(This article appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
Known as the ‘Green Tornado’ because of a feverish travel schedule that had him teaching cake decorating classes all over the globe, Chef Nicholas Lodge is staying closer to home ever since the pandemic hit, but hasn’t slowed down a bit. We caught up with him recently to find out how he juggles his busy online teaching schedule with Zoom meetings and presentations, judging cake contests, and product design for his new line of molds, all with his characteristic optimism and good cheer.
I read somewhere that you designed your first cake when you were 10. It sounds like you knew exactly what you wanted to do from an early age.
Well, yes. I was very fortunate, because my mother was not only a really good cook, but she was also a really good baker. I never ever had anything from the grocery store, like bread, or cakes, or pies, or cookies, or anything. On Sundays my mom would spend the whole day baking. And from the age of four I used to help my mom pretty much most days baking and cooking and things like that. So, it was very much inbred in me. That was my first love and passion.
And then, when I had my tonsils taken out when I was 10 years old, my grandmother brought me a book on cake decorating because she thought I might be interested in it. And so that really inspired me. I made my mom and dad’s wedding anniversary cake in July of when I was 10 years old – that was in 1972, and that’s really where it all started. And my parents were extremely supportive of me. My father was an engineer and my mother also worked at an engineering company. My father initially wanted me to go into engineering, but I wasn’t really inspired by that. So, my parents had to come to my school and meet with the principal, who questioned my decision to become a chef. But my parents supported me, and eventually the principal allowed me to go to home economics class once a week at the girls’ school across the street. So, while my classmates went to woodworking and metalwork class, I went to home economics and cookery class. And I was the first to ever be allowed to do that. And today the school actually has a Nicholas Lodge commemorative area in the library where they have all 11 of my books and other accolades on display. But, it really was just the amazing support of my parents that led to my success, because if I hadn’t had them 100 percent behind me, it never would have happened.
Another big influence were my two grandmothers – especially my father’s mother – who taught me a lot about knitting and crocheting and making lace. I used to call in every day on my way home from school to have a cup of tea and visit with her, and she did a lot of needle cross work and crocheting. And she used to make European lace where she’d have a pillow with 500 ball pins in it. And I think that’s also where I get a lot of my patience from. I was taught at an early age by my grandparents not to rush things. And so I think I really was very fortunate to have the influence and help from my family from the beginning.
And when did you decide to focus on cakes?
Well, initially, when I was about 16, I wasn’t familiar with the term ‘pastry chef’ or that you could even have a career outside of culinary. So, I started by taking a culinary program. Really, the original idea was I was going to become a chef, and I thought, well, I’d like to travel. So, I thought I would probably become a chef and then work on a cruise ship so that I could travel. So, I went through the culinary program at Westminster College in London, which was a three-month foundation course, and when we came to do desserts and pastry, I realized that that was my true calling. And then I decided to move to the National Bakery School of England, which was the oldest bakery school in the world (sadly, they closed three years ago). And I went there for two years, doing breads and chocolate and everything in the pastry world. When we came to cake decorating, I realized that was my niche in the pastry arena, and that’s what brought me to where I am today, and where I’ve been for the past 40 years.
What in particular drew you to cake decorating?
Well, I thought about the longevity of specialty cakes – at some point everyone is going to have a wedding cake or birthday cake, simple though they might be. Bringing joy to people was also a big part of it. Of course, pastries and desserts bring joy as well, but in a different way. But because a cake is such a unique part of a celebration, it can be personalized to the client in the manner of bespoke couture. So, it’s never boring. I really didn’t want to be working in a kitchen, doing production, where every day you’re making a thousand donuts or whatever – I wanted to do something that was more creative.
I know you worked in a bakery for a few years before you went to the National Bakery School of England in London. Where do you think you learned the most? Or were both experiences important factors that contributed to your success as a cake decorator?
I think both were important. I always tell my students at the French Pastry School that there is nothing like getting commercial experience. Working in a bakery where we had to do 35 or 40 wedding cakes a week, plus christening cakes and other things with a team, it taught me a lot of skills, but it also taught me to be efficient. Efficient in time management, but also in not wasting materials and products. And so again, I teach my students about how to be efficient in knowing how much product you use and how to avoid waste, because if you have your own business, waste is a loss of profits. So, those are things that are very important. At the bakery I also learned a lot more about the technical side of things. A lot of modern cake artists, for example, sadly don’t use a lot of piping techniques, and they don’t know a good deal about decorating with royal icing. So, I was very lucky to have a strong foundation that served as a platform for me to build on. And I think those are core elements that everybody should learn: to be efficient, but also to have the background knowledge of why things go wrong and what type of products you should use for a certain technique or a certain element on a cake.
You got off to a great start in your career, winning the Most Outstanding Decorating Student award at graduation and then, at the age of 19, moving on to a job as Principal Wedding Cake Designer at Woodnutts, one of England’s top sugar art schools. Did you feel like you were ready for that job at that point?
Yes, I did. I was very fortunate, because I signed a contract to write my first book at 17 years old, and then started working on the plan for that. So, my career started at a very early age. At Woodnutts, we used to work with places like Harrods and Claridges in London, and design and decorate cakes for a lot of big society weddings. So, that was a huge responsibility, but I had that foundation from going to bakery school, and that helped me a lot. By the time I was 21, I’d written three books. I was very, very fortunate – I’d been around the world six times by the time I was 21. And on teaching tours, I used to leave London in April and get back in November and go to 26 to 29 countries teaching. To have had that opportunity and experience, and to be able to do all those things so early in my life is very humbling, because many people in our industry typically don’t get that until they’re in their 30s or 40s, and sometimes later.
You were on the team that was responsible for designing one of the official wedding cakes for Lady Diana and Prince Charles in 1981. What was that experience like?
Well, when Charles and Diana got married, there were actually 25 cakes made for their wedding. So, I was part of a team that worked on one of the cakes. Since Prince Charles was in the Navy, the Navy was responsible for making the official cake, and then there were 24 other cakes on display at Buckingham Palace. In England there’s a tradition that when you get married, any guests that can’t attend the wedding are sent a piece of fruitcake. So when Charles and Diana got married, there were people who were invited that couldn’t go to the wedding, and I think they needed about 26,000 pieces of fruit cake, because fruit cake is served in a one-inch finger size. So a fruit cake with marzipan on the top and then royal icing is three inches tall. And so you cut it into a one by one finger size and send it off. And then they toast the bride and groom or the couple when the fruit cake arrives. So, it’s a very nice tradition that is unique to England. And then after Charles and Diana got married, I was then flown to Japan by Mitsukoshi department store in Ginza in Tokyo. And there I actually recreated the nine-and-a-half-foot-tall wedding cake that I had worked on with a team in the UK in the Mitsukoshi department store. So, when Charles and Diana went on their royal tour of Japan, I was there when they came into the store, where the cake was displayed in the foyer. So, it’s been an interesting journey. And I worked with some of the other royals, for example I did some work on the queen mother’s 80th birthday cake, and I was also involved with the team working on Prince Harry’s baby shower cake. And it was a real honor.
“Flower Pro has made that art of gum paste flowers much more approachable and doable in a commercial environment such as a bakery, hotel, restaurant or a resort.”
You’re known for your beautiful realistic gum paste flowers. In fact, you have created line of molds called Flower Pro – tell us about this line and the process of developing it.
Flower Pro was conceived about three years ago. I was at the IBIE [International Baking Industry Exposition] show in Hong Kong, and I met Sue Balfour, who is the owner of Katy Sue Designs in the UK, makers of high-grade silicone molds. We discussed the possibility of working together, and the resulting concept was Flower Pro, which is to simplifies the process of making flowers by eliminating so many little bits of equipment. For example, when you traditionally make a peony, you would have your ridged board to roll your paste over, you’d have your peony cutters, you then have your peony veiners. So that’s kind of a big investment in equipment for a pastry chef or culinary student. So, I tried to eliminate a lot of those things. With Flower Pro you can make a peony simply by pushing the paste into the cavity and inserting the wire into the unique grooved design, and then you just pop it out. In this industry, time is money, and labor is very expensive. So, not only are your labor costs less expensive, but it also saves you money because you just have the initial expense of buying the Flower Pro mold, rather than buying all those other items. And the line has been very, very well received.
Last year we started the Flower Pro Ultimate Members Club, which is a subscription-based club. Every week the students have a master class, and they can watch it on their own and work with it at their own pace and can refer to it again whenever they want to. And every one or two months we do a new project. And so it’s a way for people to stay connected, and expand their skills in a safe way. And it also challenges me to come up with new designs. For example, we just came out with a new bamboo vase mold with blossoms coming out of it for the Chinese New Year, and our club members get early access to the new molds before they go out for general sale. It’s exciting for me, because I get to work on new concepts for classes and then I’m able to bring out molds that are specifically designed for those classes.
I work in Sculpey (polymer clay] and add drying clay to create the originals. And then Katy Sue has a master toolmaker who takes my pieces and then makes them into molds. And sometimes that can take many weeks to get right. First they are 3D printed, and then they are molded, and then they send me the molds to try out and I have to make modifications. So, it is quite a process, but it’s a very exciting part of this whole Flower Pro concept. Flower Pro has made that art of gum paste flowers much more approachable and doable in a commercial environment such as a bakery, hotel, restaurant or a resort. And I feel it’s the ultimate learning experience, because not only do you have a guide book with instructions and step photos, but you have a video where you can watch me each step of the way. I think it’s a unique experience and I’m so happy we’re able to offer that.
You’re known in the pastry and cake world as the ‘Green Tornado’. How did you get that moniker?
I had a school in Tokyo for 12 years; sadly we had to close it last year. But I used to travel back and forth from the U.S. to Tokyo every three weeks – my last trip to Japan was my 135th! So Toshie, the manager of the school, called me the White Tornado. And when I started my new brand color of green, it became the Green Tornado and people started calling me that. So now I have a logo with the Green Tornado on it – it’s fun.
I know you have been teaching classes at The French Pastry School for many years. Are you also involved in their online school, The Butter Book?
Yes – I did 20 of the lessons on cake decorating in The Butter Book, so I was part of the team of chefs involved. It’s a great way to give people an opportunity to be able to study pastry without having to travel. For the past year people have been learning how to cook, bake and decorate cakes and cookies, which is a real lifesaver to preserve people’s sanity.
What’s next for the Green Tornado?
Well, once it’s safe, I’ll be excited to start traveling and going to cake shows again. Because I really do miss that direct contact with people, and with my friends in the cake and pastry industry. But like everybody, I’m trying to make the best of the situation and trying to also keep my name out there. And that’s why I’ve been doing a lot of different platforms. I’ve been judging online competitions all over the world and I’ve been doing a lot of live events and Zooms on different platforms that people have all over the world. And hopefully when we can get back to some sort of normality, it will be really nice to be able to follow up and see those people again. I miss them.