On Cake & Capitalism: Words of Wit & Wisdom from Sculptor Mike McCarey – by Michelle Howard
If Mike McCarey wasn’t so busy churning out up to 1,000 cakes per year from his bustling Seattle-based business, Edible Artists might recommend he work as a career counselor for aspiring cake artists. This gregarious, down-to-earth and extremely successful entrepreneur is an open book, willing to relay his experiences and insight with anyone who asks. Tremendously humble despite his achievements, Mike happily shares his sometimes painfully-earned advice to help move others towards their goals more quickly and easily.
“I learned about foundations through the school of hard knocks,” Mike says when asked how he developed the structural methods for his often gravity-defying cakes. “I don’t recommend it. It’s a hard school, and I haven’t graduated yet. I don’t know if I’m ever going to get my degree.”
The Early Days – Mike McCarey
Mike did get a degree in culinary arts straight out of high school. He had inherited artistic interests and abilities from his mother, and at around the age of 15, Julia Child and Gourmet magazine sparked an interest in him for making desserts. When it came time to pick a career in high school, he was torn between going to art school or cooking school, but the opening of a new cooking school in his home state of Colorado helped him with his decision. “Art was great, but it seemed like it would be easier to find work and have a career if I was expressing my artistic side in the food world,” he comments.
Though he entered culinary school with the intention of becoming a general chef, his interests focused on pastry arts as his education progressed. “I had some classes with these two pastry chefs who were teaching at the school, and my artistic muse started speaking to me,” he explains. “I liked the artistic world of a pastry chef. The exact measurements, the science and physics of it interested me a lot more than working on a line in a restaurant somewhere. Back then, you couldn’t do a program focused exclusively on being a pastry chef like you can now, so I did the general two-year culinary program, but I knew that as soon as I got out of there, I was going to be a pastry chef.”
Finding His Way
After graduation, Mike worked for the Sheraton Corporation and the Westin, and soon learned that life as a pastry chef wasn’t for him. “Getting up at 5 in the morning and doing 500 danishes for the shriners was not really answering my artistic muse very well,” he explains. “It was quite a grind, and I was getting burned out.”Occasional breaks from the grind came when he had the opportunity to do a cake, but these opportunities were too few and far between.
Eventually, Mike left the hotel world for restaurant and catering company work, where he was able to do more and more occasion cakes. “I sweated and designed every tiny thing on these cakes, and it was some of the most fun I’d had,” he remembers. “That woke me up to what I really wanted to spend time doing.”
Mike was living in New York at the time, and after about three years there, he was ready for a change. He’d been to Washington on vacation and loved the cool weather and lifestyle, so he decided to make it his next home. He took a corporate job making desserts at an AT&T cafeteria for six months, and then went to work for Great Cakes and Edible Monuments, which, he says, inspired his current business model.
“I’d never worked in a place where it was just cake, where people came in by appointment and ordered what they wanted, and that’s what we produced,” he recalls. He worked there for about two-and-a-half years before opening his current business, Mike’s Amazing Cakes.
“That was 17 years ago, before there were any television cake programs or social media,” he recalls, “and the vast majority of the cakes I did were not sculpted.” Sculpted cakes, however, were becoming his main passion.
“The first time I’d seen a lot of sculptural elements in cake was in Colette Peters’ first book,” he says. “Colette got us all out of the ‘Wiltonesque’ pink cake box. She broke the sides and the top off that box and got us all thinking about how cakes could be a little bit different.”
But selling that “difference” to the average consumer was tricky. “I was doing some sculpted cakes then, but mostly it was just for my own fun,” he says. “People would see them and say, ‘That’s really weird. Are you the only one in the country who does this?’ And I would tell them no, but I couldn’t tell them where to go to see more of it. The only places you could see sculpted cakes then were in cake magazines and books. I couldn’t get anyone to spend $200 on a sculpted cake to save my life.”
That began to change slowly as more and more people learned about sculpted cakes, first as the word got around locally about Mike’s cakes, and then as more people saw sculpted cakes on the internet. What Mike says made the greatest difference, though, was Food Network Challenge.
“I was in the very first challenge, which was a wedding cake challenge, and everything was very traditional in a sense – tiered, stacked cakes,” Mike recalls. “And for the first few challenges, you’d be criticized if you broke out of that. The first real sculpted cake we ever saw in a challenge was when Elisa Strauss did her sock monkey. I judged that challenge and everybody was excited about that sock monkey but ultimately, it didn’t win.”
Later, Mike participated again as a contestant in a challenge and sculpted a matador that was holding a traditional cake. “I got in a little bit of trouble because no one understood why the matador was holding a cake,” Mike laughs. “I said, ‘Because you guys don’t like sculpted cakes, and I have to sculpt, so I did a sculpted cake holding a traditional cake!’” That cake didn’t win either, but Mike says that as more people sculpted throughout the challenges, the tides shifted. “It got to the point where when a challenge ended, if you did a tiered cake, you could forget it – you weren’t going to win,” he says. “They didn’t want to see a tiered cake.”
The gradual acceptance of sculpted cakes on television has been mirrored in the industry. “Everybody sculpts cakes to some degree now,” Mike comments. “They also do round and traditional cakes — that will never go away — but the amount and the desire to sculpt cakes has really come on since then, and I guess that cake TV is the biggest reason why.”
While Mike is known today for his incredible sculpted cakes, he still creates a lot of traditional, tiered cakes at his shop. “We do anywhere from 600 to 1,000 cakes a year,” he says. “That includes basic 6-inch round birthday cakes up to elaborate wedding cakes that don’t look anything like wedding cakes.” Though the sculpted cakes are the most fun to make for the artist, Mike says, “I’ll take as many four-tiered, plain ivory buttercream cakes with a real ribbon around the base that I can get in a day, because my labor is cheapest on that, and I actually make more money on that than I do on anything else.”
Although he loves the art, Mike admits that making a living is his primary goal. “I’m a capitalist – I want to make as much money as I can,” he says. “We’re a volume shop, and my secret weapon is my assistant Lana, who has been working with me forever and was on all the cake challenges with me. Lana went to culinary school for two years and then went straight into a place with high production where they were doing 2,000 nine-inch cakes a day. I don’t necessarily recommend that, but it gave Lana great production skills, and that can’t be undersold. Learning to do high production is crucial to having a life.”
While Mike might not recommend that newcomers to the industry work in a 2,000 cake-a-day facility, he does suggest they work in a production-focused business to develop sound production skills. Conversely, he also recommends working in a shop where the focus is not on production, but on creating elaborate works of art instead.
“Try to work for someone like Chris Russom, where the work is massive in scale and it’s not about volume, but about the project itself,” he advises. “Working in both kinds of places will give you both skillsets – doing something really fabulous and involved and elaborate, and doing production, which will give you more of a life when you’re doing it for yourself.”
As for schooling prior to on-the-job training, Mike says to consider what you want out of your career. “If you’re looking to do a lot of volume or do wholesale or want to have a retail component, culinary school probably wouldn’t be a bad idea,” he says.
“The one warning I would have for anyone with goals like this is to understand that while artistic reasons might have led you to the field, the more evolved and volume-based your business becomes, the farther away you get from your creative efforts.”
For those preferring to focus primarily on design work and less on volume, Mike suggests learning as many techniques as possible. “Don’t worry so much about the diploma,” he says. “Take classes at Cake Camp or ICES or go on Craftsy or whatever to learn new techniques and sharpen your skills, from string work and hand painting on cake to working with fondant and making sugar flowers. Acquire these things and add them to your cake decorating gun belt one bullet at a time to expand yourself as an artist.”
While cake classes are instrumental to learning cake-specific techniques, Mike also stresses the value of art classes for any cake artist. “I never took any fine art or sculpting classes beyond high school, and I wish I had,” he says. “I’d be a better artist if I took some painting and drawing classes. If I took an anatomy class, I’d be a better sculptor. Karen Portaleo is a great example of how much you can accomplish with an art background. She has a master’s in sculpture and clay, and you can see it in her work. She’s very ‘Leonardo DaVinci’ with her shapes. She looks at sculpture in a classically trained way as an artist with that kind of degree and pedigree. She sees the scale of a structure. She sees the skin going over the muscle and the muscle going over the structure, and this training is reflected in a much more complete, accurate and beautiful presentation.”
Honing one’s fine art skills for cake work needn’t cost a fortune, either.“ Community colleges are brilliant at offering continuing education for adults,” he says. “And you don’t have to take a cake airbrush class to learn how to use an airbrush. I always tell students to find a store that sells airbrush supplies, and they’ll have information there on somebody who’s teaching an airbrush class. The same principles in that class will apply to cake. Any kind of art class you take will benefit you in your cake art.”
When asked about his “school of hard knocks” for foundations again, Mike says, “I wish I’d paid more attention to physics in high school, because it certainly would be helping me now!” Instead, through trial and error, he has learned and developed a system based on four different foundations to support any type of cake he’s creating.
For cakes needing the least amount of support, he uses a dowel after decorating. “We’ll run a simple, single dowel down the middle of any cake that’s three tiers or more, after it’s done,” he says. “We’ll then countersink it so that it’s lower than the top level of the cake and backfill the hole in. If the cake is going downtown from our shop, it’s going to go down a hill that’s a 45-degree angle, so the dowel is needed to hold the cake together.”
The next step up from that is a preset dowel Mike creates before decorating. “I make a hole in the board and glue the dowel in place before I do anything with the cake,” he says. “If I need more support than that, I can add right-angle brackets to the base of the dowel to give it more stability.” That keeps heavier cakes from leaning and falling over.
For even heavier cakes, Mike creates a sort of mechanical clamping device using screw rods, washers and nuts, with a board sandwiched in the middle. This provides added stability.
“And if I’m not using that system,” he says, “I’ll use steel plumber’s pipe with a flange. I’ll screw the flange into wood and screw the pipes into the flange, and I’ll stem all of my work off of that.” This kind of system is essential to keeping Mike’s more complex sculptures intact.
For projects with a lower profile, no hardware is required. “I’m going have a shoe class coming out on Craftsy early next year,” he says. “And the way I do the support for the shoe is I have a simple dowel in the heel. I make the platform out of art board or poster board, and I make an arch support using foam core to keep the toe up. There’s nothing used that requires a mechanical device to cut it.”
Things get more complicated again, though, when it comes to shipping cakes. Mike ships an average of 100 cakes all over the country every year, and has developed a system that has yielded an incredible success rate.
“We set up accounts with Continental, United, Alaska and Northwest Airlines,” he says. “I paid about $500 each for them to send someone out to inspect my business to verify that we’re legitimate and that what we’re shipping is just cake. Then we have to do a certain amount of shipping each year to maintain our account.”
The investment is well worth it. “I can ship a 24” x 24” x 24” box from Seattle to Miami for about $85 to $100, and it’s even quicker than overnight,” he says. “I take the cake down to the airport about an hour before the flight takes off. I get direct when I can, but that’s not always possible. Then about an hour to two hours after it lands, the client picks it up, so it’s same-day service in most cases, and it’s incredibly cheap compared to a service like Fed-Ex® that would charge me $300 to $500.”
Careful planning is key to ensuring that a cake arrives at its destination in perfect condition. Extra steps are taken with every cake that will be shipped to secure it to its base. “The cake is going to go up the same ramp your suitcase does, so it has to be stable enough to go up a 45-degree pitch,” Mike explains.
Once a cake is ready to be shipped, it undergoes a rigorous shake test. “We shake it hard for about 30 seconds to make sure nothing is going to come off of it,” Mike says. If it passes the shake test, it then goes into a container built especially for it by Mike and his team. Since the cake has been secured to its base and can stand on its own, packing material is not needed. The container is built featuring rigid acrylic windows on either side to allow light into the box, enabling people to see what’s inside. “This gets the attention of whoever is handling it along the way, and they tend to take better care of it,” Mike explains.
No matter how well a cake is secured and packed, though, shipping disasters still can happen. “We had a forklift go through a cake in the Atlanta airport, and another cake disappear into thin air there,” Mike says. “And we had a 12-inch round basketball cake arrive in Pittsburgh as nothing more than a pile of crumbs after being shaken by turbulence for 30 solid minutes. The molecular structure of the cake just couldn’t take it anymore, and it crumbled and fell apart.”
To combat these kinds of disasters, Mike ships every cake three or four days before it’s needed. This not only helps in the case of flight delays due to weather or mechanical issues, it also provides time to make and ship a replacement cake, should the original get lost or damaged in transit.
“We’ve had to ship a few cakes two times and a couple of cakes three times, but never more than three,” Mike says. “Of the 100 or so cakes we ship in a year, we probably only have problems with three or four of them. As much as we do it, though, we still get nervous every time. It’s hard on the blood pressure and the worst thing I do to myself,” he jokes. “I don’t recommend it.”
Of course, deliveries don’t have to be cross country to be disastrous. “We have a procedure in place for all local deliveries,” Mike says. “We have two to four people on our delivery staff at all times, and each one is taught to find the person in charge at every place of delivery, identify themselves and who the cake is for, and have the person accepting the cake sign a sheet and note the time on it.”
Seattle, Mike notes, is the second biggest boating community in the country, and is host to a large number of dinner cruises. “There is a certain company that has a huge fleet, and all of their boats look exactly the same,” he explains. “One of my delivery guys took a wedding cake on board one of these boats, found the steward, said he was delivering for the Green wedding, and asked if he was in the right place. The steward said ‘yes,’ signed the sheet, noted the time, and my guy left.
“Now, we always deliver about two hours ahead of events so we have a window,” Mike continues with a smile. “Unfortunately, we didn’t get a call until about 10 minutes before the boat was supposed to take off, asking where the cake was. Somehow, I got ahold of the boat where the cake was delivered, and it had already left. To this day, I don’t know why the steward signed for it – there wasn’t even a wedding on board that boat – but there was nothing I could do. I gave my clients all their money back and we gave them a beautifully decorated anniversary cake the next year. Fortunately, they were very kind about it, but it was awful.”
Though the school of hard knocks has dealt its share of blows to Mike, he continues to dust himself off and keep moving forward. The same creative drive that led him into the cake world years ago still motivates him, while pushing the sculptural boundaries of fondant inspires him to produce even bolder designs.
“The most gratifying part of this business is it’s never boring,” says Mike. “Yes, we do a lot of plain buttercream wedding cakes, but that’s what pays the bills and allows us the freedom to do the really fun stuff.” And for this culinary capitalist who once created a cake with a chicken on it for his idol Julia Child, “the really fun stuff” and a positive cash flow make everything else worthwhile. (BUG)
|Mike’s favorite ingredient is Massa Ticino™ fondant from Carma®. “I’m a huge, huge, huge ambassador. They should pay me – they should give me fondant!” he says, laughing. “For me, in my humble opinion, it’s the greatest fondant of all time. I make that stuff do a lot of weird things that I have not had any success having any others do. Because it’s expensive and doesn’t come in colors, I blend it 50/50 with Satin Ice®, and it works great. Massa Ticino is so stretchy and the table time is long, it’s made my life a lot easier.”
Mike’s favorite decorating tool is the enlargement machine at the FedEx office. “I’m probably in there two to three times a week,” he says. He uses the machine to enlarge reference images and create blueprints for his designs.
When placing an order for a cake, Mike and his staff refer clients to a Pantone chart they keep online. “Blue to me might be somebody else’s teal,” he explains. “Since we started having customers specify Pantone colors, we’ve never had a color complaint.”
TIDBITS and INSIGHTS
Mike’s favorite cakes to make are his daughter’s birthday cakes. “I let her pick the subject, and then I get to do whatever I want within that subject,” he says. When Olivir than I’d like, so I find that a little frustrating.”
When Mike found out that his first cooking idol, Julia Child, was doing a symposium in Seattle, he volunteered to make a cake for her. He was able to present this whimsical “Julia Childs Souffleamatic” to her and explain all of its creative details. Though he laughs and says he doesn’t know if she “got it,” he remembers with fondness how nice and gracious she was.
Mike says the two people he would have loved to have done cakes for given the chance are Jim Henson and Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss).“It’s amazing to me how these worlds that these guys created out of their heads – 100 percent original – are still affecting kids today,” he says.
The most challenging cake Mike was ever commissioned to do was an exact, scaled replica of Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa. “It was 10 feet long with incredibly complicated architecture and a monorail going through it,” he recalls. “We spent two solid weeks on it – the most time I’ve ever spent on a cake.”
The most unusual cake Mike has been asked to do was for the 90th birthday of one of the two scientists who developed the theory of DNA. “There was a gathering of DNA scientists in San Diego, and they wanted to celebrate his birthday with a 10-foot cake representing a strand of his DNA,” Mike laughs. “It was a little creepy.”
To learn more about Mike and to take a class with him visit www.mikesamazingcakes.com.