Introducing our new series, we recognise cake icons in the industry for their expertise and phenomenal designs. This month, we speak to Karen Portaleo.
Karen Portaleo is a sugarcraft mastermind with her incredible cake designs, having been in the industry for 13 years she has created beautifully detailed cakes for celebrities such as Usher, Jane Lynch and even Sir Elton John. Here, Karen tells us how she started in the cake decorating industry and her favourite creations.
Can you tell us a little bit about your cake decorating journey- where did it all begin?
In truth, I never set out to be a cake decorator, my entire career started out rather by accident. I had a friend who opened a bakery here in Atlanta, and I stopped in for brunch. I noticed there were lots of beautiful pastries, but no color, no whimsy. I was a work from home mom at the time, and I liked decorating cookies (the only thing bakery wise I knew how to do). So I offered to make some cookies at home that she could sell in the bakery. At first she said no, she didn’t think there was any reason to have anything like that, but eventually she surrendered to my pestering. Soon, when my daughter started school, I was going in to the bakery for a few hours here and there, and they taught me how to properly frost a cake and pipe cupcakes. At the time, cake shows on television were becoming popular, and suddenly it was dawning on everyone that cake could be a really creative medium, not just in the traditional ways, but as sculpture. So I watched the shows, and bought a few Nicholas Lodge DVDs, and got to work trying to turn my part time job into something that I really enjoyed. It was around this time that I met Joshua John Russell, who I’d seen and loved from the cake shows. He came to Highland, and we worked together there for a few years. It was Joshua who first invited me to be his assistant on Food Network Cake Challenge, and while I was there with him, I was invited to appear as a challenger. It was a very exciting time, everything seemed new, and so many techniques and mediums were being invented! So before I really knew what was happening, I was on television competing as a cake artist. I clearly remember a moment standing on set thinking “How did I get here?“.
You hold many classes around the globe, what do you love the most about teaching?
I love everything about teaching. I love helping students go far beyond what they thought they were capable of. There’s a magic that happens in a live class, when the time belongs only to us, with no client waiting for the work, no crazy deadlines, no budget, just wide open space for guided experimentation. Everyone is more creative when all those stressors are removed.
Read the full interview in the April 2018 Cake Masters Magazine NOW!