Monday, May 14, 2012

Gettin' it up and keepin' it up... why?

Shame on you you dirty minded lil' blog reader, for thinking what you're thinking!  This blog is about doing cakes, how I got into it and why we're crazy enough to keep doing it!  It's my honest story and
my views on the industry and what I've learned about life from my travels in it!. 

     As some of you know I got into cakes by accident.  My Mother is a renowned decorator and many years ago after moving closer to home in KC,  I started helping her do cakes when she got busy.  I don't know why she called on me to do it, but many a friday night was spent in the basement of my childhood home making cakes.  I liked it but mostly it was yet another attempt to make my mother happy.  I did every sort of cake, and even though I was a novice, I don't mind saying I had a knack for it, and very soon we had more and more orders for the style of work I prefered.  Maybe it was purely coincidence, or maybe it was that people were seeing and in turn wanting my work, either way I was spending more and more time after my day job as a mechanic, in KC working on cakes sometimes all night.
       My Mother had won the Oklahoma Sugar Arts Show in Tulsa Oklahoma several times, and one friday as she was finishing up the work on her showpiece, I decided to bust out a cake that had been rolling around in my head for a few days.  That evening I made a 1950 ford woody wagon, with a surf board and cake on top, and the next morning we were off to Oklahoma.  I hadn't had any interest in the competition at all at that point, but rather only in making something I wanted to make and since I was going to the show (I think it was my first time there)  I figured I might as well bring something...

      That silly little cake got an unimaginable amount of attention and was part of the reason why TLC contacted my mother and I to audition for Cake Off.  Originally when we were making the video the intent was for it to be her audition video for the show.  They had asked us to do the video together, and it turned out that I was the one that producers had chosen to be the lead, I'm not real sure this sat well with my mother as she had always been the one people came to and maybe I'm wrong but it seemed to hurt her ego a bit that I had been asked to lead.   I was proud to have been asked but even more surprised by the reality of shooting a reality TV show and the strain it can put on people and relationships...  The first episode was a pirate show and my plan was to create something that a man who truely believed himself to be a pirate, would appreciate.  I didn't want to do a childlike version, but more of an off scale model type of cake.  With the aid of my mother and my sister Tammy's amazing character modeling skills (which we practiced only briefly before we went to the shoot) we won.  At the time the deciding vote was the clients.  This made it easier in my mind to plan. 
       The second episode was a dog show.  And it was in planning for this that tensions between myself and my family got tougher.  I was having a really rough time in my personal life and working on the show with my sisters and mother was tricky as they didn't feel like I was really doing enough.  It's easy to see actually how they could feel this way as they weren't used to working with me (My sisters didn't work in cake at all at the time)  My style is pretty frustrating to those who don't understand it.  My brain is a wierd cross wired silly little place...  My head is full of dozens and sometimes hundreds of tv or movie screens.  I can go through the process of creating things, like cake, countless times in my head before I ever take action.  Even during taping, when you're asked to perform as you decorate, I can play a version of the goings on in my head.  I can even fast forward a bit and try to anticipate what's going to be asked, or what's going to happen (no I don't think I can see the future...  but I knew you were going to think that!)  It gives me a bit of breathing room when I'm put on the spot and must speak or act.  (It's also confusing as hell!)  So, as I was planning and doing my best to try to live up to my own standards and still trying not to let my sisters and mother down, my apparent lack of action irritated them! 
       When we were asked to come back and do a third show, things really came to a head.   They had already voiced thier opinion that I was not taking it seriously, and even went so far as to claim that I was taking too much credit for the previous success we had.  Things had become increasingly dark at home and when they felt I wasn't doing enough they tried to take over.  As I had said before I had done that third show dozens of times already in my mind...  One of the toughest things was we didn't know who the client was or their style.  So in my head I had devised a series of ways of customizing the design to please the unknown client.  The design was a sand castle, part of the design included spires with sharply pointed cone roofs...Partly because I didn't like to do too much work before taping, and partly because I had planned to use the roofs as a point of customization  I felt we could choose the color or design on set to suit the client, and we ended up doing so during the show as part of the client twist ! At the time I had gone against what my sisters and mother wanted and refused to finish them here, before heading to California.   I remember being in the car on my way to get supplies, when my dad called and told me they were fed up and had decided that my design was to complex and they had chosen to get the spires done now and I'd just have to accept it.  I called them, admittedly upset, and told them to stop, and that even though they didn't understand it I had a plan.  It wasn't 15 minutes later that I recieved another call from Dad in which he explained that they had told him to call me and tell me they quit.  My sister was already heading home and my mother was steaming mad.  They felt that they needed to teach me a lesson, and I guess this was their decided plan of action... less than a week before we had to leave to film the episode.

          As anyone who's seen the final episode knows, I had a new team for the shoot.  My friend Michelle agree'd immediately and she recruited Karen, who I met for the first time at the airport!  Jamaica was brought in by the network to finish up the quartet.  We met as a complete team for the first time in the lobby of the hotel at a small table in the lounge.  I only had pictures of the structure as the supplies hadn't even arrived from the shipping company, and since the events delayed me a bit they wouldn't arrive until half way through the move in day on set!    Using only the pictures I had taken and my explination of how it was all to work, we devised our plan and without any real problems we finished early and my team performed as if we had rehearsed it a million times!   I seldom had to turn my head to explain anything, or check up on their work (well, unless the production crew asked me to in order to build their story)  It was awesome and I was very proud of them all, yet it was bittersweet, as I really felt like my own family was almost pulling for me to loose.  So I'd learn my lesson...  Additionally the production staff used the situation to their advantage and some tense moments happened on set.

     After all the shows were done it was right back to work.  It's not the life changing event many people feel it is.  I can thank my appearances for much of what I get to do now, traveling and teaching, but in the following year and a half things got worse and worse, and the differences between my mother and I grew too great, until litterally in one day it ended...   I've heard all sorts of stories about what happened from all sorts of places, but none of the stories are accurate, to any valuable degree.   I'm not going to explain that part, or share the details of the split, it serves no purpose in this story, but I will share what I learned from all of this... 

    I never wanted to be a cake decorator...  Many days I still don't, I got started because no matter how old you are, or how many times you seem to fail at the task, we all want to please our parents.  The only way I could think of was to try and help as best I could.  This story isn't even about cake, it's about realizing that sometimes things happen and all one can do is learn from it and move on.  I learned that on any given day, I can really only do the things that make me happy.  The best way to make myself happy is to do the things that feel right to me.  Some of the things are easy, some are hard, but only by being true to what I feel inside of me can I then turn that energy outward and share it with those I love.   It doesn't feel right to me to be looked to as I often am because of a silly TV show, yet if it is to happen what feels right to me is to show the same kind of love and energy with whoever it is that honors me in that way.  I have been so lucky to have met so many people, all of them so full of love (I can't think of a better word) and so happy to share it with me.  The more I feel it the more I want to share it and build upon it. I have the truely wonderful people around me now to thank for that!(you all know who you are!)  I've found that eventually I had to forgive myself for the things I couldn't do, the people I couldn't satisfy and focus on the positive! 

          So...  Why CAKE?  I can't say that as a career, the act of making cakes is a good one.  seldom do I make enough to really justify the hard work and even keep bills paid.  The hours are long and the stress levels are high.  There's always a deadline and then even after the cake is complete there's the worry about an unhappy customer. (I'm starting to see a trend here...  I think maybe I have a need to please).  like so many cake people ( and other professions too)  I pour myself into my work.  It's a sort of expression for me and sometimes I even feel guilty charging for it, but when you're asked to create something for an event, or person that inspires them, that brings joy and happiness, it brings the same energy to me...  It feels right and even if just in a small way, I've shared that energy with that person or group andI feel lucky.  I feel like payment was recieved.
       I get to travel and meet so many excited faces.  Even a silly thing like a competition, when the viewers are allowed on stage to watch me work, or in a class when I get to share my techniques for doing my work, it's hard for me not to want to stop and chat, and meet them.  The single greatest thing I learned from my experiences in the world of cake is that we're all in this together.  Cake is by it's nature a thing that makes people happy...  Being a person who makes them means that I get to share in that happiness with them.   Many a day do I dread having to make yet another cake, but never will I get tired of the great people I meet because of it!
        Thank you cake for that.

Peace N Love Friends!

Friday, May 11, 2012

I'd like it like this, But crappier please!

Mike:  "Black Sheep Custom Cakes"

Caller:  "I'd like to order a cake.  I want to feed 100 people... I want it really cool, sculpted, with lights and sounds and 4 foot tall please."

Mike: " Be happy to do that! That'll cost you about $X.XX delivered." ( Realizing in his head that the cost and time involved in the cake as well as the risk for such a design barely justifies the price asked)

Caller:  "OH...  well, can we do it for 50 people?  What would that cost?" 

Mike:  "Umm....  well I could make it a bit smaller, but it's still about the same amount of work for me., so the cost doesn't go down that much."

Caller:   "OH...   well what if we do it for 25...  do you do cupcakes?"

    This seems to happen so often my head spins.  Once again we can thank reality TV for inflating the expectations of our customers while providing them with no clue as to what it really takes to make a cake!

   For those of you that are wondering what I do, here's my thoughts:
The above scenario is very common, but also common is the mind set now that since a client is having "other deserts" The need for a full sized cake is not as important to their wedding or event (seems to happen more with weddings).

Let's think about this....  When people come to a wedding, they expect to see a bride in her pretty dress and a decorated venue.  After that they expect to see the cake.  Every wedding I know of usually includes the cutting of the cake and a ton of photos of the bride and groom with the cake.  Do guest show up wondering  what the desert bar looks like?  Can you imagine the bride and groom standing next to the bowl of red and blue Skittles or brownies?  What a memorable pic that will be!!!

   When faced with this scenario, I usually explain that if they called me looking for the 4 foot tall sculpted fire breathing cake, but because of the price decided to do the sheet cake with plastic dragon figure, they're not going to be satisfied!  In the same light a bride may not think as far ahead to her wedding day, when her little cake fails miserably to impress anyone (herself included). But hey atleast there's a bowl of skittles and M-M's with the monogram on it!   I find that clients usually agree once they've thought about it.  We very often seem to forget that we are the ones with the experience in this field, and we can share that with our clients to make the experience better for them!

My job is to make people happy and I can't allow myself to cut corners in an attempt to reduce the price to do that!  We all have our standards, and when we let the customer talk us down from them we'll end up with un-happy customers!  It's a bit of a paradox as I will sometimes end up not doing the cake, but atleast I can sleep at night knowing I did my best.  Never ever do I buy into the dumb it down so it will be easier to sell!  I do cakes of every level and degree of complication, but most importantly I have to be satisfied with them when they leave the shop!

Well...  With 2 more cakes to do I best get back to work!  I've got a cake for Rockfest tomorrow and regular stuff too!

Peace N Love Friends! 

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Reality TV and "Super Hero syndrome"

In the past few weeks I've been contacted by two different production companies about two completely different shows.  One is a newer show I'm not supposed to discuss and the other was Next Great Baker.  It got me to thinking about the past few years and the rollercoaster ride they've been. ( believe me, I could go on and on about that, but I'll get to my topic)  As many of you know I've done three "Ultimate Cake off'"s, a small christmas special and thats about it....  I'm fortunate enough to have won all 3 cake off, s and I can't deny that my appearance on them is at least part of the reason why I'm asked to do events, why I am able to call upon so many talented people to do KC Cakefest, and on occassion, I even get an order out of the deal.   I can't really even say I'm proud of the work we did on TV, and I don't for a second think it was all of my own doing.  But most of all I try to remember that it didn't then and doesn't now define who I am... 
     I can tell you first hand that reality Tv for the most part is total bullshit.   The producers of said shows have a very narrow and limited scope of ideas and believe that there is a very small window of choices of subject and story line that "sells" to todays TV watching market.  The term repeated so often is "DRAMA", which to a modern day TV producer apparently means people in uncomfortable situations, being pushed to the brink ( and frequently far past it) with little emphasis on whether the person/ people have any real talent, the story is relevant, or whether or not there's a mili-amp of positive energy produced inside the heart and soul of the viewer.  I'm offended by the idea that the only thing that we the people want to watch or take part in is a version of Jerry Springer, combined with baking, or beauty pageants, or what happens in a swamp.    Don't get me wrong, there are a few shows out there that actually have a positive vibe to them and rarely if ever have the negativity that stains TV today.  Shows like Man Vs Food, Mythbusters, and...  well...  it's hard to think of them as they're so rare, But I like both of these shows! 
           Man vs Food is a pretty cut and dry show.  The always enthusiastic host Adam, travels the country searching for challenges in diners, delis and resturants, and always ends with him undoubtedly shortening his life by downing a massive sandwich, steak or pancake!  The idea is simple, but what makes the show great is the constant smile on Adam's face, the local flavor and good people he meets, and the fact that even though the show is ultimately about him taking on some sort of glorified Hotdog eating contest, it gets deeper than that due to the good natured people he gets involved with.  He samples not only the local food, but gets to do even better... meet great people.
    This brings me to my first point.  I've done Tv shows, and in the following years I've been courted by this production company and that.  I've had people dedicate large amounts of time and energy into "making it happen" for me.  I've been approached with show ideas that on the surface seemed really great, only to find them hollow and essentially a clone of some show I've already seen a million times, just with a different spin.    I've come to dred the idea of casting agents, producers and networks, yet I owe so much of my "success" to them.  Would I be where I am today had I never done TLC?    The best part of the last 2-3 years has been the people I've been lucky enough to meet.  Many of them I would never have met, had it not been to three measily wins on TLC.  I've traveled, done exciting events, the best and proudest being hosting KC Cakefest, and all the while meeting new, really great and energetic people.  I"ve never felt like I was worthy of the excitement people have for you when they've seen you on TV.  Even though it's been a while, I still get it.  Just the other day at WalMart, I was on my way out the door when an elderly lady in one of those loaner wheelchairs asked me if I could help her.  I stopped and as she requested, pushed her through the theft detectors, past the greeter and to the side so she could wait for her husband who was parking the car.  At first I didn't think anything of it, but as I pushed her along, she said "Thank you Mike"...  I know you're a celebrity, but I didn't want to sit in everybodies way."  I was just happy to help a very sweet old lady, but the fact that she knew my name and thought so highly of me really did make something inside glow.  I chatted with her for a while and shortly after her husband arrived.  He told me how much she used to like to bake, and how she's been to my website.  I'm still excited to have met them and as I walked out of the store I couldn't get over how excited she was, and in turn how good I felt.  It's that type of energy that I live for.  To share a moment with a stranger, to feel the bond of energy if only for as long as it takes to push a wheel chair.  I felt and still feel very lucky.

         And that brings me to my second point ( yeah, I have two! LOL)  In the time since TLC I've met and spent time with so many of the people that have been on different TV shows.  Many of them I'm very proud to call friends, some are a bit harder to "get", while others look to their Tv appearance as some sort of magical event that changed them at the molecular level, and these are the ones I have a tough time with.  They seem to feel like the TV camera beamed some sort of radioactive radiation at them, or maybe they were bit by some crazy venomous producer, that transformed them into a super hero, flying over mere mortals bakeries, flinging buttercream at those beneath them with a ZAP, BOP, BOOM!  They've convinced themselves that they are better and more interesting than anyone else.  Their opinions are no longer such and are by nature of their super powers undeniable facts, and no one can say otherwise. Ater all, They were on TV!   What the hell??  
         TV is at best a fleating moment.  Yes the ride may take a while to come to a complete stop, and sometimes you may catch a ticket to yet another ride, but the idea that it defines you at the place it matters most or creates a super hero out of you....  No.  (I wish!)  I may be goofy, but I feel that inside me is the little Mikey that used to ride his bike barefoot on summer vacation wearing nothing but his shorts.  That used to sword fight with sticks at the bus stop, and best of all looked at the world with wonder and amazement.  I try very hard to keep in touch with him, after all, he created me.  As an adult ( yuck) I do what I must.  I work.  I pay bills, I'm a dad ( which actually plays well with the inner youthful Mike) but I always try to look at myself from that point of view and my inner child says "yeah, you did some TV, now what?"  Perhaps it's logical that the things I do that are the most rewarding are the things my three kids enjoy most and are most impressed by.  I love to talk to people, learn and try new things.  I'm still trying to find my place in the world, and maybe someday I will.  I'm not concerned about not really knowing where I'm going...  I've got some exciting ideas and plans, and the journey will be a blast, although every now and then that  Mikey inside me does ask, "are we there yet?"

Peace N Love Friends!  I'm off to decide what to do about my latest TV goofiness.  To do or not to do?    thinking not...