Sugar & Spice – Kerry Vincent: the trailblazing, tough love champion for the sugar art industry.
Kerry Vincent didn’t get where she is today being a pushover. If she was predictable, passive or as pliable as a well-made fondant, it’s doubtful that she would have earned the respect of millions in the sugar art world, or that she would have landed integral roles on television programs in the U.S. and Australia.
Rest assured, though, Kerry’s straightforward critiques, unswerving candor and seemingly infallible self-confidence aren’t feigned for a persona she adopted to get on TV. They’re part of who she is and has been long before producers came calling. And while she does have a softer side that her closest friends and family know well, her passion, dedication and commitment to the sugar arts would never let her be anything but honest and outspoken about the industry she loves and those within it.
“I think that people in the industry – both past and present – need to have a bit of a watchdog that notices things, and I’m okay with being that watchdog,” she says. “I’m not here to sugarcoat things; it’s not my style.”
Kerry’s pragmatism and self-reliance were developed early when, as a young child growing up in Western Australia, she was tasked with helping her mum feed local shearers three meals and two teas each day. At a time when many little girls were pouring imaginary tea for their teddy bears, Kerry was serving real food to grown men. The years weren’t easy, but they instilled fortitude in Kerry and taught her to make really good cake.
Kerry Vincent – The Early Days
As Kerry grew older, she began earning money via modeling jobs, and her beauty and poise took her to the state finals of the 1964 Miss Australia contest. Then, in her late 20s, she left home for adventures abroad.
Over the next several years, Kerry traveled extensively and everywhere she went, from Singapore to Switzerland, she took cooking and baking courses. While she was living in the United Kingdom, she met her husband, who worked in the oil business. His job took him around the world and while he was gone, Kerry looked for things to do.
“We had an apartment in London that was so tiny, I could clean and organize it in about 40 minutes, so I had plenty of time on my hands,” she says. Though small, her apartment was conveniently located near the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu, and Kerry took advantage by enrolling in courses there. “I’d always liked to decorate desserts, but most of what I did was patisserie style,” she comments. “Tortes and cakes were part of it, but my focus was never on wedding cakes.”
Breaking Into Cakes
Wedding cakes didn’t come into play until years later, after Kerry and her husband had settled in the United States. “I’d become friends with a lady named Chris, and she invited my husband and I to her son’s wedding,” Kerry recalls. “About two weeks before the wedding, she called me in a panic. The bride’s foster parents had withdrawn from the wedding arrangements and while she was already up to her eyeballs in planning the rehearsal dinner, she now had wedding details to organize as well.”
Remembering past conversations they’d had about baking, Chris asked Kerry if she could bake the wedding cake. “I told her that I could make good tasting cake and that I’d become good at piping through my courses at Le Cordon Bleu, but I said that I’d never stacked a cake, so I didn’t know if I could make a wedding cake,” remembers Kerry. “She asked me if I’d look into it, though, so off I went.”
Kerry Vincent visited a local cake decorating store and had a chat with the shopkeeper, who told her how to stack a cake, and showed her how to pipe a rose. “I bought some equipment, went home and made some roses that were as good as the ones I’d been shown,” says Kerry. “I thought I was a quick enough study to handle the job, so I called Chris and told her I would make the cake.”
The result was a cake so lovely and delicious, each of the bride’s six bridesmaids asked that Kerry make her wedding cake as well. The independent Aussie wouldn’t be swayed by others’ pleas, however. “I wasn’t in the mood to be in the cake business because someone else wanted me to,” she says. “I wanted to think about it, so I told them that I had done that cake to help a friend and while I was glad to have had the experience, I wasn’t getting into the business of making cakes.”
One by one, Kerry sent each begging bride-to-be on her way, but the last one was particularly persistent. “She kept on about it for 18 months and I finally thought, ‘Oh, God, she really feels driven that I should do this,’” she recalls. “And so I told her I would do the cake, but I said, ‘If you tell anyone I did it, I will cut your tongue out, because I do not intend for this to be a full-time business.’”
Of course, when asked by admirers at her wedding who had made her incredible cake, the bride didn’t keep quiet and before Kerry knew it, she had another group of bridesmaids asking for wedding cakes. “At this stage, I was planning a trip back to Australia and I decided to see what was going on in cake decorating over there,” she says. “I knew I didn’t want to do buttercream in the American way, because everybody and his dog was doing that. I decided that if I was going to do this, I would do it with rolled fondant and gum paste, which is what I’d grown up with.”
After a successful trip shopping in her native country, Kerry returned to the U.S. carrying a suitcase filled with books and equipment, and set out teaching herself how to decorate cakes with fondant and gum paste. “It was tedious, to say the least, because it’s not so easy to learn from a book,” she comments. “It took quite a while to teach myself, but when I showed my first cake at a convention, an editor from the UK put it on her cover.”
Birth of Cake in The USA
Media focus on fondant and gum paste didn’t happen nearly so quickly in the U.S., but that didn’t discourage Kerry. She enjoyed the competition circuit, gathering hundreds of blue ribbons and Best of Show awards throughout the country. It was her desire to compete closer to her home in Tulsa that drove her and the late Maxine Boyington to start the Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show in 1993.
“Maxine and I were sitting at my kitchen table one day, talking about how it would be nice to be able to compete without traveling thousands of miles from home,” she recalls. “The show in Oklahoma City had disappeared a couple of years prior and there was one in Kansas City that had kind of evaporated after that, and then there was nothing.”
After scouting out locations, the friends decided to launch their event at the Tulsa Promenade, a busy shopping mall. “We drew thousands and thousands of people but before long, the mall got savvy to the fact that vendor stalls were a great way to generate more income,” Kerry says. “We only came one weekend a year, and the mall couldn’t tell the stall holders they had to go that weekend, so while interest in the show was growing, we had less and less space to work with.” The next location search landed the show at its current location – the Tulsa State Fair.
While interest in the show was growing rapidly and space was no longer a concern, Maxine decided that her heart was still in competing in the show circuit rather than organizing a sizable annual event, so she left the Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show in Kerry’s capable hands. In 1996, Kerry made the decision to add a wedding cake competition to the show, and the Grand National Wedding Cake Competition was born. It was this competition that would open the door to television for Kerry.
“Food Network came to the 2002show to film a special on the wedding cake competition,” she explains. “During that time, they were also putting together Food Network Challenge.” The producers liked Kerry’s style and thought she was great in front of the camera, so they askedher to host the four sugar art shows they did, and be a judge on Food Network Challenge, a role she retains to this day.
Since the first show aired in 2003 rolled fondant and gum paste have been the mediums of choice amongst competitors, even in a country where buttercream has reigned supreme. “These are such amazing, malleable substances, and you can create such huge showpieces with them,” Kerry comments. “The reality of the result, whether it’s people or flowers or some kind of figures, is that it’s hard to beat.”
As more and more Americans have discovered the endless possibilities fondant and gum paste present, the pendulum has swung this way for custom designs. “Bakeries still churn out more buttercream because time is of the essence for them,” Kerry comments.“ But as the public becomes more aware and educated about what’s available, demand for rolled fondant and gum paste will continue to grow. I’ve advised bakeries who feel they don’t have time for fondant to spend slow times making gum paste flowers that they can later use on buttercream cakes. There are no rules that say you can’t mix it up.”
So what advice would Kerry give to beginning sugar artists? “Anyone just starting out should take some Wilton classes for an immediate kick start,” she says. “They just need to make sure that whoever they choose, that the instructor has some credentials, and has been teaching for at least a year or two. It’s not good for a beginner to be teaching a beginner.”
Next, Kerry advises to network with others who have similar interests. “This will help you grow faster,” she says. “I didn’t do this, but I think it’s a good idea to.”
She also suggests advanced Wilton classes for those wanting to expand beyond the beginner level, and then, she says, “if you want to get really involved in work that is more intricate and tedious, you need to teach yourself or find a class that fits what you’re looking for.”
A big warning she has, though, is to carefully assess the lesson and who’s giving it. “There’s a million video tutorials out there, and I see people claiming to be experts and teaching techniques that are absolutely wrong all the time,” she says. “I’ve seen some that actually make me want to throw up, because not only are they wrong, but they’re dangerous.
There are some people teaching things like color application, and they’re using materials that aren’t even food approved. They shouldn’t be getting away with it but they are, and as a leader in my community, I believe I have a responsibility for speaking out against it, become somebody is going to be harmed.” Editor’s note: Edible Artists Network will be featuring insights from Kerry and other industry leaders in an article on food safety in the next issue.
Also disturbing to Kerry are those who take credit for techniques that aren’t theirs. She believes (and rightfully so) that her predecessors deserve the respect and accolades they earned, and up-and-coming sugar artists should not only be learning correct techniques from knowledgeable instructors, they should know the truth about the origins of those techniques. “I see people on the internet claiming that they invented this technique or that technique and I have to ask, ‘Are you crazy?’ I have books proving that these techniques have been around before some of these people were even born!”
One technique others have claimed credit for is Kerry’s own. Her “inlay in sugar” technique, known in Australia & the United Kingdom and elsewhere as Vincent Marquetry, was actually invented by Kerry quite accidentally in her kitchen. “I was working with a piece of paste one day when somebody rang me, and we talked a bit too long,” she recalls. “I thought the paste was beyond using, and I found myself sitting there, still talking on the phone, while I was doodling with a cutter in the way people doodle with pencils on paper.
I was cutting and cutting and wasn’t even watching what I was doing when suddenly, a piece dropped and I realized that I could make layers and layers of cutwork to give designs real depth and dimension, and I couldn’t wait to get off the phone and get to work! I did not invent inlay, the Greeks and Romans took care of that, in stone millennia ago, I simply did it in sugar!” “The rest, she says, “is history.”
And what does the future hold for Kerry? “I’ll do more TV; there’s no question about that,” she says. In addition to Food Network Challenge, Kerry will be lending her judging talents to The Great Australian Bake Off, a network television show premiering in her homeland this year. “This is the very first time a cake artist has moved into mainstream TV,” she notes. “Everything else has been done on cable so far, so this is opening a door for others who have the ambition and inclination to walk through.”
While cake art, she says, is in its “teething stages,” this passionate, outspoken and dedicated trailblazer is optimistic about its future. She believes the industry is on the right path to becoming a universally respected art form, earning its place in museums, and she’s more than happy to help pave the way.
Once a reluctant wedding cake designer, Kerry Vincent is now one of the cake industry’s leading advocates, vehemently honoring its history while helping to secure its future. Via television appearances and her annual Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show, Kerry educates the masses and attracts generations of artists, enthusiasts and consumers to the craft. She might not sugarcoat her words, but she says what she believes and fortunately for the industry, her expertise and razor-sharp candor has people listening.
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