.
“Our main focus is weddings. I love weddings.”
Notaro and Latour try to go back later in the night to assist the venue with moving the cake if needed, but mostly to share in the well wishes.
“Not having children of my own, these couples I see could all be my sons and daughters, so it’s this ‘go out to the world, we wish you well’ and it’s a good feeling.”