Cake Ignites, Sets Tv On Fire

There are no two ways about it: cake and bake is on fire, and the spark that lit this massive trend was television.

In 2002 in the US, Food Network TV hatched an idea to create a series of episodes showcasing competitive cake competitions. Four bakers with one assistant each would be pitted against each other for a winner-takes-all prize of US$10,000 per episode.

Bakers, pastry chefs and cake artists saw this as a fast-track chance for instant visibility and hundreds of them petitioned the production companies for a chance to be on air. Many great artists not chosen in the draft were bitterly disappointed because it wasn’t just about artistic ability, personality was important as well.

Win or lose, the appearance was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars on primetime television. That fact was often lost on competitors who thought their world had ended because they did not win. In actual fact, they all won – 44-minutes on primetime was a prize all of its own!

Judges also enjoyed a sense of celebrity in this format. Their on-set uncompromising decision-making, with ‘the best must win’ attitude, was crucial. Scoresheets addressed precise competitive yardsticks that included technical ability, quality and innovative design keeping both the judges and competitors on their toes. For most of the cake-making gladiators, facing the judges was undoubtedly the most intimidating part of the competitions.

Reality television competitors embraced rolled fondant, it became a staple, and they produced spectacular sugar showpieces that would knock your socks off. This inspired industry interest along with a dedicated mainstream audience. Sky-high ratings maintained a trend that went on for more than a decade. There were seven different cake shows on US primetime television during the era and the celebrity cake artist was born.

Cake design knew no bounds, wedding, celebration and seasonal cakes changed immeasurably, refigured, artists continually dreaming up something new, digging into the traditional and twisting it into a shadow of its former self. Wedding cake reigned supreme, but sculpted cakes, cupcakes, cake pops, and marshmallow art blasted their way into competition and the market place. The once slumbering giant exploded.

This phenomenon opened a global super highway of opportunity for successful, and sometimes sadly the less than talented competitors, who entered a new world of teaching, endorsements ambassadorships and convention and seminar presentations. Indeed, it was quite a heady cocktail for a community that had spent most of its lifetime flying under the radar.

Once the Cinderella in the kitchen pecking order, cake ignited the public’s imagination not only as a reality television sport where viewers sat comfortably in their arm-chairs avidly watching and chronicling the ebb and flow of competitor’s fortunes, but at the same time, they also dreamt of creating and decorating cake.

Amazingly, with recent economic difficulties that seriously impacted those in the professional sector (read lawyers, accountants, and fine arts designers among others) causing them to seek career changes. And guess where? To culinary! They were switching midstream and midlife and embracing the art of the cake and the business of baking.

The door opened out onto an entirely new landscape. Television networks knew there was money in cake and bake and especially in great decoration. Production think- tanks were constantly pitching food related shows and hundreds of them evolved widening the horizon to include savoury. Some shows served our industry well and others were enough to make one gasp.

There was obvious neglect in addressing sanitation and unsafe food materials (copper and hardware store merchandise). And they (production) completely ignored the use of nonedible ingredients.

Watched by millions every night of the week, this created a lot of nasty habits in those who watched to learn and thought, “Of course it must be fine because I saw it on TV”. It is so hard to break those practices once the bell has rung.

Competition has made way for makeover shows, an interesting change of pace. Experienced mentors coach bakery personnel to change old habits. To wit, we see exhausted bakers working brutal hours, bogged down in the mud of times past, not much left in them creatively, basically on autopilot and in real financial danger of closing their doors. A tough love appraisal is spelled out and they are handed a beautiful shop front makeover with a recipe revamp in the hope that these changes will morph into a new future reigniting the embers of their businesses.

These shows send great good-feel vibes, the networks spend a ton of money revamping each bakery, an expression of goodwill that reverberates throughout the community and the public likes the idea of money being spent on one of their own.

The surge of new business is first driven by curiosity because it is no secret the networks are in town working their miracles. Then the big reveal starts the ball rolling. Invited guests and customers are eagerly waiting to try the new recipes and see the amazing transformations.

The biggest spike occurs when the shows go to air and they do, multiple times a year, with an eventual shelf life of five years – an advertising bonanza. Customers are known to travel from near and far to visit an establishment that has been featured on television.

If the bakery owners are smart they will capitalise on this continuous traffic and stick with the program. The show premiere is also accompanied by pretty formidable press coverage that most independent bakeries could never afford to buy; it’s like hitting a jackpot, not once but twice!

After 13 seasons, Kerry Vincent is the judge to fear on Food Network Challenge. After her work with Last Cake Standing and The Great Australian Bake Off, Kerry currently hosts the bakery makeover series Save My Bakery, and directs and stages the Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show. She has been inducted into the International Cake Exploration Société Hall of Fame in 2004 and the Dessert Professional Hall of Fame in 2010.

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