Blessed by Nuns, Approved by Oprah
The unique and continuing journey of Marina Sousa and “Just Cake.”
by Michelle Howard
She’s designed cakes for Brad Pitt, Cher and a slew of others, but celebrity baker Marina Sousa is as friendly and down-to-earth as they come. Read about her “blessed” beginnings, breaking news and exciting plans for the future in this enlightening, in-depth interview.
When Marina Sousa was tasked with creating an erupting volcano for her fifth grade science class, she opted for different materials over the traditional papier-mâché. Having just completed a Wilton class (the one and only cake decorating class she’d ever take), Marina used a doll dress pan and the Wilton star tip to make a chocolate volcano cake. Her classmates and teacher were impressed with her creativity and delighted to enjoy an unexpected treat. Perhaps even more unexpected, however, was the fact that they were the first in a long list of Marina’s cake clients that someday would include Brad Pitt and Oprah Winfrey.
Born in Fremont, California and raised on the state’s beautiful Central Coast, Marina enjoyed a childhood filled with inspiration and support from two creative mentors. “My mom was extremely creative and sewed and cooked and baked all the time,” she recalls. “I was sewing doll clothes at age 6, and baking right along with my mom and grandma.”
Baking, though, was neither her first nor second career. At just 16, Marina was accepted via early admissions to the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, and began taking classes on the San Francisco campus only two weeks after graduating high school. She studied Visual Merchandising & Space Design, and after earning her degree, started an internship at the city’s FAO Schwartz doing window displays. “It was totally fun working with toys and building these over-the-top displays,” she recalls. After a while, however, she began looking for her next adventure.
“I’d been doing a bit of display work for Macy’s in San Francisco, too, and I decided to transfer with them to Los Angeles,” she says. “I’d always wanted to live in L.A., but I didn’t know a soul there and I was only working part time, so I decided to take a couple of classes at a junior college, mainly to meet people and get to know the area. I happened to take an introduction to theater class and fell in love with theater.”
This new passion spurred Marina to return to school fulltime, and she enrolled at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. There, she earned her graduate degree in theatrical production management.
Following graduation, Marina began an internship with Universal Studios Hollywood. “My job was producing special events – grand openings, movie premiers, that kind of thing,” she explains. “I loved it, but after a couple of years, it was kind of like corporate anything – the higher up you go, the farther away from the fun part of it you get.”
As the shine was wearing off her Universal Studios job, Marina was approached by a company called MediaWorks. “They were in entertainment advertising, and recruited me to be their director of production operations,” she recalls. “I was excited to have the opportunity to learn the post-production side of the business, so I made the leap. What I learned, however, was that I really didn’t like it very much. “
Having been at Universal, Marina was accustomed to working more than 60 hours a week, but the experience was entirely different. “Because I was always at an event then, I had the illusion that I had a social life,” she explains. “At MediaWorks, it required the same amount of time, but I spent the days solving everyone’s problems in the office and then after 6:00 when they all left, I stayed and did what was actually supposed to be my job. It was a lot of unnecessary chaos, and it made me realize that the entertainment industry as a whole had this self-important myth about it that in the grander scheme of life didn’t really matter much to me.”
Ready for a break, Marina quit. “I literally left there without a clue what my next step was going to be,” she remembers. “I just decided to take some time off because I hadn’t not worked since high school.” It was in the midst of what she calls her “self-imposed time-off timeline” that her cake career began.
“I was meeting a friend for lunch in the Beverly Hills area, and I parked in front of a shop called Rosebud Cakes,” she explains. “I was fascinated by their windows, and I went in to check it out.” For the next hour, Marina and her friend examined the shop’s books, sampled cakes and chatted with the staff.
“It was more than 15 years ago, so it was definitely before the cake explosion and what cakes are now,” she recalls. “The owner was Elin Katz, and she was truly a pioneer in the cake world. She did amazing likenesses of people sculpted out of buttercream. It was pretty extraordinary – nobody back then was doing anything close to what she was doing. Given my frame of reference at that point, these cakes looked like theater sets to me, and it was completely fascinating and eye-opening.”
With her head spinning from this mesmerizing discovery, Marina and her friend finally left the shop to continue to their lunch destination. They were only a few steps down the sidewalk, however, when Marina saw a “Help Wanted” sign posted in one of the shop’s end windows. “I don’t know what got into me, but I spun around and went back in,” she recounts. “They told me they were just looking for somebody to work up front and coordinate events and logistics with clients, and I figured I could do that with my eyes closed.”
Bored not working, Marina thought it would give her something to do while she looked for a “real job.” She walked out of the shop that day newly employed and within a couple of weeks, she was using slow periods at the front counter to learn decorating in the back. Two months later, she was a full time cake artist.
Over the next two-and-a-half years, Marina became one of Rosebud Cakes’ top designers, serving Hollywood clientele that included Raquel Welch, Cher, Goldie Hawn, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, plus a host of others. She even designed the wedding cake for Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston.
Eventually, though, the enterprising artist set her sights on opening her own cake business. “I knew it was something I wanted to do, but because of the way I kind of back-ended into the business, I also knew I didn’t know anything about baking,” she says. “At Rosebud, I was strictly a designer. Somebody else was baking the cakes and putting them together, and I was just decorating them.”
With respect for the “science” of baking and understanding that her cakes needed to taste as good as they looked, Marina enrolled in the Baking & Pastry Arts program at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa. After graduating top of her class, she returned to the beach community where she grew up, just south of San Francisco, to contemplate her next move.
“I’d intended on going back to L.A. to open my business there, but after being in the wine country for a year, I found it pretty hard to do that,” she explains. Still, while friends and family tried to convince her to launch her business in her hometown, she wasn’t confident it would work.
“In L.A., parents used to drop a thousand dollars on their kids’ first birthday cakes six times a day, but in the rest of the world, people don’t do that,” she explains. “I wanted to do higher end wedding cakes, but this was before cake TV and before cake was what it is today. I was afraid there just wasn’t enough of a market here to sustain a business like that.”
To counter the urgings of her friends and family, Marina says, “I put up every excuse I could think of, and one of my first ones was that I didn’t have a commercial kitchen to work out of.” Call it divine intervention, the power of networking or just plain luck, but the issue of having no kitchen was quickly resolved.
“A former classmate was teaching at my old Catholic elementary school, Salesian Sisters, and got permission for me to use their kitchen,” Marina explains. “It was kind of funny, because the nun who was my principal back in the day was living there in retirement, and she used to come into the kitchen and pray the rosary while I was baking. The nuns were amazing taste testers too!”
With a place to bake and prayer on her side, Marina’s client list grew rapidly. “Friends and family convinced me to do a local bridal show. I made eight display cakes, set up a booth and the very next day, I had 32 phone calls,” she says. “I think it was the right place, right time. There was no one else in the area then doing anything other than typical bakery cake, so I was very well received.”
Marina’s mother, however, thought it was more than just timing. “My mother always credited my business taking off in the manner that it did to the fact that it started at the school and that the nuns put my first business card under St. Joseph’s statue,” she says with a smile. “That kind of sealed the deal for her. “
Though she was feeling fortunate and grateful for the warm welcome, Marina knew her place in the school’s kitchen was temporary. “The school was going to be transitioning into a summer camp in June, so I was worried I’d have no place to work when wedding season hit,” she says.
Once again, though, things fell into place. “A caterer I’d met at a bridal show just randomly contacted me and asked if I needed kitchen space,” she explains. “Then the same thing happened with studio space – a florist I’d met had some extra room in their studio. Everything just kind of came together.”
The next major move for Marina was right around the corner. After being in business for less than five months, she got her first call from Food Network. “They’d just filmed an annual cake competition in Beaver Creek, Oregon, and though they hadn’t planned it at the time, it turned out to be the pilot episode for Food Network Challenge,” she explains. “When they called me, they were casting for the very first thing to be officially produced as Challenge. Since it hadn’t aired yet, I had no idea what they were talking about, and the whole thing just sounded crazy to me.
Yet while what the caller was talking about seemed ludicrous, two names were said that captured Marina’s attention: Mike McCarey and Collette Peters. “Even in that day, before cake people became pseudo celebrities, those were two very well recognized, established names,” she says. “So when I was told that they were going to do the challenge, I continued to listen, and agreed to do it as well.”
For this event, timing wasn’t completely on Marina’s side. The pilot that was filmed in Beaver Creek aired the week before she was leaving for Vegas to film her Challenge, and what she saw in that first episode terrified her. “Mike and Collette were both competitors in the pilot and so was Michelle Bommarito who, at the time, was a complete unknown, like me,” she explains. “They constantly referred to her during the competition as the underdog, and she made a couple mistakes, which, of course, they highlighted, so they really cast her in that light. After seeing that, I was completely convinced that’s the only reason why they had invited me. And so I went into it with that mentality 100 percent.”
Though she says she was petrified at the time, Marina now looks back on the experience with levity. “My whole goal was just to not make an ass of myself on national TV,” she laughs. “That was really all that mattered to me, so when I came out on top, it was more of a surprise to me than anyone else.”
Following that, Marina made six more appearances on Challenge, and then filmed Last Cake Standing. Perhaps most notable for personal reasons, however, was her appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show. What began as a “random phone call” on a Friday afternoon ended with her fulfilling one of her mother’s prophecies five days later.
“It was a week where we had 10 wedding cakes and I was going in 10 different directions at once,” Marina recalls, “so the last thing I expected was to pick up the phone and hear, ‘Hi, this is a producer from Harpo Studios.’”
The producer explained that they were planning a show about reality television, and asked if Marina could be in Chicago that Wednesday with the “biggest and best cake” she’d ever made in her life. “Just something that would make Oprah’s jaw drop – that was pretty much all the direction we were given,” she says.
In addition to the short turnaround time and the 10 wedding cakes being produced, it was a holiday weekend, and everything was closed that Monday. “It was pure chaos,” Marina says. “But how do you say no to Oprah?”
More importantly, Marina wanted to do it for her mother. “Before she passed, she was definitely my biggest cheerleader,” she says fondly. “And there was just a couple of things she always believed I would do in my career. One was to write a book, and the second was to be on Oprah. She used to start sentences with, ‘Someday, when you’re on Oprah . . .’ so no matter how busy I was, there was no possibility of turning that opportunity down.”
To make it happen, Marina called on friends, including the very talented James Roselle. “I certainly wouldn’t have been able to do it without his help,” she says. “He happened to be driving to Napa that weekend for a wedding, and we had planned to meet for lunch on his way back, so I said, ‘How about you just come here instead?’ He did, and we basically worked together for about 24 hours, mapping things out and figuring out what flowers he was going to make. Then he went to LA and got to work. I think he ended up putting together about 800 flowers while I stayed and built the structure and got everything else together that we needed.”
Getting things together on a holiday weekend, while challenging, proved to be possible when Marina put what she calls “the power of Oprah” to work. “I cannot tell you how it opens doors,” she laughs. “I would first hear, ‘No, we can’t do that – Monday is a holiday,’ and then I would say, ‘Well, here’s the deal: I have been invited to be on the Oprah Winfrey show,’ and I would have that specially cut acrylic or whatever it was I needed in two hours. It was craziness, but that was the only way everything came together.”
After sleepless nights and lots of legwork, Marina and her friends shipped 17 boxes to Chicago and took more with them on flights there. What resulted was an incredible 11-foot tall cake that wowed everyone, including Oprah herself.
Creating the masterpiece from concept to completion within a matter of days kept Marina so focused, she didn’t have time to contemplate the amazing fact that she was about to see her mother’s prediction come to fruition. That moment of reflection came just as she was about to walk out on stage, and it was one she will treasure forever.
“They had built these swinging bakery doors and said they wanted us to ‘bust’ out of them, and I was just kind of laughing because I wasn’t even sure what that meant,” she recalls. “Oprah had just done the intro to the show, so she was on stage, on the other side of the doors. They brought in the announcer for the Chicago Bulls to introduce all of us, and as he was doing my big lead-up announcement, getting ready to say my name, a light from above me backstage slowly came on.
“It took everything for me not to burst out in tears,” Marina says, “but I had to go burst out those doors instead.” When she did, Oprah was there to greet her, and her mom, she knows, was cheering her on from “the best seat in the house.”
Though some would think that brides-to-be would be knocking down her door after being on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Marina says that’s not the case. “If anything, in my local market, it kind of worked against me. I was already the person who had been on Food Network, but when you add Oprah to that, there just becomes a perceived unattainability about you, I think. I listened to people walk by my booth at bridal shows after that, tasting my samples and saying how amazing they were, but then whispering to each other, ‘That’s the really expensive cake place,’ when in reality, I’m priced for my market.”
Of course, she doesn’t regret the television appearances. “It’s definitely been a fun ride,” she says. And though some might assume her cakes are beyond their budgets, plenty of others have learned that while the tastes and designs are exceptional, her prices are competitive for her market. Her monthly cake orders range from just a few during slow periods, to well over a dozen during wedding season.
“My goal from the beginning was to do more intricate work and charge higher prices, as opposed to doing a greater number of simpler cakes,” she says. “When I was starting off and it was literally just me, I had to keep things manageable and find a way to meet that goal quickly. I did that by establishing a minimum dollar order, and that has served me well over the years.”
Marina has also added staff, which has allowed her to do more cakes, while teaching and working on new business ventures. “The first couple of years I was teaching, I was on the road about once a month, and it was a little overwhelming,” she says. “The past year to year-and-a-half, I’ve tried to reign it in a bit so my travel schedule isn’t quite as crazy.”
But her limited travel doesn’t mean there still aren’t great opportunities to learn from Marina. This October, she’ll be one of 17 instructors teaching at the first-ever Cake Camp UK in Nottingham, England. For those who prefer to stay closer to home, she’ll be teaching at the French Pastry School in Chicago in June, and she also offers four courses on Craftsy.com.
“My teaching experiences with Craftsy have been really good, and have given me an opportunity to connect with students all over the world and still get that teaching high without having to travel so much,” she comments. “Some people blame the online class phenomenon for the fact that it’s now harder to fill classes and for instructors to charge what they used to for classes, but I don’t really think that’s fair. It’s like blaming Amazon for closing down bookstores. While there may be some truth to it, complaining about it won’t change the reality.” Online classes, she adds, are “just the direction the world is going.”
In addition to pointing out the popularity of ecommerce in general, Marina says the industry itself is shifting. “I think the whole cake industry has changed pretty significantly, even in the last six to 12 months,” she says. “The TV shows have kind of run their run. The proverbial cake bubble has burst. When it was at its peak, so many people entered the cake market. With many states having cottage food laws, the barrier to entry was low and suddenly, everyone was a cake designer. Soon it seemed like anyone who could make a decent cake and get a few hundred likes on Facebook figured they could be a teacher. The inundation of custom cake decorators and those joining the teaching market dramatically altered things in our industry.”
Still, Marina continues to enjoy teaching, and sharing her knowledge and passion for the art of cake design. She especially loves teaching a variety of technique-based classes, and encouraging her students to take those techniques and apply them to their own designs. “I’m not so much a fan of cookie cutter designs where everyone in the class is expected to produce the exact same thing,” she says. “I think my role as a designer and instructor is to encourage people to tap into their own creativity and find inspiration in their own surroundings, events and experiences.”
Inspiration, she says, is everywhere. “Back in the day when I was getting started, the only real visual references we had for cakes were bridal magazines. And the big ones only came out once or twice a year.” (When one of her cakes was published in Modern Bride, between the pages of Sylvia Weinstock and Collette Peters, she adds, “It was my biggest moment ever!”)
These days, she says, “We live in such a visual world, with Facebook and Pinterest and everything, there’s constant inspiration.” She encourages her students, though, to not limit their inspiration just to cake images. “I try to get them to see that they don’t just have to copy a cake because they see it and like it – they’re capable of putting together something based on other things outside of Pinterest.”
Fashion, architecture and stationery are among Marina’s inspirations. “One of the things I love about working with clients is they’re always bringing me inspiration with their events,” she says. “I love sitting down with them and learning about their events as a whole. I like hearing about the venue, and seeing the dress, linens and stationery, and I enjoy the challenge of picking key design elements out of those things and finding a way to turn them into confections.”
Her inspiration isn’t limited to details divulged during client consultations, though. “I take a lot of pictures while I’m traveling,” she says, “and most of my pictures are of windows, doors or some sort of ironwork or that kind of thing.” Little details on these architectural elements can find their way into her cake designs.
“I love texture, and it’s one of the first things I consider when designing a cake,” she says. “Some of my favorite cakes are just white on white. I think the biggest challenge is to create texture with a monochromatic color scheme, and that could be through embossing, hand painting, sculpting or applique-type designs.
“When I was in Lisbon, Portugal, I was doing a double-decker bus tour of the city, and there was one wall I saw that had the most interesting texture. All of my pictures of it were blurred because I took them as we passed by, so I couldn’t figure out what that texture was. It was really bugging me, so I sat through the entire bus tour again just to go back by that wall and get decent pictures,” she laughs. “I still have yet to make a cake with that texture, but it’s in my ‘to do’ file. Maybe it will make it into a book one day.”
Like appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Marina is determined to write a book, just as her mother said she would. “I’ve been exploring this, and it’s just really a matter of carving out the time to do it,” she says. “I know from several friends who’ve gone through the process that it’s certainly not something that happens overnight – it’s typically a couple of years in the making.”
Opening her retail website, she says, is part of “that master plan.” By creating an additional revenue stream with the website, she hopes to free up the time needed to work on the book.
“I thought of the retail website after my very first Food Network competition, so it’s been in my head for a very long time,” she says. “The idea came about because I was getting so many emails and questions about what I was using during the competition and why I was using that over another product.”
She gets the same types of questions, she adds, in relation to her Craftsy classes. “At least with Craftsy, we’re able to provide links for products,” she says. “But being able to explain the ‘why’ and put my own spin on it is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.”
Justcakeshop.com opened in early May, and offers visitors a more streamlined approach to shopping online for cake supplies. “I don’t try to carry every product out there,” Marina says. “I think I have less than 100 products on the site, but they’re all things I use, and I share information about why I use them.”
Marina also guarantees that every product she carries is completely authentic. “Counterfeit products are rampant in our industry,” she says. “Inferior quality products posing as original items hurt manufacturers immensely. It’s disheartening, and it discourages innovation, but as long as people buy the counterfeit products, they’ll continue to be made.”
Among the genuine, quality products featured on her new site are her designs from Marvelous Molds. “Those were the result of a wonderful collaboration with Dominic Palazzolo from Marvelous Molds,” she says.
The collaboration was born out of Marina’s participation in the Miley Cyrus Sweet 16 cake competition on Food Network Challenge in 2009. “My team and I used Marvelous Molds’ Silicone Plastique® to make our own molds for the sugar beads, which we used for the chandelier effect on the cake,” she explains. “We told people what we used, and Dominic approached me afterwards because he was getting a lot of inquiries. He asked if I’d be willing to collaborate with him to perfect those molds. I did and quite frankly, he’s a genius in that regard. He turned those molds into something extraordinary. They’re so complex, they can’t even be copied and in this day and age, that’s kind of unheard of.”
In addition to nine sugar bead molds, Marvelous Molds offers seven button molds and 15 jewel molds in Marina’s collection. More is being added to the line this November. .
“I think molds are a great way to increase consistency and productivity,” she comments. “Back in the early days, especially with Challenge, people thought that using molds was an easy way out. They’re more accepted now than they used to be, though.
“I think a lot of times because people are so passionate about the art, they forget about the money part of it,” she adds. “And a lot of us kind of give ourselves away. I’m a fierce advocate for being paid for your time, your work and your creativity. Any molds or other tools I find that can help speed up the process and increase productivity and my bottom line, I’m a huge fan of.”
So in addition to using tools to your advantage, what other advice would Marina give to aspiring cake artists? “If you want to make a business out of it, my one question would be, ‘Are you sure?’” she says. “I think people get into it because they’re passionate about what they do and they don’t really realize everything that’s entailed in making a successful business.
“When I was just starting out, I wasn’t surprised by all that was involved, but the reality was definitely a little starker than I’d hoped. You’re the person who bakes the cakes, washes the dishes, mops the floor, does the deliveries, goes shopping . . . it’s all-encompassing,” she says. “My biggest piece of advice would be to go and work for someone else first to make sure it’s something you’re passionate enough about to withstand everything that goes with it.”
From an artistic standpoint, Marina recommends expanding your education beyond cake classes. “Take photography, painting, drawing and other art classes,” she says. “These skills are transferrable to an edible medium, and really will help you to think outside of the box and be able to create things people haven’t seen before.”
And those in her fifth grade science class who delighted in her chocolate volcano cake would certainly agree that unique design, when executed well, is a goal worth striving for.
For more advice, instruction and inspiration from Marina, look for her on Craftsy.com and visit www.justcakeshop.com.