(This article appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
One of the country’s foremost artists and educators in the field of cake decorating and design, Toba Garrett has been teaching her craft to legions of students at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York for almost 30 years, and is now the school’s Dean of Professional Cake Decorating. Over the course of her long career, she has accumulated numerous awards for her highly detailed work, including the trophy of Les Commandarie des Cordons Bleus de France; the gold medal from Société des Chefs, Cuisiniers et Pâtissiers de la Province de Québec, and the 14-karat-gold medal of honor from Le Société Culinaire Philanthropique de New York. Here Chef Garrett talks about circuitous career journey, and what motivated her to focus on a career in culinary education.
I read that you originally planned to have a career on stage. What made you shift gears to the culinary world and, specifically, what drew you to cake decorating?
In my formative years, I lived in a small town in Rhode Island (I was born in Charleston, South Carolina). I joined a local amateur acting group in Newport while I was in high school. I was drawn to the theater as a child; I always liked dressing up and pretending to be someone else. My mother encouraged my endeavors by enrolling me in art classes, singing and piano lessons. When I graduated from high school, I worked as an apprentice in summer stock and eventually did some children’s theater work. When I moved to New York in 1971, it was extremely difficult to get casted. For every audition I went on, there were 30 to 40 people applying for the same part. I attended some workshops to keep my craft sharp and I enrolled in undergraduate school, majoring in speech and theater.
I lived with relatives while I went to school and worked as a temp. I had good typing and shorthand skills that I learned in high school and I was happy to put those skills to use. While working as a temp, I learned office automation and quickly was able to raise my per hour wage, working days, nights and graveyard shifts. With all this going on, I continued my studies and graduated with a degree in English, with a minor in speech and creative writing. I saw the need to alter my original goals, as a degree in theater wasn’t going to pay my rent or bills.
A few years later, I took a position with the Board of Education and an adjunct with the Board of Higher Education. There, I taught business education, which included word processing, typing, and data base management. I went on to graduate school and got a degree in Education and Instructional Technology. My career seemed to shift, and I thought it was prudent to have more marketable skills under my belt.
During the summer, for fun, I took a course in cake decorating, inspired by my girlfriend who did cakes on the side to supplement her income. I had such a great time in class that I wanted to take more classes. This form of art inspired my creative energy, as I was not doing any theater work. By then, I met my husband, an actor and social worker. He nurtured my creative energy and encouraged me to take more classes in cake decorating. I traveled abroad, largely to the U.K., where I was able to refine and develop my skills.
In 1990, I decided to leave the Board of Education and try my hand at becoming an independent cake artist. I did some cakes for family and friends and a small clientele. I was doing something creative for a living and I never turned back.
When did you decide that you wanted to teach and what steps did you take to make that happen?
It was getting increasingly difficult to make a living baking and decorating cakes on my own. Since I wasn’t interested in working for someone else, I needed to supplement my income. At the time, I was competing with other cake artists and bakeries, so I decided to explore the possibility of teaching this art. As a trained teacher, I had the credentials for teaching a number of different subjects. If I could teach computer-based classes, I could teach cake decorating, I thought.
In the early 80’s, the market for teaching cake decorating was limited to Wilton Cake Decorating classes. I had spent a great deal of time and money in learning far more advanced and sophisticated techniques and cakes covered in rolled fondant was a new phenomenon in the U.S., as well as Australian stringwork, Lambeth, South African and English techniques. I had studied all these techniques while I was abroad, and I wanted to see if others shared my passion for this disciplined art.
I sent out resumes with photos to various schools, and almost immediately I got responses. I taught classes at NY Cake & Baking, The New School Culinary Art, The French Culinary Institute and, finally, Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School, which is now The Institute of Culinary Education.
You’ve been an integral part of the cake decorating program at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York for almost 30 years. Tell us about that program and the courses that are offered.
I teach in two programs: First, Techniques of Professional Cake Decorating, a 240-hour professional program, and second, cake decorating recreational programs. The latter began 28 years ago, and comprises amateur classes from basic to advanced cake decorating; cookie design classes; wedding cake workshop classes; gum paste floral classes; gum paste novelty classes, basic to advanced Australian stringwork classes; Lambeth design classes, such as cushion lattice, ring-design cake, Oriental Stringwork classes and classes based on some of my books – such as The Well-Decorated Cake; Wedding Cake Art & Design, Cookie Decorating; Professional Cake Decorating, 1st and 2nd edition; and Master Class. In all, I have taught 25 to 30 different classes or courses, from 1-day classes to 5-day classes. Most are 5-day classes.
The Professional Cake Decorating program is actually comprised of all of my recreational classes turned into a 240-hour course, with the addition of Airbrushing and Sculpted Cake classes.
You have written a number of excellent books on cake artistry, and even one on decorating cookies. Which of your books is the most comprehensive guide for someone who is motivated and wants to teach themself cake decorating techniques, and why?
My most comprehensive book is Professional Cake Decorating, 2nd edition. It is literally an encyclopedia of the art of cake decorating, with step-by-step instructions, including line drawings and photography. It is truly the most comprehensive book on the subject, in an easy to read and follow format. There are test questions at the end of each chapter, a full color chart, a plethora of recipes on cakes and icings, full and complete guide on measuring liquid and dry ingredients. Recipes are given in grams, ounces, pounds and liters. The only other books that covers cake artistry to a large extent are the Wilton volumes 1, 2 and 3. These books cover almost every aspect of cake decorating. The photos and techniques are “dated”, but this could also be said for my book. The difference is the wealth of recipes and modern approach to this subject matter.
What are some of the toughest techniques for students to master?
Initially, some students find intricate piping work to be difficult, like Australian and Lambeth over-pipe techniques, icing a cake in royal icing and paying attention to every detail. However, with patience, students get the hang of it and truly enjoy this disciplined style. Icing a cake smoothly in buttercream and some basic buttercream border skills, like reverse shells, fleur-de-lis, rose buds, half roses, and piping a full-blown rose on a nail is also challenging for many students.
In your opinion, what is the most important asset or ability a cake decorator who is just starting should cultivate?
First, determine what type of cake artist you wish to be – a classical cake artist, one who is versatile in English-style cake decorating, such as Australian stringwork, Oriental stringwork, overpipe techniques and Nirvana styles; a floral cake artist – one who focuses on beautiful gum paste cake artistry; or a modern or whimsical-style artist. Sculpted cakes or cakes in the form of tennis shoes, candy bars, champagne bottles, etc. are popular cake styles, which is considered modern or whimsical.
Second, practice, practice, practice! Don’t be afraid to experiment with different cake or icing mediums. Creating a “signature” style that is your own takes time and experience. Don’t be afraid to fail – it’s a learning curve. Also, don’t take on too much, and last, try to do an externship with a cake artist whose style is similar to what you wish to master.
Any new projects you are working on that you can tell us about?
At the moment, no, but I have hopes to work on a third edition of Professional Cake Decorating. The industry is always evolving, and new and interesting techniques are yet to be seen.