The icing on the cake for cake designer David MacCarfrae
By Jude Toyat
“EVERYTHING THAT SURROUNDS YOU in life, including the people that you meet and the emotions that you feel has its own way to give you inspiration.This can also be applied in the art of cake decorating,” said world renowned cake artist David MacCarfrae when met by The Borneo Post SEEDS recently.
Drawing most of the inspiration for his cake designs and patterns from nature, David has always been a big fan of cookery since his early childhood.
“When I was just five years old, I used to watch my mother baking cakes in the kitchen. At that point of time, I just knew that it was something I wanted to pursue in life,” said David who cites his mother as his earliest motivation in baking and decorating cakes.
Hailing from Liverpool, England, his fascination with baking and cake-decorating did not make him popular during his primary school years in England.
Although the school system did allow students to choose their classes, his was not a piece of cake.
“I had always wanted to do cookery in school but there was no option at that time for boys to do that. It was just classes meant for girls.
“My mother went to the headmaster and told him that I wanted to do cookery, and she also wanted the same. Although at first the school could not accommodate our request, after a lot of persuasion, eventually I joined the class,” he explained.
To make things worse, David was always taunted by people who laughed at him for being the only boy to do cookery.
At the age of 16, David scored well in cookery in his O-Levels.
“I remember running to my mother and shouted that I received good result in cookery. Although I flunked at other subjects, I felt that my world was complete,” he added.
After secondary school, David furthered his studies at Colquitt Technical and Nautical College in Liverpool where he was studied Baking and Food Technology, Cake Decorating and Food Science.
“There, I was given a lot of technical understanding of everything that revolves around the art and business of cookery. At that time, I had a dream of setting up my own business.
“My mentor in the college also suggested me to go and work in the industry. I also worked for several years in a large bakery shop in London,” he added.
When David was 18, he left college with a distinction in cake decorating.
“My cake decorating subject was what I scored and felt very proud of. The rest of the subjects I passed,” he added.
David also pointed out that studying in college and putting the skill into the real working environment was a different thing.
“College does not groom you for the industry. You need to be mentally ready,” he said. “In the training world, I started at ground zero, doing all the basic things. It was not glamorous, but hard work: I worked through the night putting bread into a hot pan throughout the day. I hated it but I had to do it as it was just part of the discipline.”
Although it was not part of his duty, David got the opportunity to do cake decorating outside his working hours.
“I requested to do cakes out of working hours in the bakery, and they allowed me,” he said. “So, I started to get requests to do cakes after work. Also, I started to create my own style of cake decorating. The company really did support me.”
Within several months of working in the shop, David headed back to Liverpool and started his business out of a converted bedroom at home.
“It was a very humble beginning. As I did not have much money for a proper workplace, I started again at ground zero. My parents supported me well and I started to bake cakes,” David added.
David who is mostly identified with his skills in Royal Icing stated that his first experience with it was 30 years ago when he made a very basic winter-themed Christmas cake.
Apart from that, he also does airbrushing, sculpturing, carving, and modelling cakes.
“I can even do sculptures of someone’s face,” he added.
Things started to look up for him in his 20s when he was approached by a lady at a bridal fair he was attending.
“She asked me whether she could get me to look at a picture. She had been travelling all over England but could not get anyone to make her desired cake,” David said, explaining that the picture was from a magazine.
“So, I told her that I would love to do it for her, but I would not copy it. I wanted to create it together with her. That was the catalyst, from the bespoke wedding cake, up to the business we began.”
After their meeting, she would surprise him later when she showed up at his house driving a Rolls Royce.“I was quite surprised that a lady drove a Rolls Royce and came to our humble home.”
“She opened the door and came inside. She then paid me £100 for the wedding cake. She even took me out to buy the things I needed for the cake. It was a very interesting experience,” David explained of the lady who owns a big clothing corporation in England.
He was also invited to the wedding, where his masterpiece received all-round admiration and queries from her friends who were also getting married. David added, “They all came up to me and I guess I was very fortunate at that point of time. My hard work and creativity felt truly paid off.”
Things got even better for David in 1983 when he launched David Cakes International School of Cake Decorating Art & Design. It was during this time that he also found a very distinctive clientele.
“After several years in the business, I ended up with the role to design a wedding cake for the wedding of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson.
“I presented the engagement cake first, then the royal wedding cake. It was rather an amazing yet petrifying experience as we only had 30 minutes for me and my associates to set up the cake in Buckingham Palace,” he said of his first royal wedding cake.
After years of excellence, in 1989, David received ‘The National Training Award’ that was presented by the late Margaret Thatcher.
He continued decorating cake for royalty with his second wedding cake for Prince Edward and Sophie Reece Jones.
“The wedding took place in Windsor Castle. It was set in a gothic style. Although it was a controversial design, the cake fit well in the medieval setting. It looked like it belonged there from many years ago,” David added.
Besides royalty, David has also made wedding cakes for celebrities that include Liverpool football player Steven Gerrard and his wife Alex Curran.
Learning through judging
In 2011, David secured a lucrative three-year contract as a judge for a new international television series called the ‘CAKE WALK Wedding Cake Edition’. It was produced by Buck Productions based in Canada and New York.
“It was a great honour to be asked to take the role as a judge. That really helped me a lot, especially in understanding more about myself as a person and how to project myself well,” he added.
Since being recognised around the world from his TV appearances, David enjoys teaching people the art of cake decorating.
“Everywhere I go, I have been requested to meet and teach people cake decorating. It is wonderful to experience different cultures from other parts of the world. It opened my mind as I am able to embrace their distinctive creativity.
“Meeting the students and watching them doing what they do, being engrossed in their world of creativity, is breathtaking.
“If you look at their designs, they are all different. Their creative mind differs. I always remind the participants to be themselves and let their creativity shine,” he said.
David recalled how the cake decorating world was a closed and specialised trade. “People could not get into the room but only can look at it through a window and see what the craftsmen were doing.
“Nowadays, the old-school tradition and the modern style of cake decorating run along side by side. Everyone has the opportunity to be innovative and creative which is very important.”
David Cakes retail store and its teaching academy closed operations three years ago.
“Now, I enjoy travelling everywhere around the world. I teach around the world and I don’t have a station. It is more like an international academy,” David said.
When asked what important qualities a cake decorator should have, David said, “The most important quality is – realistically – an open mind. It is also important to always believe in yourself and to have a dream that you can achieve.
“I constantly remind the participants of my cake decorating workshops to always make friends because it is also important to have good interaction and communication with each other, besides creating something wonderful.”
Experience and curiosity are the greatest teachers
Although he seems to master a lot of things through his experience, he stated that he is still learning along the way. “The people around me influence me too,” he added.
When asked about the best thing being a cake decorator, David said, “It is the ability to create something wonderful and to see other people feeling elated. It is not all about me. It is not about fame. Now, it is more about the students and making them feel number one.”
On his advice to aspiring cake decorators, David said, “Always follow your heart and know what it wants. There will never be a right or wrong way that you have to follow. If you believe in things that you wanted to do and achieve in life, go for it. If you really have something inside you that is calling and saying you have got to do this, you have got to do it.
“Moreover, living in a world where everything is so accessible, I think they can be smart and take advantage to learn and get hold of education from the likes of YouTube. Through determination and perseverance they have set in their mind, they can achieve so much.”
He added, “Looking back at my life when I was just a little boy, there were people laughing at me going into cookery. Although now I can just go and conform to them and make myself happy, I did not.
“Coming into my life now, I have the feeling to embrace it. I feel very blessed that it is my time to shine.”
David was in Kuching for the first time as part of Kino Events’ Borneo Cake Exploration (BCE), an annual event organised by Kino in partnership with Hong Kong’s Complete Deelite Academy of Sugar Arts.
As part of BCE, David delivered a week-long master class workshop in May with 11 participants who included six local pastry chefs and participants from Sibu, Brunei, Indonesia and Japan.
About his first experience here in Kuching, David said, “It is an honour for me to be here as this is my first time in Kuching. I am truly inspired and amazed of such beautiful place. Everyone is so friendly and there is just creative inspiration everywhere I go.
“Kuching makes me feel like I found myself again. It is almost like a homecoming feeling about it even though I never been here before but it just feels special to me.”