Sunday, April 1, 2012

In the News

Sweet Competition

Kerry Vincent
We were a little intimidated when we called Kerry Vincent to talk about cake design and baking competitions. After all, she’s had a reputation as the “mean judge” on “Food Network Challenge” since 2002: sharp-tongued, unsmiling, capable of reducing a contestant to tears. She’s a towering figure in cake design: an inventor of several cake-decorating techniques (including one that’s named for her: Vincent marquetry), an internationally honored expert in sugar art and cake design, and the co-founder of two important competitions, the Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show and the Grand National Wedding Cake Competition. To top it all off, she’s a member of the Dessert Professional Hall of Fame and the International Cake Exploration Societé Hall of Fame.
We needn’t have worried, though: Off camera, Kerry is all smiles, generosity, and sincere good cheer. She signs her emails “Love” or “Kisses,” and she’s so admired in her adopted home of Tulsa, Oklahoma, that the city has declared an annual Kerry Vincent Day. (It’s October 6, in case you’re making travel plans.)
“Some viewers love me and some hate me,” Kerry told us. “Either way, they have to admit I know what I’m talking about.”
Kerry took an indirect path from Wyalkatchem, a tiny town in Western Australia’s Outback, to the Food Network. Long before she rolled her first sheet of fondant or began judging sugar art competitions, she worked in Australia as a reporter, fashion buyer, and catwalk model. With her husband Doug, who works in the oil industry, she lived the expatriate life in Mexico, Singapore, and Belgium. She enrolled in a pastry program at Le Cordon Bleu in London, but it was in Zurich that she fell in love with the art of decorating. Eventually Kerry and Doug settled in Tulsa, and in 1985 Kerry began her career as a professional sugar artist—more or less by accident. As a favor, she agreed to bake a wedding cake for her neighbor’s son. The cake was such a hit that several bridesmaids asked Kerry to bake their wedding cakes too. It took some persuading, but Kerry soon began developing her own recipes and entering them in competitions. Less than four years after that first wedding cake, her work was featured on the cover of an international magazine.
As her reputation spread, Kerry wrote articles and a cookbook, Romantic Wedding Cakes. But she remained loyal to the pastry community close to her Tulsa home. In 1985 she helped organize an exhibition of wedding cakes at Tulsa’s Philbrook Museum of Art. Seven years later, she co-founded the Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show at the Tulsa State Fair with her late friend and colleague Maxine Boyington. “Maxine and I were discouraged that all the opportunities to showcase our cakes were on the East and West Coasts,” Kerry says, “so we decided to host our own event.” Together they developed rules, started a mailing list and hoped that artists would come. And they did. “We opened a door, and people marched right in,” Kerry says.
Participants ranged from children to professional bakers, and an impressive 148 cakes were entered into eight divisions. “Our expectations were blown away,” Kerry says. She’s been delighted by the steady growth of the show, which last year attracted 700 entries. (To see some past winners, visit the Oklahoma Sugar Art Show website.) Wedding cakes became a hugely popular category, and in 1996 Kerry introduced the Grand National Wedding Cake Competition to the festivities. Today, the two competitions are the largest of their kind in the nation—and C&H Pure Cane Sugar is one of their proud sponsors. “I use only C&H,” Kerry told us. “It’s the best there is.”
We asked Kerry to share some tips for bakers interested in competition, and she readily obliged. Some of her tips are relevant for competitors at any level, and some apply more narrowly to big-time TV contests. But even if you’re just starting out with a county or state fair contest, you won’t go wrong following Kerry’s advice:
  • Read the rules. “Rarely do competitors read the rules from A to Z,” Kerry told us. “Then—surprise, surprise!—they lose because of a rule infringement. Eyes wide open, they’ll say they didn’t know.”
  • If there’s a theme, make sure it’s instantly recognizable. “The judges shouldn’t have to ask or guess. If they can’t tell, you’ve lost the plot!”
  • Design “flow” matters. “A decorated cake board is just as important as the decorated cake. Keep the flow from cake to the edge of the board.”
  • See your work for what it is. “If another competitor wins, be sure you understand why. If necessary, ask a judge to explain—and then really listen to the explanation. There are many variables in a judge’s choice—technical issues as well as artistic.”
  • Have a plan. “For live, on-camera competition with $10,000 up for grabs, ’winging it’ and creating the design on site is quite stupid. Yet many competitors do this. Have a plan mapped out, the work details on paper—in order—for reference, the design sorted out along with who is to do what. You would be amazed by how many cake artists fail to do this!”
C&H is proud to support the Tulsa State Fair competitions, and we enjoy inspiring Kerry’s beautiful cakes—and being inspired by them. We also support other state fair competitions—you can see a list of them on our website—and we encourage all bakers to take the leap. Who knows? A baking contest could be your path to fame and “Food Network Challenge,” just as it was for Kerry Vincent.
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