Orlando Serrano, cake decorator at Roeser’s Bakery in Chicago, has won several industry decorating contests as well as Food Network competitions. He shares how he became so successful and where he draws his inspiration
When did you discover your artistic ability?
I discovered my artistic ability as a child. At age 6 or 7, I began doodling on paper constantly, even during class time. A few teachers became aggravated with me, but luckily, a few also saw some potential in my drawings and encouraged me to pursue it. I was fortunate to have an artist for an eighth grade teacher, Mr. Klopack. He asked me to start painting backdrops for the school plays, and he seriously got me to think about an artistic career in my future.
When did you become a cake decorator?
I became a cake decorator when I was 17. My brother was working as a baker at an in-store bakery. He enlisted in the Marine Corps and asked me if I wanted his position at the bakery. I had just started my art education in college and needed a job to help me pay for tuition, so I took it. After about three months of baking there, the manager became aware that I had an art background and asked me if I wanted to take cake decorating classes, so I did. I've never stopped decorating.
Where did you receive your art/decorating training?
I received my art training at Columbia College and The School of the Art Institute in Chicago. I studied life drawing, painting, and film animation while there. I also worked at amusement parks during the summers as a caricature and airbrush artist. I was originally going to become an animator, but it didn't pan out. I'm glad things turned out the way they did. I'm having a great time in my life as a cake decorator, and I'm doing things I never imagined I'd be doing. I received my culinary training at Kendall College in Evanston. As far as cake decorator training, I would have to say decorating on cakes is not that much different from painting on a canvas. It's just a different medium to work with. I think if you want to learn a new technique, come up with it yourself. There's a lot of trial and error involved in becoming a good cake decorator. You have to find what works to get the job done. That can be anything.
How is your decorating style different from other decorators?
My style is different from other decorators because I don't like to follow traditional methods and techniques. There is much good to be learned from books and instructors, but it's also good to find your own way to create a certain effect on a cake or a different way to approach the design or structure of a cake. Stretch the ingredients to their limits to see what they can do. I also don't like to follow trends. Cake decorators need to be pioneers and create new ways of looking at cakes. The possibilities are endless; it is up to the decorators to present new ideas and choices to the public. I always wow my customers with something new, and each time they come back, I often hear them say, “I can't wait to see what you're going to come up with this time.” It's all about the cake. When guests at a client's event are commenting on how they've never seen a cake like that before, or sometimes they don't even realize it's a cake, I feel like I'm doing something right.
What is your favorite part of your job?
My favorite part is seeing the expressions on the faces of clients and customers when they first see their cake. It makes me feel good to know that my job makes a difference in peoples' lives. I'm creating memories for them on a daily basis. Customers come to me and talk about cakes I've done for them from years before, and they are still so expressive in their descriptions of it, as if the event had been yesterday, that I know I've created something that will remain with them for a long time after. I also like seeing it come together myself, especially when I go into a certain cake project not feeling too sure about whether it will work or not, and it does.
What is the most memorable/challenging cake you've ever designed?
I created a cake for a little girl who was celebrating her bat mitzvah. A client saw me on a Food Network cake challenge and contacted me about creating a special cake for his niece. The theme of the party was chocolate paradise. She loved chocolate, sushi and the Food Network, and I created a cake that was over 4-ft. tall and had plenty of chocolate. (Cake is pictured in photo.) It was a devil's food cake with fudge filling, iced with fudge and covered in chocolate rolled fondant. It had a chocolate ganache waterfall, chocolate palm trees and coconuts, gumpaste hibiscus flowers all made by hand and a giant Hershey's Kiss® made out of chocolate cake that topped it. I hand-painted and airbrushed her photo on pastillage, and the chocolate river at the base of the cake had chocolate seashells, candy bars, even a chocolate fish swimming in it with a Milky Way® candy bar in it's mouth. I made candy sushi out of rice cereal treats and modeling chocolate, and on one of the four tiers, textured the chocolate fondant to look like bamboo. The client also paid me to make a celebrity appearance as his niece was a Food Network fan, and having me there to present the cake to her was very important to him. That very same week, a local television news program was featuring a story on my recent win and decided to follow the creation and destination of the cake. It was great! The little girl had a dream cake, and her party and her cake were featured on television. The smell of chocolate saturated the entire place, and the guests all stayed late to enjoy a slice of cake. I stayed and enjoyed the party and served cake to all the guests. They loved it.
Where do you get your inspiration for your designs?
From anywhere. Usually a client comes in and has an idea or a theme for their party or event. I start with research and get to know as much as I can about whatever the subject or theme is before I start designing. I will search the Internet or go to a bookstore and look at magazines and books. I also get to know as much as I can about the person the cake is intended for, so that I can create a cake that is uniquely tailored to them and says something about them. The great thing about having a creative mind is that inspiration comes from everywhere. I can be sitting anywhere when I see a certain color or picture, and it stirs up an idea in my head for a cake. I carry around a sketch pad with me because I never know when that might happen. Many decorators look to copy or reproduce a cake or style. I try not to look at other decorators' styles too much because I feel like it will influence my work and I have to develop my own style and look. That is what sets you apart from the rest.
Who is your mentor/hero and why?
I've had plenty of mentors and people in my life who inspired me or encouraged me to become better. I think a few of them were teachers, especially Mr. Klopack, like I mentioned, and Ms. Kaminski at Funston grade school in Chicago. I will never forget the influence they had on my life and career. These were teachers who loved to teach and sincerely looked to better their students' educations. Chicago is a tough city to grow up in. If they hadn't encouraged me at such a young age and recognized that I had an artistic ability, I'm not altogether sure that I would have continued and made it to where I am today. I always think of them and their words of encouragement, their help and mentoring. I don't think great teachers get enough credit or recognition for the jobs that they do in molding and shaping the lives of young people. It is extremely important, and I'm thankful that I had that.
If you could have any job in the world, what would it be?
If I could have any job in the world it would be an animator. Cake decorating is an enjoyable and fulfilling job, but I still think about animation. It would be great just to experience it and maybe be part of a full-length feature or short film production. It's not that I can't do it, I believe I can accomplish anything I have the will and desire to accomplish, but recently, cakes have made me a very busy man.
What is the last movie you saw in a theater?
The last movie I saw in a theater was The Ruins. It is a horror movie about some ancient, cursed Aztec ruins in Mexico and some tourists that regretfully visit it. Great fun if you like horror flicks, and I certainly do.