Interview with Kerry Vincent
Kerry Vincent has traversed both hemispheres promoting first fashion then cake artistry in the public eye. In Australia, she graced the pages of magazines as a fashion model before transitioning to the limelight of the cake decorating industry. Internationally recognized for her role as the toughest judge on “Food Network Challenge.” Kerry has been advocating high standards in decorating techniques long before the show’s conception.
Vincent is the co-founder of the Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show and founder of the Grand National Wedding Cake Competition, held annually at the Tulsa State Fair. She currently stars in the Food Network series “Save My Bakery” and has plans for more television roles ahead. She has rightly earned her place at the helm of the sugar art industry through her many achievements. Prior to the inception of the Grand National Wedding Cake Competition, she enjoyed a fifteen year run as an undefeated champion in cake competitions across the globe. She is also the author of “Romantic Wedding Cakes,” a collection of beautiful wedding and celebration cakes. Not only has Kerry facilitated the rapid progression of artistic development in sugar art, she has challenged cake decorators to take their skills to new levels. The Grand National Wedding Cake Competition has become known as an event featuring the most extravagant cakes and grandest of prizes, the fruit of her mission to drive sugar artists to challenge themselves, an undertaking not fostered by pampering or unmerited compliments.
Kerry was instrumental in the migration of fondant manufacture to the United States – not as a means to replace buttercream as a staple in the American palette; but rather to offer the versatility and beauty of fondant as an alternative cake covering and artistic medium.
In 2004, Kerry was inducted into the International Cake Exploration Societé Hall of Fame followed by the Dessert Professional Hall of Fame in 2010. Her life narrative is filled with interesting adventures across many foreign lands extending far beyond her star-studded story of sugar art. Once given the opportunity to become better acquainted with Kerry, one can readily understand how her spirit, strength and hard work all culminated the high standards she sets for herself and others.
ICES Hall of Fame 2004
Life Before Cake
The first three years of Kerry’s education in the Murchison Region, Australia, were facilitated by pedal radio, a machine she describes as a hybrid of a Singer sewing machine and a bicycle - the only means of communicating with a teacher in the remote, rural area. When her family moved, she attended a little country school whose entire student body consisted of thirty-five students.
Life in the spotlight as an internationally recognized sugar artist and television personality is quite the contrast from her childhood life on a farm. One might assume attaining recognition would be challenging in such an isolated region; however, farm girl dreams led Kerry out of the fields and into high fashion magazines.
Kerry describes the modest upbringing that instilled her strong work ethics:
“My parents were well dressed and wanted me to dress nicely. Things were not easily accessible. People were given their good outfits on birthdays. On Christmas, people got things like new shoes and socks, or stockings, as you got older and moved into that phase of life. You didn’t have a full wardrobe. My grandparents always gave us nice clothes, but my parents sometimes had trouble keeping up with us growing so fast because they had five children. I didn’t mind that I didn’t have every single thing I wanted. I found a way to work to get it. My father was good about paying his children if they went above and beyond. If you did x number of jobs you got extra money. I saved my money and that set me on a path to personal freedom about deciding how cash was used that I generated.”
At an early age, Kerry began a life away from her hometown. She claims, "It was a sad day at the age of eleven when I learned that I was not going to be living at home.” At that time, she began attending boarding school. Her parents encouraged her to participate in extracurricular activities. Her height and good looks made the choice to follow a career path in modeling a natural progression.
Kerry’s talents are not limited to sugar; she is also gifted literally. Oddly, her keen writing skills were provoked, rather than nurtured, by Mr. Byrnes, an English teacher who hated her and whose goal it was to see her fail. The challenge only made Kerry more determined to succeed, “The more he tried to nail me for marks, the tougher I got and the cleaner my writing skills got. He went out of his way to make sure I failed at everything he set out for me.” Kerry’s saving grace was the fact that the results of public examinations determined her final grade, not the teacher. “I had reached year three and my parents got a call about my not passing English. You had to pass English and math; it was mandatory. English was actually my best subject and I ended up with 98%, contrary to Mr. Byrnes best efforts. In Australia all public examination results were published in the newspaper so it was clear I had the skills.”
Despite this vindication, Kerry faced Mr. Byrnes the following year. “The instructor could do what he liked but, in the end I got my way. I went down to the local newspaper and told them I wanted to write for them about social morays when people went out socially. I stayed with them until I finished school and one year beyond. That’s when I decided I was going away and couldn’t do both. My column was called “Social Date with Kerry”. It was a slap to my teacher that I had my own column. The editor told me I had good writing skills. I wasn’t going to let him [Mr. Byrnes] upset my style. He didn’t think I could write but I made a living out of it,” Kerry explains.
Kerry has visited more than one hundred countries and lived in nine of them. She has been to the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, Venezuela, Mexico and numerous countries in South America. “I’m not a tourist popping in, “ she states, “I listen to people traveling all over the place doing sugar and they’re not even taking the time to see the country. Yes, we’ve seen the great places and the great cities. The longer I live; I realize I'm running out of time to see all the things we want to see. One realizes there is so much more to see. No one’s lifetime is enough. I’ve been to the wall before and after it fell. I’ve also seen all the rugged stuff in outback Australia. I have been on the road for forty-six years. I will be on the road as long as I can stay vertical.”
Life with Sugar
Kerry attributes her perfectionism in sugar art to the amount of time she invests in each cake. “People today don’t worry so much about doing it perfectly. If they have an illusion, they are happy,” she says. Her goal with each cake she creates is to ensure the photographer never needs to touch up the photo. “If I can create something that doesn’t need to be retouched by Photoshop, then I’ve won,” she adds. “When I did “Save My Bakery”, all the things I did were to a certain standard. People in production can’t do everything to perfection, but there are different goals for production. Some are excellent decorators but don’t have the time to make everything perfect when their bakeries are busy. I made the cakes and pastries perfectly, knowing that day to day production pressure would impact what the bakers could produce, but it left a top quality sample for them to follow.”
Kerry with Cirque Du Soliel cast on Food Network Challenge
Her distinctive decorating style is all her own, inspired by her life’s experiences, not other cake decorators. “When you are taught by someone else, you become a clone of the teacher. I was never that person because I never had a teacher,” she says. Kerry’s cakes were the first to feature pleated and gathered decorations with something other than a solid background. She used stencils made by Sarah Gleave from Scotland to integrate these designs into her cakes. Sarah was the first to use stencils for culinary application, but Kerry was the first to put movement into pleats rather than create flat designs on a cake.
Kerry holds the inventors of innovative techniques in high regard and firmly believes credit must go where credit is due. “The younger ones who think they have invented things need to be careful because they’re making claims to invent things that have already been done before, some as far back as 1963 and beyond. Kerry’s decorating creativity blossomed at a time before commercial tools were available. “I made my own cutters out of Coke cans. Now you don’t have to make anything. Half of the cutters aren’t right. No one looks at plants any more to understand the botany, for example, investigating the foliage of the plant or the petals and the stamens to really understand how they are assembled. Flowers don’t look like they should – not like they came from the garden. Back in the days of discipline, you sat there and worked and worked until you got a flower right. No one wants to practice these days,” she says.
Kerry judging The Great Australian Bake Off with Dan Lepard at Weirbee, Australia.
The Introduction of Fondant to the USA
Building up muscles and burning out mixers brought Kerry to the realization that the availability of pre-made fondant in the U.S. was a necessity. During her visit to Australia in 1989, she approached Pettinice, the manufacturers of fondant, and asked them if they would come take a feasibility study of the industry in the U.S. She recounts, “They were resistant at first because they thought Americans were firmly buttercream. I was making enough cakes for people out of fondant that I felt there was a need for it here.”
Kerry and her husband, Doug, spoke to the governments of Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana and Missouri. Ultimately, Pettinice set up shop in Arkansas, but ten years passed before fondant really took off. Kerry recalls, “Many people were nay saying because they didn’t want to learn new tricks. Sooner or later it was forced on them to stay relevant.” When Kerry and other artists’ cakes were featured in Bride’s Magazine in the late 1990s, it finally caught on. “We worked for ten years to promote the product and it wasn’t going anywhere. Bride’s magazine, Martha Stewart and reality television turned it on its head,” she says. When Food Network Challenge came along, we never looked back. All the programs’ episodes featured fondant because you could do so much more with the medium.
The heads of some of the top U.S. fondant manufacturers began their careers in fondant with Bakels, the manufacturers of Pettinice. Kerry assisted John Bush, now with Caljava producing Fondx, with research and development until such time that Pettinice decided it was less expensive to manufacture fondant in New Zealand. They merged ideas to refine fondant for the American market. In Australia, fondant was referred to as plastic icing. “I knew that wouldn’t work in the U.S. because people would think it was really plastic. We dreamed up the name fondant,” Kerry recounts.
At the time, American cake decorators were under the impression one had to decorate entirely with fondant or buttercream. Kerry helped bridge the two mediums by suggesting buttercream cakes have fondant decorations on them and vice versa.
Kerry with Brendan Garlick, the New South Wales competitor on the Great Australian Bake Off
The Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show
The manifestation of the Grand National Wedding Cake Competition was prompted by Kerry’s mission to create a platform for the ambitious who wanted to create better work. “If you don’t have standards and some way for someone to push you, you’ll always do status quo the rest of your life. If someone works alone, they won’t challenge themselves,” she says. But, Kerry’s choice to include the table-top decoration in the cake score was impelled by her biggest pet peeve – cakes placed on the worst table-tops.
“I remember that I had been asked to make a dogwood cake. It was simple and elegant with a pretty topper with flowers. When I got to the reception and was told where the table was going to be, I asked where the tablecloth was. When they pulled it out, it was a Mardi Gras cloth from New Orleans. I nearly died. It was the bride’s right to put her cake on it if she wanted it. But, I can’t be the only person who has had to deliver a cake and put it on an inappropriate cloth.” Kerry had seen her fair share of old, grey and dingy tablecloths throughout the years.
Kerry recalls the worst surroundings she had ever encountered when delivering a cake. “One time I delivered a cake that was to sit four feet from the entrance to the bathroom door. They insisted it had to stay there. I always took Polaroid’s; I had a photo of the wall phone behind the cake. The florist said she could decorate the phone. By the time I got out of there, I knew the phone was going to be decorated. Later, I received a photograph of the cake with the phone decorated and the cake was lost in the shuffle. Also in the picture was the men’s sign on the bathroom door.”
Kerry with White House Executive Pastry Chef Roland Mesnier and his wife Martha
The Grand National Wedding Cake Competition
This one-of-a-kind competition was structured to fulfill Kerry’s vision of divisions and categories and the opportunity for cake artists to decorate cakes however they pleased, within certain guidelines The grand national is an event all on its own under the umbrella of the divisional event, the OSSAS. She knew well the frustration of being asked to create a cake decorated with everything but the kitchen sink. When making cakes for clients, Kerry worked hard to steer them away from clutter. She made sure to have clients sign off that she had made certain recommendations, always mindful that her name was on the end result. Now in its twenty-first year, The Grand National Wedding Cake Competition provides an arena for competitors to create cakes with their own visions showcased by a tablescape befitting their grandeur.
Kerry is sure her mission will endure through some very talented cake artists who share her commitment to promoting proper techniques and cake artistry. “I look at it this way, I have given more than my six penneth and the best shot that I can do. I was born in an era where it was normal to give back and was taught by parents who insisted on sharing. People aren’t worrying about mentoring other people; they are more interested in themselves. As a community, we are very immature. Cake people are known in their niche but most are not known beyond that. A few out there are in the mainstream. We are battling for a place and position in our community. If only people could get over trying to be famous and just try to be great artists. Most do the knockoff thing. Karen Portaleo will always stand out as unique. These days, you can be a damned good promoter of self but not very creative and become pseudo-superstars. I wonder how some of these people can be revered. Lots of these people have copied the likes of Colette Peters and I feel sorry that. She’s a great artist,” says Kerry.
The epidemic of invention claims have driven Kerry to start compiling information from many sources such as libraries, museums and websites to map out the history of cake decorating, dating back to the 1600s. A friend had already begun recording events from the time of the Greeks; Kerry viewed what she had written and took it in her own direction. “I did it because I started to see people weren’t crediting people where credit was due. The old ladies of cakedom (as she calls them) had amazing techniques. Very few people have the skills that they had. I will speak out when people make odd claims to have invented something. You need to give credit. If you show me something that truly hasn’t been done, I will give you credit. I was given credit for Vincent Marquetry and it went into historical records. My gathering and pleating techniques have been historically credited to me, as well. People are telling me they invented inlay. Actually the Greeks did. But, nobody pre-dated me in using the technique because they weren’t even using fondant in the states at that time. People have taken and twisted techniques a little bit because they don’t have the ability to invent something themselves. People will do anything to be famous. It is intellectual property theft. Every day I get emails from people that say so and so stole my cake design. I say don’t make a claim until you’ve researched the history. Just make a nice cake. You don’t have to invent something. The funniest thing to me is the lack of imagination. Everyone should be busting their gut to do something different. They create something that is obviously someone else's idea and put a tweak on it. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out where it came from,” she admonishes.
Times are changing and the popular forum for learning has been transitioning from hands-on classes to digital seminars. When asked her opinion of this shift in teaching cake decorating techniques, Kerry proclaims, “It is an absolute joke! Nobody can learn a complete technique in thirty minutes or an hour and the advantage of having a hands-on class is having that teacher stand right beside you and correct a mistake. It’s easy to repeat mistakes over and over again. Even when you point them out, they still can’t see the error. You have to painstakingly go through it with them. That won’t happen on a digital download.” But they are a good start!
Although Food Network’s Challenge augmented consumer demand for artistically decorated cakes, the public’s expectation of cost tends to be totally unrealistic; they lack cognizance of the amount of time invested in making a cake constructed for television. Kerry was very well aware of this dilemma and made every effort to educate the public whenever possible: “We did try to talk about how expensive cakes were.” She adds, "It’s not easy to crank that stuff out in eight hours. Even people who were good crashed and burned. It took two people working sixteen real hours to put that showpiece out. I called it sixteen hours because they had an assistant. That was my message to the audience. The bakers had to deal with the mainstream people who had to deal with the people who wanted a Challenge cake for $50. But the show did push prices up. The network didn’t care about cake; they cared about ratings. I had to fight to get a bit of how-to into “Save My Bakery.” They skimmed through in seconds things that took hours to do.”
“To be a well-rounded person, your life shouldn’t be all about sugar. You need some depth. I can appreciate the artwork and architecture for themselves, not just because I need to make them into a cake,” she says. Kerry always pondered why the Dutch masters’ paintings were all depicted in darkness. When she lived in Holland, she understood that it was often very dark and gloomy because of the weather. Kerry ventures outside the cake world by working in watercolors and charcoal. “And, I’m a damn good housekeeper,” she quips. She also enjoys volunteering for Angel Flight, an organization founded by her husband, Doug, whose mission is to fly sick people quietly to destinations where they can be trouble free to receive care at a medical destination. Although Kerry has created her legacy with cake, she claims, “Cake is only a part of what I do.”
Kerry’s unwavering support for hand crafted work, patience to carry out her vision and intense respect for the original innovators of popular techniques implemented in cake art instilled in me a keen understanding of the essence that motivates her to pursue the betterment of industry standards. This truly underlines how Kerry has been so instrumental in directing its development through artistic pride, self-esteem and high expectations.
Her accomplishments are not examples of success solely for the cake decorating industry; Kerry imparts an inspiration for one to set challenging goals, living life in pursuit of furthering our God given talents. While criticism can often deflate us, we can also learn from it and use it as a springboard to improve. We should never define ourselves by others’ opinions or expectations, rather determine our own values from what we can achieve when cast out of our comfort zones, for only then will we discover our boundless capabilities.
While there may never be a competition comparable to Kerry Vincent’s, she has likely inspired many others to pursue alternative avenues for furthering cake decorating as an art.
I know she has inspired me to pursue mine.
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