Tuesday, December 1, 2009

cakelava Interviews: Marina Sousa of Just Cake Pt. 1

Marina Sousa of Just Cake based in Capitola, California, was my 7th interviewee in our Interviews from Cakeland series. Rick and I knew when we began our series that Marina would be interviewed. She is unquestionably one of the top cake designers working today and we have one of those six degrees of separation type connections to Marina. Marina and Rick at one point in their career both worked for Elin Katz at Rosebud Cakes in Beverly Hills. My interview was arranged with Marina over a year ago, shortly before her mother passed away and we decided it would be best to postpone it so she could focus on personal matters. When we were ready to resume the interview, Marina had just completed one of the most amazing experiences of her career -- a cake challenge and appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show! Add this to her long list of career accomplishments, which include among other things, a Food Network Challenge "resume" which boasts 4 Gold medals as a competitor, a judge on the "Cartoon Cakes" Challenge and an assistant to Just Cake's Dawn Nemec on the "Haunted Gingerbread" Challenge also resulting in a Gold medal. Marina's exquisite designs have appeared in numerous national publications, including Bride's, The Knot, American Cake Decorating, Instyle Weddings and many others, and she was also a participant in NYC's Cakewalk at Grand Central Station.

Marina is a Superstar, no question about it, and not just because she is so skilled in her craft. She is a warm, generous person who wants nothing but to bring out the best in others. Since we started cakelava, Marina has regularly checked in with us to encourage Rick and lend her support of his endeavors. She has been a mentor to many up and coming designers both within her company and in the classes she has started teaching, and she gives a FANTASTIC interview! Rick and I are excited, and honored, to share this spectacular, wonderful talent of an artist that is Marina Sousa!

Sasha Reichart: I read that you grew up on the Central Coast of California and then moved to Los Angeles. What brought you to L.A.?

Marina Sousa: After I graduated high school I went to college in San Francisco. I ended up moving to LA on the heels of ending a relationship, simply because I just always wanted to live in LA! No real reason, just someplace I always knew I’d live. I decided to take a few classes at a community college just to meet people mainly. The first class I took was “Introduction to Theatre” and I was in love! I got involved in everything from set and costume design to stage management. Ultimately I went on to the California Institute of the Arts and got my second degree in Theatrical Production Management. I did the entertainment industry thing for a few years after graduating before stumbling into cakes. I loved LA while I was there but you couldn’t get me to go back now! I live in one of the most beautiful places on earth and am lucky that a lot of other people think so too and decide to get married here! ☺

Sasha Reichart: How did your career in cake design begin and at what point did you know that you wanted to open your own business?

Marina Sousa: I really fell into cake design- it was never on my list of things to do! I took one Wilton class when I was in the 5th grade and got pretty good at doing those star tip cakes. Perfected the 3D teddy bear but honestly that’s where it ended! I had been working in the entertainment industry and left a job I was unhappy with. I was trying to figure out what my next move was going to be. The best way I know to describe what happened next is that a twist of fate landed me on the doorstep of Rosebud Cakes in Beverly Hills. The rest is history!

I knew within months of starting there that I wanted to open my own business someday. I stayed there for two years before I decided to go to culinary school (CIA in Napa Valley). Because of the way I back ended into the business I felt like I needed some sort of culinary foundation knowing that baking is much more of a science than cooking is. I like to cook but I’m the kind of cook that never makes something the same way twice! Not the best quality in a baker!

SR: Tell us about the opening of your business. What year did you open Just Cake?

MS: I opened Just Cake in January of 2003. After I graduated from CIA I went back to LA with every intention of starting my business there. I lasted about a week before the traffic alone made me want to jump out of my skin! I decided to go home for the summer and stay with my grandmother who had just had knee replacement surgery. Summer turned into Fall and I still didn’t know what I wanted to do. My Mom encouraged me to make a few display cakes just to see what type of response I’d get. I really wasn’t convinced that there was a market for high-end cakes in the area. I reluctantly agreed and started my business from the kitchen of my old catholic elementary school. I did seven display cakes, took them to a bridal show and had 37 phone calls the next day.

SR: Parents are wonderfully encouraging in that way. It sounds like the area was just waiting for a talent like you to come along. With a name like “Just Cake” the assumption is you do not offer any other type of pastries. Is this true and has it always been that way?

MS: Yep… just cake! I do make cupcakes and cookies as favors but otherwise it’s literally just cake. That’s one of the reasons why I named the business “Just Cake” but the main reason was a reaction to my experiences in Beverly Hills.

I can’t even count the number of times brides and their mothers or future mother in laws would come in to choose a cake and end up leaving in a huff! I once had a mother once walk back in after a consultation and try and give me a hundred dollar bill to do the cake she wanted as opposed to the one her daughter had just insisted upon. Day after day I remember sitting there with these people not understanding how they could manage to turn something as happy as cake into something to fight about? I’d be thinking to myself “it’s just cake people!” So “Just Cake” is really more than a name to me, it’s a mantra.

SR: That is fantastic, and hilarious! Rick has mentioned the same thing about the mothers of the brides in Beverly Hills. Did you find that your experiences in visual merchandising and the entertainment industry gave you an artistic advantage when designing cakes?

MS: Definitely! I feel like I have a whole different set of tools to bring to the table. What we do is art – and for every art form there are specific tools and techniques that are associated with it. I love to find ways to transfer those techniques and tools to cake. I also find it really valuable to be able to look at a project through different perspectives. My path was not a straight one, but I honestly can’t imagine getting to where I am today any other way.

SR: We couldn't agree more. I noticed you work in both buttercream and fondant icings. Do you have a preference of one over the other?

MS: Not really. I probably do more buttercream cakes simply because people tend to prefer the taste. I honestly don’t have a preference. They both have their place. I think it’s important as a designer to be able to do both well.

SR: Absolutely! Why limit yourself, or your clients, to one type of icing. What is the most unusual cake request, either wedding or celebration, that you’ve ever received?

MS: I finally have an answer to this question!!! It’s one I’m always asked and I’ve never had a great answer! This last July a friend got married and her fiancĂ© asked me to make his grooms cake. Apparently his father had long told the children of the family about a creature that resided in the backyards of homes in New Orleans that came out after dusk – the “bull-a-gator”. It was one of those stories that had been passed down over the years to keep the kids out of the swamplands after dark and was now family lore. He asked me to make one as his groom’s cake – the only thing was that no one had ever seen the fabled “bull-a-gator”… so we got to make it up! It ended up being the body of an alligator, with the typical elongated snout that was blunted by a typical bulls nose with a gold ring through it. We replaced the feet with bull’s feet and added horns. Completely strange and random but it meant the world to his family, which is always the desired result of any design.

SR: A "bull-a-gator." I would love to see that. This is strictly just an observation, and I could be completely wrong but I noticed that more than half of your flavors involve chocolate. *smile* Are you a chocoholic? What is your most popular flavor?

MS: Honestly I’m not! I think there ended up being that many because I felt like I needed to break it up for the sake of the menu! I’m not a big cake eater myself (I much prefer cookies or pie!)

As far as popularity goes… red velvet is still a big hit as well as the meyer lemon with lemon mousse and olliaberry. In the chocolate category, the mint cookies and cream filling with chocolate ganache is always a winner. We end up making all our flavors all the time though, it always boils down to personal preference.

SR: Let’s discuss something everyone is dying to know about – Oprah! Tell us about your recent appearance on The Oprah Show. When they called you, did you scream or drop the phone, forget to breathe, anything like that?

MS: It was late on a Thursday afternoon and I had just run out to pick up some lunch and had left my cell phone at the kitchen, which I am never without… I got back to find 14 missed phone calls! Initially the call was simply – “are you interested, and do you think you can manage to be in Chicago a week from today with the best cake you’ve ever made in your entire life”. Ummm… sure? How do you say no to Oprah??? They called back within 24 hours to let me know it was a go. I was delivering the first two of my 10 cakes for the week when she called so I didn’t have tons of time to react. I immediately went into “how the hell am I going to pull this off mode”.

SR: No kidding, how can you say no to Oprah? Knowing the television industry, I’m guessing they didn’t give you much notice. Is this something you can share with us? How much time did you have to work on the concept and design the cake before having to fly off to Chicago?

MS: I got confirmation late Friday afternoon and was on a plane to Chicago Wednesday morning. I had to spend all of Saturday delivering the rest of my cakes so literally had just 3 full days- Sunday, Monday and Tuesday to pull it together before we were off to Chicago.

SR: Oh my goodness, a whirlwind schedule! Your cake was exquisite! Rick and I were stunned when we saw the cake being revealed. Truly amazing work! How did you come up with the cake design? You weren’t just designing a cake, you were making a cake for Oprah!

MS: Thank you.

MS: My initial design idea was based on words of Oprahs that had inspired me over the years. One of my first memories of her show was hearing her use the phrase “words are powerful”. For whatever reason that had always stuck with me and I’ve been inspired by words in a lot of my designs. It was from that point that I started thinking and it evolved from there.

When I’m designing for “Challenge” I like to give myself several days to just think about the possibilities before I even start to sketch- obviously I didn’t have that luxury with this project. Time was the enemy! I honestly designed it mentally while driving (delivering the 10 cakes!). By Saturday night I had a pretty decent idea of what I wanted to do and sat at a friends baby shower sketching as she opened her presents. I had enough of an idea to go on that I started thinking logistically about how I would structure it and that’s where I was getting hung up. I really wanted to have the “O” in the center of the cake spinning- not on top – but in order to do that I needed to design it in such a way that the top could be supported independently from the base. It was while driving back down the coast on Hwy 1 from Half Moon Bay after delivering my last cake on Sunday morning that I had the idea to suspend the top of the cake from the ceiling. I had to wait about 30 minutes before I got back into cell phone range to call the producer to see if that was a possibility. It was in that call that I got my first taste of “nothing is impossible in Oprah’s world”. It was a yes and from that point on everything just kind of fell into place.

Sunday afternoon James Roselle arrived to save the day. I had called him on Friday shortly after getting word that it was a go. We actually already had plans to get together Sunday on his way back from Napa where he was heading to do a friends wedding cake for the weekend. I was in panic mode and I honestly don’t recall if I asked or he offered to come help –I think it was somewhere in between! By the time he arrived I just had a pretty rough sketch and threw all of my ideas at him. Thankfully he didn’t think I was completely nuts and totally helped me fill in the blanks over dinner and a couple drinks. From there we headed out to Home Depot and a handful of other stores gathering up our goods. We were up most of the night making lists and finalizing the design. Monday morning we both spend a couple hours on the phone ordering things and dealing with travel arrangements before the producer from Harpo arrived for our pre-show shoot. We spend a few hours with him before James hit the road back to LA to start the flower factory!

I called in every favor and friend I had to run errands, weld things together & paint! The next 48 hours were pure orchestrated chaos. Somehow we pulled it all together and were all packed up and headed to SFO early Wednesday. We had all the parts with us but the real work was yet to come…

SR: Wow, I'm exhausted just hearing about it! The cake looked like it was 10 feet tall with hundreds of handcrafted flowers. If we were to discuss your Oprah cake “by the numbers”, what would it look like in terms of hours spent, flowers created, and height of the cake?

MS: It was 10 feet tall! I had expected it to be about 9 but when all was said and done it did hit the 10 foot mark. The production team actually had to cut down the base they had created for us because the cake was much taller than the wall they had built to go behind it. Originally they had a 24” high base and had to cut it down to 6” to simply get it to fit within the frame.

So by the numbers… I’d say there were about 800 handmade flowers, thousands of handmade and hand strung, sugar beads coated in disco dust, & thousands of sugar pearls applied with tweezers as borders and accents. There were several dozen homemade caramel apple truffles on 8 hand crafted “O” shaped plates arranged around the base of the cake along with 50 white chocolate “O”’s that we made from a custom mold and covered in disco dust. There were a dozen “Oprah-isms” on chocolate dough plaques around the base tier. We used close to 100 pounds of fondant and 20 pounds of white chocolate. Well over 200 man-hours went into its creation!

SR: Those are some serious numbers. Thank you for sharing that with me. What are the components of your cake that would be well-suited for Oprah and did it extend to the flavor of the cake as well? What flavor was the cake?

MS: They ended up not having a tasting component so the cake that you saw on stage was all basic butter vanilla cake (without any filling since it would be more stable that way!) I did however bring some tasting cakes with me and boxed them up for Oprah, her producers and production team. I believe they were the red velvet with toasted pecans and cream cheese and the meyer lemon with lemon mousse and olliaberry. They liked them enough that a producer called me the following week and asked me if I could ship them more tasting boxes to send to the Chicago Bull’s announcer (who announced our intros) as a thank you!

SR: We know you had assistance on this fabulous piece of art. Tell us about your team of designers and how did you select them?

MS: What you saw on stage was truly a collaborative effort. I simply couldn’t have pulled it off on my own- especially in that amount of time.

As I mentioned I had the extraordinary James Roselle, as well as my long time baker, Danielle Clark. Additionally my friend Janelle Paige flew in from LA. We had worked together at Rosebud and she really taught me the cake decorating ropes!

My friend and partner from culinary school, Daniel Mangione, made the incredible truffles! He is currently the pastry chef at the Ritz Carlton Half Moon Bay. He made lots of extras which was perfect since I got to use them as currency with the production team! It’s amazing what people will do for chocolate!

Before getting to Chicago I had so many friends helping me out… Jodee & Dave, Bonnie & Steve, Marie & John. And then there were a few ladies (some that I barely even knew!) who chipped in and made countless sugar beads for me… Julie, Jamie and Diane.

My sister Ronda and Aunt Carolyn both flew to Chicago to be in the audience along with my good friends, Michelle & Jim. They were all put to work upon their arrival. Ronda spent 15 hours at the studio with us stringing beads!

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the absolutely fantastic, above and beyond wonderful production team at Harpo Studios. Literally every single person we encountered was AMAZING! They don’t know the meaning of the word no – everything I even thought about needing was done before I had to ask. It was truly a “production Disneyland”. Our producer, Kayla, rocked!!! She even brought us ice cream at 1am when James was ready to crash. The backstage experience alone was worth the trip! Truly an extraordinary team.

SR: What a support system. That is an A-Team if I ever heard one! [ If there is anyone out there who didn’t see Marina on The Oprah Show, the audience was asked to cast a vote for their favorite of 3 cakes. ] We know Chicago’s own Cakegirls won the audience vote, but you won the Cake-Off vote on Oprah’s website and if I’m not mistaken, by a pretty large margin. This is some serious bragging rights. Congratulations!

MS: Thank you! I knew going into it that the Cakegirls would have the “home court advantage”. I seriously didn’t even go into this with the competition aspect in my mind at all, it was simply about being on Oprah!!! Although the audience vote was remarkably close, a Chicago themed cake for a Chicago audience was a smart move on their part that paid off as anticipated.

I had no idea they were even doing an online poll – a friend sent me a text the morning the show was airing saying we were “way ahead” in the online poll. The fact we ended up with 60% of the vote I must admit is a little heartwarming ☺

END Pt. 1

Tomorrow we will share Part 2 of my interview with Marina where we discuss her experiences on Challenge, some of her favorite cakes in her Just Cake career, cake classes, and who she names as some of her favorite designers. Until then, check out Just Cake's amazing portfolio on their website.

If you enjoyed this interview, we encourage you to leave comments here for Marina. Rick and I appreciate very much the time she took from her busy schedule to share her experiences and insights with us!

Aloha, til tomorrow!


SweetThingsTO said...

Loved this interview! Can't wait for Pt. 2!

Nancy Smith said...

Thank you for this wonderful interview. I look forward to tomorrow.

A Little Sugar said...

I can't believe she delivers her cakes herself! Great interview...I LOVE her work (and Cakelava's too!)

joan said...

Extremely interesting interview. I was getting anxiety just reading about her participation on the Oprah Show.

cake2cake said...

I really liked reading about how Marina got her start in cakes. For someone like me who would love to have my own business it's encouraging to hear how other have decided to do it. That Oprah cake was amazing!!!

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