Alisa Suzuki has quite a “yummy life”. She moved to the United States from Tokyo five years ago in order to pursue her dream of becoming a cake designer. It was such an unusual goal that Japanese TV and media did special programs about her experience. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, she joined a cake studio in New York City. Alisa is sharing some of the secrets of her trade for the Guardian’s A day’s work series. Post more questions for her in the comments below and she’ll respond later today.
1. What is your typical day like?
There is no typical day. Distinct from storefront bakeries, we work at a decorating studio – every single cake we create is totally original. Depending on upcoming events, our schedule changes continuously day by day. Sometimes we work on sugar art pieces all day for a wedding cake that is three months later. Other times we get last minute orders and the entire team will work on it.
First thing in the morning, my boss and the artististic team have a brief meeting to review strategy and make sure everyone knows their individual tasks. This is really important for us because from designing to finishing, so many people get involved on one cake. Everyone needs to be on the same page. Then, I start making sugar decorations, which we have to make in advance, because the drying time is so long. We always have an exquisitely designed sketch, which is already confirmed by the client, so my job is to duplicate the sketch, only transformed into sugar paste. When it’s close to the day of delivery, I am often working in the kitchen baking cakes, making buttercream or crumbcoating.
2. What’s the craziest/most unexpected thing that’s ever happened to you while on the job?
I am originally from Tokyo, Japan, and moved here to learn American cake decorating and pastry arts. Since I started this job, I have been interviewed by the Japanese media because it’s a very interesting career for a Japanese person. I would have never expected that I would be on Japanese TV shows for my profession. I have even taught celebrities how to decorate cakes!
3. What advice do you have for novice bakers?
I would say, by all means, planning. Planning is very important for baking and cake decorating. You should always have a clear vision of the final product before you begin. I always leave plenty of time to plan and sketch any project.
Our customers not only expect exquisite visual results but also a fresh-tasting product. Hence, we try to finish cakes as close as possible to delivery. Given the complicated designs we do, this requires a tight schedule, careful planning and efficiency. I always pay attention to anything in my life that inspires me. For example, I love collecting photographs from wedding and fashion magazines, flower books, jewelry images, pieces of fabric or even decorative wrapping paper. Those things are a great inspiration for my art. I rarely search other cake decorator’s images except when I want to learn new techniques by observing. There are infinite possibilities to one’s creativity.
4. Do you watch reality TV shows like Cake Boss? Are they at all realistic?
I am not really a TV person, so I don’t follow them much. I have watched several episodes of Cake Boss, Ace of Cakes, and Sweet Genius. I have to say some scenes are obviously exaggerated, because it’s a show a certain element of drama is expected. For instance, it is true that we are awfully careful when we deliver intricately assembled cakes, but they are constructed very well, so thankfully I have never had the experience of having to fix a destroyed cake. I really hope that won’t ever happen to me.
I do have a great respect for those “cake stars” on TV. They are the ones who inspired me to start this career. One of them even taught me in person, and I am so grateful that now I make my living out of this dream job like they do.
5. What’s your annual salary? Do you get benefits?
We don’t have a fixed annual salary. Generally cake designers work by hours because making specialty cakes is labor intensive. Which means we work overtime if needed. Usually we work about 40 hours on weekdays. The pay varies greatly. A designer cake studio is different than a production bakery. Specialty cake designers often make between $21,000 and $42,000. We do not get healthcare benefits.
Cake delivery is one of my favorite parts of the job because we get to see beautifully decorated party venues, and above all, we get to see the client’s reaction. One of the greatest benefits is that I will be able to have my wedding cake! Our teamwork is incredible, and I trust them so much. I wouldn’t want to let anyone make my own wedding cake besides my teammates. So we often talk that we will make a perfect wedding cake for each other when the time comes …hopefully soon.