Remembering Kerry Vincent
By Marina Sousa
The news of Kerry’s passing was a shock. She was someone that seemed invincible, and an ever-present force in the cake world. As I began this article, I did a quick Google and couldn’t help but laugh, thinking how Kerry would have been entertained by the news of her passing being in People and Daily Variety! There are dozens of stories outlining her background and accomplishments. Her Western Australian upbringing, her time as a model, the many countries that she lived in, the romance with her beloved Doug that brought her to Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the story of how helping a friend in a bind led to her career in sugar arts. The 100 blue ribbons and Hall of Fame inductions to ICES and Dessert Professional Magazine are among many notable recognitions. There are countless stories involving Food Network Challenge, Last Cake Standing, Save My Bakery and The Great Australian Bake Off appearances. While her life story is undoubtably impressive, the most significant impact that she made on those who knew her well was personal. There are so many that have their own experiences and stories, which I believe best illuminates the truest essence of a woman who became an icon for excellence in our industry by simply being herself.
I was on the set of FN Challenge at Universal Studios in Orlando the first time that I saw Kerry. We were about to judge the Cartoon Cakes challenge. Social media wasn’t prevalent then, so I knew very little about her other than that she’d written a book and was involved in an annual sugar arts show. Little did I know! When she arrived, she seemed to float into the sound stage, chatting up every familiar face that she encountered on her way to the judges table. The producer introduced me as a fellow sugar artist and an undefeated FN Challenge competitor, to which Kerry responded, “Very well.” Between takes, she regaled us with stories about OSSAS and the unparalleled level of talent. Pleasantries soon gave way to the nuts and bolts of the competition and fabulous prize packages she’d secured. I was fascinated with the stories, but most captivated by her formidable manner. As we waited for the countdown to begin, she said, “I’ve looked into you. You do fine work. You should consider entering my show.” She then gave me her signature sideways glance, and said, “Although, in my competition, technique does matter, so you’ll definitely need to brush up a bit.” And with that, the competition, and our relationship, began!
Over the course of the day, I found myself at odds with her; she was pointing out what I believed to be insignificant imperfections given the restraints the competitors faced. I did my best to explain why I felt that FN Challenges required a different skillset than more traditional competitions, and therefore couldn’t be judged by the same unrelenting standards. As most conversations with Kerry, it was a lively debate. I realised that her persistent pursuit of excellence, while daunting, was rooted in genuine desire for people to rise to the ability that she was able to see in them. By the end of the day, we’d found much common ground and parted with a friendly agreement that I’d enter OSSAS when she competed in a FN Challenge. Needless to say, we both happily stayed in our corners! It was a bit of a running joke, and the main reason that I couldn’t refuse the invitation to be what she referred to as her ‘celebrity demonstrator’ at the OSSAS the following year. It somehow brought our first encounter full circle. It was at that show that I first saw the side of Kerry that I soon grew to love.
Her dedication to the sugar artist community that she’d cultivated was palpable. She believed that excellence was earned through practice and resilience, encouraging everyone she encountered to strive for it. She was the epitome of a person you either loved or loved to hate – indifference was a reaction of very few. With the delightfully descriptive candour, delivered in her mesmerising accent while donning her signature headband, she never failed to enchant fans over the years. She called me when she first saw the proof of the first issue of Cake Central. She laughed while telling me that she was the ‘cover girl’, and added, “Not bad for a gal my age.” She took herself far less seriously than she did cake, which I always admired. The only thing that she was more committed to than the cake world was her husband. Every conversation that we had, she’d report on his goings on. The only thing that was ever sure to bring a phone call to a close was it being time to ‘get dinner on the table for Mr. Vincent’.
For a woman with no time for nonsense, she made an incredible amount of time for the sugar artists that she encouraged and inspired. She rarely gave passive advice. She was all in. She remembered names, dates, and occasions. She took genuine interest in not only their talent, but their lives. I’ll forever be grateful to have experienced this side of her when my mother passed away unexpectedly. She checked in on me every week for at least a year. She’d met and spent time with my mother during a couple of Challenge tapings, and managed to extract quite a bit of information from her in their short time together, which she dispensed at precisely the right times. “Well, your mother said…” was her intro to many conversations as she coaxed me back to the kitchen after her death. I’m only one of literally hundreds who have similar experiences of her.
Since the news of her passing, I’ve reconnected with many cake friends who’ve felt her loss deeply. I reached out to some, asking them to share their thoughts and memories. I believe that you’ll find a consistent theme: she was a tenacious woman who believed that we’re all capable of excellence. Her words and actions were congruent. She may have earned a bit of a reputation for being hard on people, most grew to appreciate her insight and heeded her advice, but there wasn’t a person that she was honest with that she wasn’t willing to lend a hand to.
One of my favourite quotes is from Maya Angelou: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget the way you made them feel.” Kerry made people feel seen, heard and important to her. The following interviews demonstrate just that, and why she’ll forever remain an indominable force in our industry.
I asked fellow sugar artists, James Rosselle, Joshua John Russell, Karen Portaleo, Susan Trianos, Bronwen Weber and Earlene Moore, to share their thoughts about Kerry, as well as Tom Giesen, Co-Creator of the Food Network Challenge series, and Matt Nielsen, of Nielsen-Massey Vanilla.
Describe Kerry in one word
Bold, charismatic, presence, a force, queen, empathetic, tenacious.
What did you admire most about Kerry?
Susan: She said what she meant and meant what she said. She didn’t mince words, and you always knew what she truly thought. She was supportive and wanted to see people do well, even though some may have misunderstood her intentions. She was generous beyond words, and truly appreciated the generosity of others. I’ll miss her loving notes, calling me love and sweetie, sending hugs and kisses. I’ll miss her phone calls and the giggles I’d get because I never knew what she was going to say. My heart aches for her supportive, sweet, genuine husband and their family. My heart aches for us. Kerry has left a hole in our community that can never be filled. I’ll miss her.
Matt: It’s hard to limit what I admired most about her. Her grace, ability to work a room, candour, humour and laugh, resilience, dedication to her craft, and for offering a platform to recognise and celebrate those in the field. On a personal level, our relationship started as a business relationship, but quickly evolved into a true friendship. She was always authentic with me, which I appreciated, and she truly cared about people, wanting to know about their family and always checking in. I’ll miss most our lengthy telephone calls, hearing her beautiful, accented voice.
Karen: Kerry was the most straightforward person that I think I’ve ever known. She expressed her truest thoughts with full conviction. This ruffled feathers here and there, as some people prefer obsequious chatter. This made Kerry’s attention feel all the more rich. If she invested time in you, you knew that you mattered to her, and that felt like such a gift. And she truly cared about so many of us! I tried so hard to memorise her fabulous sayings when we spoke, phrases that enlivened her gift for conversation. She did a lot for me. Her words opened so many doors. I know that my career would have been very different without her encouragement, support and advice. She was an absolute original, a fierce truth teller, a huge personality, compassionate, loving and ambitious, and someone I admired deeply. I feel so incredibly lucky to have spent time with her, and I will always wish that I could have another 4-hour long phone chat with her.
What’s the best piece of advice or most memorable conversation you ever had with Kerry?
Josh: She once told me to learn all that I could about classic piping techniques, then modernise them. It’s the way that I still approach my work today.
Matt: She knew that, as a family business, we were consistently focused on quality. When we talked, she always reminded me of that; that being the best was not only attainable but needed in our industry. She helped burn that into my soul!
Tom: I’ll never forget the first time I met Kerry. We’d hired her to be our ‘tough judge’, our Simon Cowell. She walked into our dinner, talked our ear off, and we knew that we’d never be the same.
Bronwen: She always knew just what to say, and I could always just pick up the phone and call. I met her in my early 20s in the late 90s. She was my mentor, my biggest critic, while simultaneously being a big fan, and most importantly, my friend. I loved her enough to be mad at her sometimes, and indeed vice versa. I wouldn’t dream of making a big professional move without a lengthy discussion with her. My mum always asked, “Well, have you spoken to Kerry about this? What did she say?” One of my favourite things that Kerry always told me was, “Bronwen, if you stick your head above the poppies, you must be prepared to have it blown off.” She wanted us all to stick our heads above the poppies.
What do you consider Kerry’s greatest contribution to our industry?
Susan: They way that she insisted on respect for our art. Through her show and competition, and everything that she did. She brought attention to cake decorating as an art form. She worked tirelessly with no complaints to put on an amazing show. Lifting boxes, sending sponsorship letters, making sure that everything went without a hitch. One year, she’d broken her pelvis, and still carried on and got everything done without anyone knowing any different.
Matt: There are just so many. Her candour and desire to see people elevate their art comes to mind first. While I think that the OSSAS platform is the most public contribution for what it offered, I think that her true contribution were all the private conversations that she had with bakers and chefs about their work and what they could do better or differently.
Karen: Her absolute conviction that cake is an art, that it takes skill, and that we should always push boundaries. Some people who didn’t know her believed her to be a staunch traditionalist, but she was a believer in innovation and boundary breaking. Producing forums where standards were high and encouraging everyone to exceed those standards left an indelible high-water mark on our industry.
Tom: She gave so much to young and aspiring cake artists, both on Challenge and through her work on the Oklahoma cake show. She elevated the industry by treating cake creators as working artists who deserved to be recognised, coached and honoured.
How do you feel Kerry influenced or inspired your work and career? What did she do to specifically help or encourage you?
Josh: I always tried to compete with a cake that would impress her. If you could impress Kerry, it impressed everyone else!
Karen: On my first appearance on Cake Challenge, Kerry spoke so generously about my piece. She had a reputation for honesty on the show, and for her to speak highly of my work, from her vantage point of experience and insistence on craftsmanship, was like winning the gold medal and having all the doors flung open! Even though I didn’t win, I won in a larger sense. I believe that she launched me.
Tom: Without Kerry, Food Network Challenge wouldn’t have taken off as it did. We had great elements, like Keegan and the nation’s best cake artists, but Kerry completed our family.
Earlene: One of the most direct ways that Kerry influenced my career was through her suggestion that a vendor at the show approach me. A short conversation ended up just weeks later in a serious conversation and a wonderful collaboration with that vendor. I can’t tell you how many times similar things happened at that show.
Do you have a favourite cake or technique that Kerry inspired?
Susan: The first thing that caught my eye was her perfect pleating, and her choice of colour. Then there were poofs that she used in a border that I loved and used often, inspiring me to configure them in a different way and make them even poofier… And the Tufted Billow Weave was born.
Karen: Because Kerry demanded it, I competed at OSSAS a few times. If you know my work, that’s probably the last place that you’d imagine seeing it! But in the years that I did compete there, I pushed myself so hard to work cleanly and precisely, and to raise my skill level to meet her approval. While I was never clean, precise or skilled enough to be a competitor at OSSAS, she knew that it would improve my work overall to work in a way that was so foreign to me. And it did.
Do you have any favourite memories?
Marina: On the second trip that I made to OSSAS, Kerry presented James Rosselle and I with Lifetime Achievement medals. Unfortunately, we missed it. We’d spent the entire weekend demonstrating and had a class early the next morning. We decided to forgo the ceremony, which was notoriously lengthy as Kerry literally gave a certificate to and shook the hand of every person who’d entered. It always began with the children’s entries and built to the Grand National Wedding Cake award hours later. Knowing this, combined with the fact that James was still recovering from wrist surgery and in dire need of painkillers, we opted to go back to the hotel to begin preparation for the class. I’d just changed into pyjamas and settled into bed, looking forward to room service dinner, when I got a text from Josh: “Where are you guys?” Seconds later, James received the same. As I began to reply, our phones started blowing up with texts from people at the show, then a phone call where I was told that Kerry was just finishing up a beautiful speech about our collective talent and contributions to the industry and was about to present us with medals!? I honestly had no idea what he was talking about and just said, “It’s ok, we’ll just get it tomorrow?” Hearing this, James leapt up, directing me to get dressed, saying we needed to go now! He kept saying “You don’t understand, this is Kerry’s award, it’s a big deal! We can’t not be there. She’ll never forgive us!” We arrived in 8 minutes flat. Dishevelled and not knowing what to expect, just seconds before the prize was announced. Seeing us enter, Kerry says (over the sound system mind you!), “Well, kind of you two to show up! You missed all the nice things that I said about you. Someone must have recorded it so that you can watch it later, but for now, why don’t you say a few words about your careers…?”
Kerry was the kind of friend that you leap up for, forgo room service, and race your way to, because you knew that she’d show up for anything that she knew was that important to you. She inspired greatness.
James: My friendship with Kerry was more than just cake. While always being motherly with me, Kerry was kind and empathetic. Our 2-hour phone conversations were always welcome. Kerry would read me some of her poetry about Australia, her father. Listening to her words was like listening to a symphony. When my dad was diagnosed with cancer, Kerry kept me grounded. My mum battled cancer, and I took care of her while the world kept going. Kerry knew this; she always managed to get it out of me. When I told Kerry about my dad, she knew exactly what to say. At times, Kerry’s words weren’t always what you expected or wanted to hear, but what you needed to hear.
Bronwen: I don’t know what to say. I don’t really have the words. Each memory snowballs into 27 more. She did so much for so many and I’m extremely fortunate to be one of them. She always got me involved in the craziest of cake missions… We went to New York City and showed off our cakes in Grand Central station. We drove dozens of cakes all night to Florida where we paraded them through an ACF convention, right after making a 12’ birthday cake with exquisite sugar flowers. We did nine seasons of Food Network Challenge. A 20sqft Halloween scene made of cake – that one took a few years to get over! Every difficult part of my life, she was there, be it a divorce or a job change. She made me promise not to get married again and just go out and have ‘fun’ (this always made me chuckle), but if ever I found myself considering marriage again, she would have final say.
And last but not least… what was the length of an average call with Kerry?
Susan: 4 hours
James: 3 hours
Josh: 2-3 hours
Matt: At least an hour!
Marina: Typically 2-3 hours
Karen: Ha! At least enough to cook, eat, and clean up dinner, fold laundry, brush my teeth and get into bed!
Bronwen: She was famous for them! Our record was 6 and a half hours.
Thank you to everyone for your kind and touching words about Kerry.
She will be deeply missed.