The very talented Chef Vanessa Greeley has overcome many obstacles on the road to becoming the master cake, sugar, chocolate and pastry artist she is today. Originally from Lima, Peru, Vanessa came to the states to pursue computer studies at Columbia University and NYU.
While mathematically inclined, facing and overcoming a battle with cancer made working with the right side of her brain a more natural pursuit. Looking at any of Vanessa’s cakes, sugar pieces or chocolate sculptures, one might assume Vanessa has a background in art. She pays great attention to details, rendering proportions, figures, and objects with great accuracy.
Vanessa pursued her new found passion for cake at the French Culinary Institute in New York, now called the International Culinary Center. Since that time, she has accumulated a long list of accolades in addition to several television appearances including Food Network’s “Challenge” and “Sugar Dome”, Telemundo’s “Cooking with Susso” and WEtv’s “Wedding Cake Wars”:
- Gold medal at the 2008 American Bakery Expo
- Best in Show Trophy at the 2009 National Capital Area Cake Show
- First place and Divisional medals at the 2009 Great American Cake Show
- First place at the 2010 NY Cake Convention Live Challenge
- First place at the 2010 Great American Cake Show Live Challenge Second place at the 2010 Connecticut Cake Competition Live Challenge Second place at the 2010 National Capital Area Cake Show
Today, Vanessa proudly serves as the ICES Representative in New Jersey.
Vanessa shared a bit about how her cake career blossomed:
What were the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your career?
Having to juggle between my 9 to 5 job as a senior systems analyst, being a pastry chef and cake decorating instructor on evenings and weekends. Add being a mom and wife to the mix and it doesn’t get any easier.
Spending time with the family is important, so prioritizing responsibilities and discussing them is a must. I don't usually take any jobs in June and July, for example. Coincidentally, everyone in my family has a birthday, wedding anniversary (ours), etc during those months and I enjoy spending it with them and love making their cakes, too. It also helps that my husband and my daughter are my biggest fans and they support my crazy schedules and adventures. But since last year, my husband Mike and our daughter Michelle took up distance running so they are on their long runs on weekends while I am in my studio caking and prepping for classes, but I am hoping to join them one day when my right achilles is fully recovered.
How did you transition from going to school for computers to pastry?
I went to the International Culinary Center in NY (founded as the French Culinary Institute) in the evenings. I had to run after work to make it to school at 5:30 pm. I was often 5 to 15 minutes late. And although I had perfect attendance and never missed a class at ICC (I missed my office Xmas party at the Waldorf on a Friday in NY because I had class), I did not qualify for a perfect attendance award due to my tardiness being the equivalent of 1 ½ days of school!! Yes, that strict!. And yet, I would do it again. Why? Because going to ICC helped me channel the challenges I was left to deal with after my fight with cancer. I was in remission, but still going through depression and multiple surgeries as a result of the aftermath of my treatments. At ICC, they treated me as a regular student, they really put me to the test, they gave me the tough love I needed to snap out of it and they gave me the skills to succeed, too. But, it wasn’t easy - it all came with hard work. I had to spend weekends perfecting recipes and memorizing methods and procedures as well. I missed family events to practice for my tests.
What are your favorite types of cakes to design?
I love to design elegant and regal cakes using anything from the simplest to the most complex techniques. But equally important to me is how they taste. The way it looks is only the beginning; the wow factor needs to last until the last bite. When I am not making elegant cakes, I like to have fun hand modeling whimsical creatures. For some reason, I am always drawn to frogs and bunnies. I also enjoy making sugar showpieces. I do chocolate showpieces, as well, and have competed on the Food Network, earning second place with a chocolate design (Food Network Challenge Chocolate Myths episode). I am also one of the pastry chef designers at the Chocolate Fashion show in NY and Washington D.C.. My work has been featured on CBS News, Fox News, First Look on CNBC, CNN Yahoo news to name a few.
What was the turning point in your career?
Cancer. I had to deal with the aftermath of the treatments and thankfully I found love in sugar arts. I used to be good with numbers, and although some of my high school friends remember me as being a little craftsy at school, I never really paid any attention to sculpting, drawing, painting, etc., much less caking. But after my cancer treatments were completed, I had what its referred to as chemo brain. I started having problems with my memory and remembering peoples names and places became a big challenge. I also had problems understanding long sentences, so going to the movies was a bit frustrating, for example. I enjoy action movies and usually those scenes involve a lot of fast, long dialogs that I couldn’t catch. So I found myself trying to figure out what the movie was about by just looking at the picture. My memory has gotten better but I rely heavily on making notes. I started to get depressed because I could no longer even do simple math in my head. And this is when I decided to keep an open mind and give other things a chance. One day, while recovering from multiple surgeries and a bad fall, I came across the Food Network Challenge where the talented Marina Sousa won with her birthday cake theme. I thought “wow, that's cake?”... and Colette Peters' former assistant placed third but the Food Network’s webpage had a link to Colette’s website listed under his name. One click on that link and the rest is history. I fell in love with cake! After that show, I also did a search on Chef Keeghan Gerhard, a former host of the Food Network Challenge series. I found out he was an award winning pastry chef and was named one of the nation’s top 10 pastry chefs of 2001 and 2004. So my next stop in my mission to get mentally and psychologically better was at the French Culinary Institute in NY. I needed to have my confectionery creations taste just as good as they looked. Fast forward a few years and I had the privilege to stand in front of Chef Keeghan during the Chocolate Myths episode of Food Network Challenge. Chef Keeghan was my judge!! I placed second, but coming in second never felt so good, especially because Chef Kir Rodriguez, one of my former ICC instructors came with me to compete at this challenge. During school, chef Kir really pushed me over my limit and helped me discover things about myself that I didn’t know I could do. This is one experience I will forever remember until the day I die.
Who has influenced your work?
The works of amazing cake artists such as Colette Peters, Marina Sousa, Alexandria Pellegrino, Karen Portaleo, Ron Ben Israel, Mike McCarey and Sue Beatrice. Ruth Rickey taught me how to be a good instructor. Also, some of my favorite chefs are Keegan Gerhard, Susan and Ewald Notter, Nicolas Lodge, Laurent Branlard, Stephane Treand, Stephane Leroux, Stephane Klein, Vincent Pilon, James Parker, Kir Rodriguez (instructor at the International Culinary Center who competed with me on the Food Network).
Although these talented people have nothing to do with pastry, I truly enjoy their skills, fresh ideas and creativity shown in their amazing pieces of art: Daniel Merriam, a contemporary surrealist known for his imaginative painting style and Lawrence Northey, owner of Roboart.net, known for his humorous metal figure characters that are absolutely out of this world, literally.
What would you still like to accomplish?
I would like to compete and win the National Pastry Championship and won day compete in the World Pastry Championship. It’s a bit challenging with a 9 to 5 job and without having a lot of time to practice but I decided that it's worth trying. You never know ;)
What tips would you give cake decorators?
I always say: “Just try it”. If you are not professionally trained as an artist like me (in painting, sculpting, etc.) don’t let that intimidate you and don’t let it interfere with what you want to create. Instead, have fun learning these techniques by looking at videos, books, magazines, etc., even asking those professional artists for their feedback. Venture into using what you learn and keep an open mind. You are going to make a lot of mistakes. It's hard to compare yourself with a professional artist but if you keep an open mind, put your own creation to the test by playing with the new techniques you just learned; you may end up with a happy mistake and you will be surprised at the wonderful things you can create. Just try it and, most importantly, have fun with it!
What don't most people know about you that you feel comfortable sharing?
I still struggle with the aftermath of the treatments of my cancer. It can be quite depressing sometimes but that’s when I get into my studio and start thinking about creating new confectionery designs. I find therapy in learning a new skill, too. I just took on carving fruits and vegetables, as well.
When you witness Vanessa's high skill levels in every medium she touches, it's clear that Vanessa doesn't let any obstacle get in the way of her realizing a vision.
If you'd like to see more of Vanessa's masterpieces, visit Vanessa's Cake Designs.
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