(This article appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
Beholding the cakes crafted by cake artist Rachael Teufel, one becomes quickly convinced that the process of creating them must have been effortless. That’s how natural their forms seem, even though the designs are often surprising. There’s her Dragon Phoenix Wedding Cake, for example, which features a bright red phoenix alighting on a tiered cake embedded with a sinuous green dragon. “The Phoenix and Dragon wedding cake was created for clients that were hosting a ‘Lord of the Rings meets Game of Thrones’ themed wedding. I took elements of [the] theme along with patterns from the bridal gown to create this cake”. Or her groom’s cake that features an oversized rainbow trout resting on a plank of wood. And the colorful parrot perched on top of a surfboard balanced on a giant cheeseburger cake? Teufel explains that “the effect creates a conversation piece that will be remembered forever.”
“My dad and his family came to the States in 1956 from Hungary – during the revolution – and settled in Ohio.” Growing up in Lorain, Ohio, Rachael Teufel came to love the pastry arts through time spent baking with her beloved Hungarian grandmother Elizabeth Kussai. She spent most weekends during her childhood cooking and baking with her grandmother’s guidance, learning from her intuitive skill. Teufel’s grandmother did not use precise measurements either in her cooking or in her baking, yet she had no difficulty creating cakes, cookies, and breads that came out with consistent taste, texture, and visual presentation, time after time. “She was always throwing in a handful of this, a pinch of that,” says Teufel. As her grandmother was not fluent in English and Rachael was not fluent in Hungarian, they communicated primarily through their kitchen interaction.
Today, Teufel is a sought-after mentor for industry professionals and a renowned cake artist in her own right. As the originator of the geode cake trend, Teufel has inspired both industry professionals and consumers with her cake artistry, and she has been able to sustain that interest and build on it with a career that continues to support her family to this day. Success did not come instantly, though. Initially, Rachael supported herself as a physical therapist. The interaction with her clients was energizing and challenging for her, and she enjoyed it very much. Still, she was often frustrated by what she saw as the inconsistent coverage of insurance companies, with some providing more coverage than her clients needed and some providing less than what they needed to be fully rehabilitated. “Truly, as a physical therapist I loved working with people, but I didn’t care for the politics involved with insurance companies. It was just was really tugging at my heartstrings. My outlet for getting rid of that stress was to bake and do any sort of creative activity. Those outlets helped me.”
When Rachael would come home from a stressful day at work, she worked on jewelry making, sculpting, flower arranging, and cake decorating projects, and found herself with renewed inspiration. Pleased by her creative success, she began to bake and decorate cakes for others. When somebody had a potluck or a birthday party and needed a cake, she was there. Her designs were popular, and she continued to look for new sources of inspiration. In 2006, she opened her business, Intricate Icings (based in Denver, Colorado), with the use of a rented commissary kitchen.
Teufel opened her storefront bakeshop in 2010, where she received a crash course in the difference between designing cakes and managing people. Although her interns throughout the years were all efficient and dedicated, she didn’t note any difference in decorating skill level or talent between the ones who had been to culinary school and the ones who had not. “I don’t feel [culinary schools] have a grasp on the decorating, not a true curriculum for the decorating portion. [If you’re] really looking for decorating, you won’t find it in culinary school, per se.”
Ultimately, she was disappointed, because the time and energy she had to put in to managing the business took away from the time she could spend on decorating cakes. She found herself giving up what she enjoyed the most, noting that she “wasn’t as hands-on in the kitchen by the end, as I thought I would be, as I hoped I would be.” Teufel found that instead of creating edible works of art, she was explaining techniques to her staff and spending her energy on logistics and office work. In the end, when she closed her storefront in 2014, she did so because she wanted to be closer to her two loves: her family, and her edible art. Now Teufel has the advantage of working at home and being able to be there for her family, the way her grandmother was there for her as a child.
Without the existence of the internet and the social media it has fostered, Teufel would not be enjoying her current state of success. When she published an image of her first geode cake online in 2006, it went viral, starting a trend that was popular coast to coast. She also published short videos of herself doing basic instruction on Facebook, and began to receive requests for more instruction on a broader range of topics. Today, she teaches with Bluprint, a Denver, Colorado-based school that operates almost entirely online. The Bluprint studios are close to Teufel’s home, and production and publication are handled by the school, so all she has to do is show up for recording sessions. Once her classes have been recorded and published online, students purchase the classes and access them as they please from anywhere in the world. Teufel monitors her email and responds to inquiries from students as they come in, so that students are not left in the lurch when they are unable to replicate techniques to their own satisfaction. Teufel also mentors professionals who request it. When she provides this service, she reviews the client’s social media and business materials, and then engages in an hour of conversation with them.
When considering what advice to offer those entering the industry, Racheal Teufel reflects on her own experience. Her career transition took place on a solid foundation of strategic planning and preparation. She studied with her local Small Business Association and was prepared financially (working part-time at another job while she developed her cake business), and was thus able to achieve her current level of success. “It is imperative that you have a transition plan in place, especially from a financial perspective.” Another piece of advice she offers is to pay attention to the competition, noting that regional differences are particularly important. “Do as much research on the industry in your geographical area as possible. Not all areas are the same.” But Teufel feels that finances and competition shouldn’t stand in the way of a rewarding career, advising, “Follow your passion! I’m a firm believer that everyone should have a career they love, doing something that makes them jump out of bed each morning, excited to start their day. If your passion makes you happy, you can overcome anything that comes your way!”
Photo Credits: Jason+Gina Wedding
Photographers, Lisa O’Dwyer Photography,
Laura Murray Photography
Genevieve Sawyer is a freelance food writer who graduated from the Culinary Institute of American in 2009. She is the co-author of The Rookwood Inn’s Guide to Devouring the Berkshires – One Cultural Bite at a Time.
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