Interview with Mari Senaga
I was first awed by Mari Senaga’s beautiful flowers when she began posting them on Cakes We Bake a few years ago. Then, at the ICES Convention in 2011, I finally had the opportunity to put a face to the artist of the gorgeous, edible floral arrangements when we met in person.
Mari’s life-like chocolate work is the result of many years of working with the medium. She has worked in every type of bakery environment prior to traveling the United States to teach her unique modeling chocolate techniques.
Antrarium Ginger Victorian Cake
Mari is often called a walking cake decorating book and it doesn’t take more than a few minutes to understand why. She is a treasure chest of information begging to be put to ink. In the time we talked, I learned some fascinating tips about doing things I never would have thought of before. Mari can create almost anything in chocolate that is done in fondant or gum paste and has tamed this meltable medium with her own little tricks.
Mari’s ideal dark chocolate, modelling chocolate recipe was spawned via experimentation. A friend had a large quantity of left-over chocolate from a chocolate fountain and thought Mari could use it. As it turned out, the addition of the shortening created a malleable modeling chocolate consistency that was much easier to work with when covering cakes, and did not seize as firmly, making it easier to knead, and roll out in large sheets.
Mari shared a bit about what’s behind her fantastic world of chocolate:
How long have you been decorating cakes?
I’ve been decorating for about 23 years. It started when my daughter was one and I went to go find a birthday cake for her and couldn’t find anything I liked. So, I started taking Wilton classes and from there, I went on to teaching, and have to say that is where my passion of the art really lies.
I started as a Wilton teacher (this was before they gave us the title of Method Instructor), working in a number of stores. I soon started demonstrating at events, in the community, Sugar sharing days, Cake clubs, Cake Shows and Conventions across the United States, and in Canada.
I have also worked in a number of bakeries, including a Baskin Robbins, a few in-store bakeries, high end bakeries and owned my own specialty bakery. I have enjoyed working in the business, wherever I could get paid to play with icings, and make people happy!
What are your favorite types of cakes to design?
I am a buttercream and chocolate girl. It’s all about the taste. I like everything I do to be edible as possible. I don’t like having to tell people they can’t eat certain parts of the cake. Of course, I love flowers, and cakes that feature unique flowers, and settings that enhance my flowers. This is actually where my adventure with modeling chocolate flowers evolved from. I absolutely love the look of gum paste flowers, but telling my customers they couldn’t eat them just broke my heart. I ran across how to make a rose from modeling chocolate, and thought if I can make a rose, why not other flowers.
Are there certain challenges to overcome when working in chocolate as opposed to gum paste because chocolate melts?
I’ve learned techniques like adding cmc/ tylose to the chocolate to get a stiffer feel and getting it done ahead of time. Instead of working one flower at a time, I work an assembly line, so I’m making a dozen or 100 flowers at a time. Any place I’m at, I like to make sure is between 55 and 75 degrees. But, when my niece got married in central Washington, the temperature was 110, and the flowers held up. As long as the cake is cold, the chocolate does not have as much as a problem. With chocolate, you know how you put fondant and gum paste into the fridge and get condensation, I don’t get as much of that with the chocolate, and my style of decorating.
Who has influenced you?
My mom was a florist, avid gardener and judge at county fairs and so I have a real affinity for knowing the different flowers but couldn’t grow one to save my soul. The joke with my mom was I can’t grow one but I can make you one. I get as close to real looking as a can. You can never get the exact look, but I had an excellent gum paste teacher who also encouraged me to follow my own path.
My gum paste teacher was Kate Fielder from Canada. She does the most amazing, life-like gum paste flowers. Just having her as my first influence in the world of gum paste really helped me understand what they should look for and what I should strive for.
There was also a group of cake decorators at a shop in Kent, not far from where I live; this shop employed amazing Pacific Northwest Sugar Artists like Le King, Larry Powell, Linda Reece, Roland Winbeckler, and Lucinda Larson. After it closed its doors, these artists and others from the PNW were all about sharing the craft they loved, bringing in other artists from the sugar world, and training the younger generation to share what they loved, and learned.
I have been very lucky in that I have had access to so many in the world of sugar, and I have to say my style has a developed from many of them as time went on, would give me a tip, and another would say to try this, or that, and I started combining ideas and techniques learned from different artist and mediums. They have also provided me with the knowledge, and understanding to be able to reason out why something works, and what to do to achieve the results I am looking for. I often hear people talk about one mentor, I have had an entire network, and I continue to learn from different artists as I see their work, and ideas.
What was the most difficult challenge for you to overcome?
At the time I started cake decorating, I was young and people treated me like I was a kid, and often I felt that they disregarded my ideas, or opinions due to my youth. This actually made me work harder to gain their appreciation, and respect.
Another was my own self-doubt, and shyness (I hear the snort of laughter from all those who know me). I was not a person who was naturally open to people, and liked to talk about myself. I am more comfortable letting my work speak for me, and I have worked hard to overcome these tendencies, and let people get to know me through my work.
What are your favorite cakes you have made?
I have created so many cakes in my career; some of the most memorable have been ones that I was able to spend time on, or given the ability to create something special for the customer, or for a show. I do not have one that is a favorite, I find that as I am working on a cake, I fall in love with it as it progresses, then I let it go, and find myself thinking of the next one.
My daughters have a joke that I have pictures of all my kids on my phone, just not them (of course they are referring to my cakes, and flower creations). I respond that it is easier to get them to sit still for pictures.
What tips would you like to share with other cake decorators?
I have so many tips and hints that have been passed down to me, and I love being able to pass them on, when needed, and I am always glad to share. I highly recommend joining cake clubs in your area (if there is not one start one).
Share your knowledge, and love of the sugar arts. This will give you communities of people who share your love, and help you understand different mediums, and try out various techniques, also join ICES. It is a great organization where you can meet artists from all over the world. Practice what you know, and experiment. Try new things, and see what happens when you do something different or try different techniques with various mediums, and how things work out. Never be afraid something new; it may be your thing. Believe in yourself, and find your niche, everyone has the ability to shine!
Whether in class with Mari or just having a chat, you're bound to learn a lot. Be sure to have a notebook on hand for all the great tips she'll share in a short period of time.
Mari's work is proof that gorgeous flowers can be edible. Even if they are too gorgeous to eat, at least you can if you want to.
To see more of Mari's work and her class schedule, visit her website Mari Senaga's Sugar Art.
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