Marina Challenges herself, teaches at Cake Camp and reveals some of her "favorites". Part 2 of our interview. To read Part 1, of our interview, click here.
Sasha Reichart: Moving from the Oprah television appearance to another one. Let's talk about the Food Network Challenges you've done. How many have you been in, which ones, and how did you fare?
Marina Sousa: I did one of the very first Challenges ever filmed back in July of 2003. It's been such an evolution of not only the show but my career as well. It's really surreal to look back. So in list form here's my Challenge "resume" ...
Kids Birthday Cakes - Gold medal
Ultimate Wedding Cakes - Gold medal
Cartoon Cakes - Judge
Surprise Engagement Cakes - Silver medal
Miley Cyrus Sweet 16 Cakes - Gold medal
There was also, Haunted Gingerbread where I assisted Dawn, which resulted in a Gold medal too!
I've done pretty well I guess! I refer to the silver medal as my "technical knock out" - after collapsing on set with a fever 7 hours into the competition and was basically disqualified since I was in the hospital :-)
Sasha Reichart: I'll say you've done well! What was your favorite, or most memorable cake challenge? Least favorite or most difficult?
MS: Each one has had their ups and downs! Honestly though one of the most memorable was the one I didn't win. It was so remarkable to me how everyone came together after I collapsed. Dawn totally stepped up and was a complete rock star to finish the cake without me! I felt SO bad! The construction part was my deal and she was left to do it. They let her in the back of the ambulance right before we drove off and I was trying to give her as much information as I could. We talked a couple of times via cell phone from the hospital - it was crazy! The fact that Jason Ellis an Joshua John stepped up and helped Dawn finish the cake was so extraordinary. I was so touched and so proud to be associated with such a great group of people.
SR: What an experience that must have been for you! Luckily you had the right support system to help you through it. Rick (Reichart) recently accepted a Food Network Challenge as a Competitor. What advice can you give him, or other cake designers who are considering making the trek out to compete?
MS: I just can't stress enough how much work it is! (and how expensive it is) That's not a deterrent -- just a heads up. You absolutely need to be prepared. I really think a good 80% of the work is just in getting there -- the eight hours on the clock is the downhill stretch.
Stick to your strengths. Challenge isn't the place to try out a new technique. Commit to a design and go with it but have plans b, c, & d in your back pocket because you never know what will happen. I have never finished a Challenge getting everything on the cake that I had wanted to. Designing an amazing cake is one thing. Doing it in 8 hours, surrounded by production teams and cameras in your face being asked questions constantly is a different thing entirely. Two very different skill sets. Some of us obviously thrive on the chaos, others crumble. Both make for good TV and just know that's exactly what you are signing up for - TV. Anything goes.
SR: This is good advice! Any plans for you, or Dawn, another cake designer at Just Cake to compete in any future challenges? You two are a great team!
MS: No current plans. I've had to turn a few down recently. I was supposed to be in the original "Last Cake Standing" and backed out shortly before filming due to my mother's unexpected death. That's had me side lined emotionally for most of this year. Dawn just had a baby a couple of weeks ago so part of it will be determined by when she's willing to get back into the ring. I'm up for doing another one but it has the right one and the right time. We'll have to wait and see when the stars align...
SR: How far in advance do you begin preparations for challenges? Does Just Cake close during the competitions?
MS: I start to prepare the moment I accept! How much time that actually translates to has been different for every Challenge. The first one I did I think I had almost 4 months notice -- once I had 2 weeks. It really varies based on the production circumstances.
I don't really "close". The competitions that have come with the shortest notice are typically the ones where I've had the most cakes booked. The worst was for the Miley Cyrus competition. In addition to the competition I had also agreed to be the demonstrator at the Oklahoma Sugar Arts Show that year. Dawn and I did 6 wedding cakes, prepped for 4 demos and a two day hands on class, flew to Oklahoma for 5 days .. flew back to California and in 36 hours did 8 wedding cakes and packed for the competition and headed to Disneyland. It was the craziest thing we had ever done. Still not sure how we survived it! Danielle (my baker) had just had a baby 6 weeks before but she came back to fill in those couple weeks - without her we couldn't have pulled it off. The things we do for cake!
SR: That is pure insanity! Yes, the things we do for cake... Aside from the amazing cakes and television appearances, another area you have involved yourself with is cake classes all over the country including "Cake Camp." When did you start teaching these classes and what has been your experience so far?
MS: "Cake Camp" was really only my second teaching endeavor. The first was the hands on class we taught at the OSSAS and we had such a great experience I decided to give it another try. "Cake Camp" was this last September in Las Vegas and was really a lot of fun. I am planning on teaching more in the coming year -- we'll see how it balances out with my cakes.
SR: If someone is interested in taking one of your classes, where would they find you next?
MS: I finally have a page up on classes on my website that I promise to update regularly! I am offering private classes in my kitchen in California. Additionally, in 2010 I will be teaching at the National Capital Area Cake Show , and James Roselle and I will be doing the Cake Cruise to Alaska. I'm setting up a few other dates that will be posted on my site soon.
SR: Based on your meetings with brides, have you noticed trends in colors or themes that has translated to your designs? What would you say are the hot trends of the moment in cake design?
MS: Seriously, one of my least favorite questions! I had dinner with Marla McBride, Wedding Style Director for Brides Magazine, after a competition in Beaver Creek, Colorado a few years ago and someone asked her a question about trends. She laughed and said something to the effect, "If only people knew we were just making it up as we go along." That pretty much sums up how I feel about trends! As far as cake stands go my typical answer is "whatever is on the cover of Martha Stewart Weddings'!
I think if there is a trend I can indentify it's personalization. I think that with all of the cake shows on TV these days people are well versed in the possibilities of cake -- much more so than they were 5 years ago that's for sure! They've seen what's possible and come in with their own ideas. I love to take a look at the couple and the overall event they are designing and use that as inspiration for their cake. People get really excited when something is designed just for them ... it's a great selling tool from a business stand point, it keeps things fresh and new and for me as a designer and most importantly it empowers the couple to determine their own "trends." :-)
SR: We agree about the personalization trend and gathering inspiration from the couple and their event details. I have a question about a cake in your portfolio. Rick and I are both extremely impressed with your cake of the stacked up produce "2007 Salute to Agriculture." Can you describe the making of that cake? Is all the produce handcrafted? It's incredible!
MS: It's all completely edible and handcrafted. This was for a local agricultural organization -- they had seen the "Food Network Awards" cake challenge and contacted me as a result. The Monterey Bay Area is known as "the world's salad bowl" ... which is where the design inspiration came from. I think this project really highlights the combination of my strengths and Dawn's. I'm much more the "big picture" overall concept designer. Dawn specializes in detail. I always joke and say she spends hours on the little things that make me want to poke my eyes out! It's really perfect though because it allows me to create an amazing framework to highlight all the amazing and intricate detail she is capable of creating. The plates of food were crazy realistic -- we had a really good time creating this cake. The one thing that totally blew even me away was the "salad greens" in the globe bowl ("the world's salad bowl - get it? :-) I swear to you they were all made from gumpaste -- it was incredible.
SR: We're completely blown away! This is always a difficult question when I ask it. What are your top 3 favorite cakes you've made?
MS: "Keegan and Lisa's Wedding cake"
This was the first cake I designed with the handmade sugar beads ... one of the things that has become somwhat of a signature for me. I love making cakes but the ones I love most are those I make for people I love. Keegan Gerhard (host of FN Challenge) and Lisa Baily are dear friends and to be included in their wedding was such an honor. I loved everything about the wedding and the cake!
"Ruffle" cake for Brides magazine
I don't have a real reason for loving this cake -- I just do! I had never seen any other designer do anything similar and when I'm designing for print that's important to me. The fact that Colette Peters told me that it was her favorite cake out of the 50 at the event (Cakewalk at Grand Central Station in NYC) didn't hurt either! :-)
"I do" cake
I designed this shortly after the "Engagement Cake" competition. I was really most disappointed that I wasn't able to see the design of that cake through to the end given the circumstances. There were so many elements that just didn't make it onto the cake. This cake has a lot of those elements. Design to me is an evolutionary process... I like to revisit design concepts until I am happy enough with the end result to move onto something else. This cake is a great example of that.
SR: Who are your top 5 cake designers or people you draw inspiration from in your field?
MS: There are really too many to list. One of the things I love about Challenge is the people you meet -- I've met some of the most amazing designers and truly admire them all. It's a very small cake world! But if I have to, I'll just name a few ...
What Mike does with structure is insanity and he has inspired me to take risks I would have otherwise never taken. His attention to detail and down right perfection are something I will always strive for.
I love her style. Most designers I know became designers as a result of her books and her work. I really believe she single handedly inspired a generation of designers. Include me among them.
Elisa and I did our first Challenge together and became fast friends. I totally adore her design aesthetic and her approach to business. Whenever I'm in doubt she's one of the first people I call.
I think her ability to come up with designs on a quarterly basis year after year is amazing! She's the unsung hero of Martha Stewart Weddings as far as I'm concerned! Her designs are so accesible and constantly inspire my clients. I'd love to meet her someday!
SR: This is an amazing list! Elisa is a wonderful human being and we completely agree about her design aesthetic. You can include Rick's name to the list of designers Colette has inspired. We adore her as well. Onto blogs! Do you enjoy reading blogs? If so, which ones are your favorite?
MS: I don't read too many! I'm just not in the habit. I read "Cake Sky" and "Cupcakes Take the Cake" when I can though. I do try and keep up with friend's blogs ... I check in on yours as often as I remember to! And also Elisa's (Confetti Cakes). Honestly, I've become more of a Facebook person (much to my own dismay!) and if people post their blog entries on Facebook I'm much more likely to read them! I've opted for a Facebook "page" for Just Cake as opposed to a blog myself ... seems like so much work to keep a blog current. I barely have time to get my cakes done most weeks. More power to you!
SR: I can totally relate about the time factor. I've committed myself to the blog because I love to write and people seem to enjoy having it there, but it is a serious time commitment and there is so much else to do, workwise. Facebook is definitely a one-stop shop in terms of updates and information exchange. Let's talk about life other than cake. When you aren't making beautiful cakes, what do you like to do in your spare time?
MS: I love to travel, spend time with friends and family -- especially my new niece Nora! I love going to the movies, hanging out at the beach ... and I'm a big fan of "spa days"!
SR: What's next for Just Cake?
MS: Good question! I'm sure I'll keep making cakes ... I hope to teach a bit more in the coming year and see how that meshes with my cake schedule.
I feel like I'm at a bit of a crossroads business wise -- lots of exciting prospects ... I just need to choose what my next endeavor is going to be! Stay tuned ...
SR: I was on your website recently and noticed a section "My Biggest Cheerleader", which is the most touching tribute to your mother, who passed away last year. Marina, I have to say that what you wrote was some of the most affecting words I've seen on a website in quite some time. Rick and I salute your courage and generosity in sharing this tribute with the rest of your "fans". I know it's been a tremendously difficult year for you, and Rick and I both thank you for taking this time to talk with us. We have no doubt we'll be seeing a lot more of you and Just Cake in the years to come!
MS: Thank you so much. My Mom was such a huge part of my business and obviously my life. The loss is astounding and grief is such an indescribable experience. I miss her every day. In the midst of the tears I really try and focus on how fortunate I was to have had such a generous presence in my life who relentlessly encouraged me to follow my every passion. If it wasn't for her there is no way in the world I would be doing what I am today. I realize that kind of unconditional love and support are rare and I am so grateful to have had her as my mom.
SR: Your mom sounds like an amazing woman who had a tremendous influence on you, and hearing you talk about how much you appreciated her is very touching. We can't thank you enough for all you've shared during the interview. We can't wait to see what's next for Just Cake!