Interview #13: Michelle Rea
What can I tell you about me as cake maker, decorator and photographer? My name is Michelle Rea and my home is in Sydney Australia. A long time ago I was a pastry chef but most of my recipe development experience comes from working in the food manufacturing field. Working for some of Australia’s leading food companies taught me the importance of having a recipe that works every time.
I have also been food editor for the Australian Country Collections and Rick Rutherfords Country magazines. This I called my fifteen minutes of fame! I can still remember how proud I was when the first issue containing my recipes came out. I was responsible for the concept, the recipes and choosing the location and props for the photo shoots. It was a fabulous time that really stretched my creativity.
How did you first get started with cake decorating?
My mother always decorated cakes so it was naturally something I thought everyone did. My first real decorated cakes were part of my training as a pastry chef where we had to complete two and three tiers as part of our assessment. It was something I really enjoyed and the fact that I one both awards probably helped!
What has been your greatest challenge?
In cake decorating I would have to say it is not the actually decorating but finding the time to fit everything in. I have a completely unbalanced life where it is 90% to do with cakes. Whether it is designing, creating, teaching or just the mundane aspects of buying supplies and paperwork my life revolves around cakes.
What is the most rewarding part of cake decorating?
That is easy to answer – the smiles the cakes put on people’s faces!
Could you give some tips to people who have just started decorating cakes or would love to start?
For someone hoping to start a business my best advice and one that occasionally I need to remind myself of is not to worry about what everyone else is doing. Just be yourself and spend more time listening to your clients than to what is trendy or happening on social media. There is only one successful cake and that is the one that you create that mirrors what your customer envisioned for their occasion.
For the first timer my advice is Just Do It! It really is not that difficult and no one knows what you thought it was going to look like, they just see someone who has taken the time to make something for them.
My favourite students are first time Mums making their child’s cake – that is so wonderful because children will always remember their Mum making their birthday cakes and they don’t care what it looks like they just see that you made it for them. Well that is until they become teenagers then it can be a painful process!!
How did you find CakesDecor.com and what is it that keeps you coming back?
One of my most memorable students is Raewyn the face of cakes decor. She is the one that introduced me to Cakes Decor and since then I have found it to be such a positive space in the cake decorating world.
Which one of your cakes is your favourite?
That is also an easy answer – it is actually the one that is in my sketch book yet to be created. There is a cake I have designed that says everything about me and what I love most about cake decorating. The only problem is, it is about 6 months full time work and as I currently do 100 hour weeks it is still very much a sketch. One day when I get the balance right I will start work on it – actually for anyone that follows me on Facebook it is the reason I bought those 400 petal dusts at Cake International last year.
What’s been the biggest surprise in all of this for you?
I am constantly surprised that people know who I am. I work in my little studio in Australia trying to keep to myself and yet people all over the world know my work! I have to say that I absolutely love it and many people have now become my friends which is even more wonderful as we get to meet on my travels. I have to say, just before I decided to make cakes my life, I was quite cynical about the world and now all I can say is I am constantly amazed at just how many truly, truly amazing, generous people there are in this world that make cakes.
You have been teaching in the UK and Europe recently, what have been your best and the most challenging experiences?
The best would be the actual travelling side as that is my first passion but putting faces to names is really a wonderful side to it. Plus I guess the fact that people actually wanted to learn from me, that puts the biggest smile on my face and something I’m still not used to. The most challenging is just a small thing – the fact that we do not have a universal cake language. Sugarpaste/fondant, can use a wooden rolling pin/ can’t use a wooden rolling pin and even yes you can use cornflour/ no you cannot use cornflour. The one thing that really worries me is that it is safe to use some food colours in one country and not in another – surely it is safe or it isn’t. The other challenging, probably more frustrating thing is flying in and out of a country with no time to actually see anything!
What do you enjoy most about teaching?
Meeting people is the most enjoyable thing about teaching. Sometimes cake decorating can be quite isolating so to get together with a group that loves the same things as you is always enjoyable. There is a lesson I learnt from one of my pastry teaches all those years ago and it is something I live by "there is no such word as can’t” it is so nice to see a student’s face when they realise they can!
You’re so busy; it must be hard to get time to create new things, what inspires your new designs?
Anything and everything around me including my students. I see the world as a cake design. Whether it is the colour combinations in a top someone is wearing on the train to walking through a gallery and looking up at the ceiling and seeing the design detailing. If you asked me what frustrates me the most it is not having time to create for me. I often think I do not have a style that really shows what I love about decorating cakes because what everyone sees is what I have created for others. If I ever won the lottery I would take a year off and just play with cakes and turn my sketch book to life.
If you could pick just one, which would be the decorating tool you just can’t live without?
The tool I use most and probably on just about every cake is the double ended wheel cutter – I love it!
You are a Cake Idol to so many people around the world…do you have a Cake Idol?
Reading this question made me laugh!!!! I really don’t see myself that way. To be honest it’s only since I started teaching that I have become aware of “the cake world” but there are few that I do admire. The first would be Peggy Porschen because I really admire that she has put a value on what she does. We are our own worst enemies when it comes to valuing our cakes. There not many professions that work for so little and it is our own fault. I admire that she has created a brand that is professional in every aspect and without question.
Another group that I admire is the Hall of Fame cake decorators I met at ICES a few years ago. You could not meet a more generous and giving group of ladies that actively build this profession and lead the way in new ideas and techniques. They left a lasting positive impression on me that really changed the way I look at what I want to achieve in this cake world.
I love cake decorators that make me think differently. I took a class with Karen Portaleo and what she did with an airbrush completely changed my way of thinking. I love anyone that does sugar flowers as that is what I love to make the most and the one thing I have the least amount of time to do.
You were one of the very first to make free tutorials available on YouTube. Most people are unaware that you suffered a bit of a backlash from those who felt this knowledge shouldn’t be freely shared. Can you tell us about your experience and what positives you took from such adversity?
There have been two incidences where I was so hurt that I thought of closing my business and this was one of them. Some time ago I put the very simple videos on how to make ganache, how to ganache a cake and how to cover a ganached cake on YouTube. I received a very nasty email claiming that “How dare I” “I was going to ruin all the businesses in Australia” and “I must take them down”. Unfortunately it came at the busiest time of the week so I could not answer straight away and to be honest I was really shocked and taken aback by it all. The other thing I should add is that this was right at the beginning of me starting my business and my business had started purely as a way of coping with the most devastating time in my life. I was working incredible hours as I needed every single cent to stay afloat so I was not ever going to intentionally do something to hurt my business or anyone else’s. By the time I did go to reply she had already sent this email to many others as my inbox was filled with people telling me to ignore her – so I did not even reply. The positive thing is that I chose to keep doing what I do and the funny thing is that when I started teaching, I teach exactly the same thing in those videos as the beginners class and people still come to the class and most of them have actually watched the videos and this is in Australia and overseas.
Can you tell us one thing from your Cake Decorating Bucket List? Something you dream about and hope
On a really boring practical side it would to be to actually earn enough to have a life that is not all about cakes!!
On the dream side it would be able to have the time to create a cake that is about me and puts the biggest smile on my face and have the world fall in love with it (I have always dreamed big!!!)
Michelle, you have some amazing news soon to be announced, what can you tell us?
Oh! Oh! Oh! How I wish I could. I’m busting to tell everyone but I have signed a contract that stops me. It is something that I know the cake world is going to love no matter what style of cake you like creating. I’m only a very small part of it but I was so thrilled to be asked.
Thank you so much for your time Michelle and also thank you Raewyn for doing this interview.Some of Michelle’s Cakes
- Part 12: Calli from Callicious Cakes
- Part 13: Michelle Rea
- Part 14: Naomi Hubert from Tea Party Cakes