Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Piece of Cake

Sara Heslington
Classic Pastry Arts, 2002

With a disposition to match the sunny California climes in which she lives, Sara Heslington has recently embarked on the next phase of her professional career as a pastry chef and cake designer, starting her own cake design studio in Corona Del Mar. But not unlike Odysseus's voyage home, she has more than a tale or two to tell from along the way of getting from the beginning to where she is now.

Sara's pastry odyssey began in college as a student in the biological sciences at Rutgers University in New Jersey. It was here that she realized she wanted to pursue a career in pastry focusing on cake design instead of science. So with that, she began shopping for her new culinary school and landed at The FCI. She remembers loving how hands-on the program was and how fun and exciting Chef J├╝rgen David made it to be there. And in step with her interests in cake design, one of her favorite parts of the program was how many different showpieces (chocolate, pastillage, sugar) they were required to make. Sara was talented enough to score an internship with Ron Ben-Israel, one of New York City's top cake designers. Her internship lead to a job, where she worked until an opportunity to be a part of the opening team at The Montage Laguna Beach in California came her way.

all cakes designed and made by Sara Heslington

After a return to New York City and another stint with Ron, Sara, always looking to further her cake skills, answered a job posting on The FCI jobs board and found herself moving to Chongqing, China, where, as the pastry chef for an American-style bakery and cake company, she went through all the challenges of sourcing Western ingredients and figuring out how to run a business in a large city not very exposed to Western ideas. She would find a supplier for one item but have to go somewhere else for another. Finding a fondant supplier was one of her biggest challenges (something she finally ended up importing from Australia).

Working in a kitchen so small that you couldn't open the refrigerator door all the way because it hit the counter and with the sink located under the stairs, she had to be scrappy and resourceful. All of which, Sara took in stride. In the end, the business morphed into a cafe with a wide assortment of desserts and meatballs on skewers being sold from a different vendor at the front of the shop, instead of the line of cakes and bakery items Sara thought she would be working on. She returned to New York City to work once again with Ron, helping him complete the massive and elaborate celebration cake for The Plaza hotel's 100th birthday. (A sugary replica of the famous building, the cake measured over 12 feet tall and feed over 1,500 guests.) After her project with Ron was finished, Sara again returned to California and worked for The Montage for several months before joining the opening team of The Resort at Pelican Hill. Starting as a pastry cook in charge of all cakes, she had the opportunity to switch after a year to doing cakes only (her true love). So after another short stint with Ron, she returned again to California to head up the cake department at the resort, making all the wedding and special occasion cakes for all the restaurants and banquet functions.

But these weren't the only adventures Sara had dipped her pastry brush into. While working for Ron, Sara met James Roselle, and they became good friends. James had been invited to compete in a Food Network "Cake Challenge" while she was in China and won. When he was invited back, he asked Sara to be his assistant. They took on the surprise engagement challenge and won. Sara admits that she, "enjoys competitive sports and the atmosphere of team competition. The days are long and stressful [working on a show], but I really enjoy having that competitive outlet." By their third competition, however, the team felt that the pressure to keep a winning streak was overload, and this time the show had so many unexpected twist and turns, that when the show was over, they decided to call it quits. It felt more like TV drama than a place to showcase their skills.

However, after a year, when asked to participate in a roller derby–themed challenge, they couldn't say no. But this time they were doing it for fun and doing what they wanted to do. For Sara, some of what she enjoys most about participating in these challenges is meeting other designers and seeing their different styles and ways of working. In total she competed with James in the Surprise Engagement Challenge, Extreme Holiday Cakes, Last Cake Standing Series, and Roller Derby Cakes. The added bonus to competing with James is that they are both so busy that this is time they can spend together as friends.

Back at the resort, Sara was still itching to do more with her cakes. With long hours spent at the restaurant, she rarely had the time or energy to take on any designs on her own. With having her own studio always on her mind, when she heard of a personal assistant opportunity through a friend, she jumped on it, thinking, I could do that. From chef to personal assistant may seem like an incongruous move, but not for Sara. Now, she could finally focus on having her own cake business. She works four reasonably houred days a week as an assistant, leaving her time to work on her own cakes. She rents a kitchen part-time and only takes on two to three cakes a month. This may not sound like a lot of decorating, but when you know that Sara's minimum order is $2,000.00, you get the indication that these are no ordinary confections. She wants to focus exclusively on decorative and detailed cakes that really allow her to be creative. Her favorite? Flowers. "I look at flowers differently after working with Ron. I love a cake with a ton of sugar flowers." She also likes to create a cake that is detailed enough to reflect the event the bride and her wedding planner have envisioned, pulling in details—perhaps lace from the dress or a color from the invitation—in such a way as to bring all the pieces of the happy day together into the cake.

Sara's travels are far from finished. And with a new studio in its first year, many would say she has only just begun. But, for Sara looking back on the story she has created so far, she's excited to be where she is at. And the sources she credits most for where she is today are the people she has worked with. She is grateful to have had many good teachers and mentors along the way.

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