A Talent for Taste & Design
Even at a young age, Tessa Huff loved the arts. Whether through her many hours in dance, music or theater, she grew to appreciate all. So when health reasons prevented her from continuing in dance in her mid-twenties, it’s not surprising that she discovered another creative expression through culinary arts; specifically, pastries and cakes. Opening a specialty cake shop in Sacramento, California, Huff worked the next four years creating recipes and designing cakes that soon set her apart. She engaged in food blogging, gained an international audience, and a move to Canada ultimately led her to writing her first cook book. Risen caught up with this talented baker to talk about her early days in a highly competitive industry, the support her family gives, the writing of a new book, and the challenge of balancing it all.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine in Vancouver, Canada
Risen Magazine: How did your love for baking and pastries develop?
Tessa Huff: I started baking while studying at UC Davis. After graduation I struggled to find a desk job that I loved and felt a bit lost. All the while, my heart kept pulling me into the kitchen. I contemplated culinary school, but ended up working at a local bakery to make sure that was truly what I wanted to do. From there, it was obvious that my passion was in the kitchen – specifically cake decorating and pastry. [Additionally,] I had studied dance my entire childhood and was heavily involved in the performing arts growing up. In my mid-twenties, I stopped dancing due to health reasons. Cake decorating quickly became my new creative outlet.
RM: What led to the decision to take your talents and turn them into a career by opening your own boutique, The Frosted Cake Shop?
TH: I worked as a cake decorator in a local bakery for about a year. I was basically at the bottom of a long line of talented decorators that had been working there for years and knew it would took a very long time to move up the ladder to where I would be working on wedding cakes and really getting creative. During the year that I was there, I stacked, filled, and frosted cakes day after day. I loved it! But after a while, I knew I wanted to create more of the custom designs that I made at home on my free time. At the time, novelty cakes were very popular and there were not very many bakers specializing in custom cakes in Sacramento. After a little bit of planning and a tremendous amount of support from my parents and husband, I opened Sacramento’s first cake boutique in 2009.
Being in the photography studio every day for a week styling and decorating cakes was a total game changer for me.
RM: This was a successful four years of developing recipes, designing cakes and working with clients, but you wanted more. How was this the catalyst for your move to Canada?
TH: I really enjoyed working one-on-one with my local clients. I loved being there for the entire process – from cake tastings and design consultations to actually baking the cakes and delivering to wedding venues around the city. It was nearly a one-woman show, with only the help of my family. I knew that if I wanted to take the shop to the next level then I would have to hire staff and extend my hours.
At the time, my husband and I didn’t own a home or have any children. We both grew up outside of Sacramento, but decided that we wanted to move elsewhere before really settling down and starting a family. My husband was also looking for a career change. My parents have a vacation home here in Vancouver, BC, and we quickly fell in love with the city. At the same time, my husband decided to turn in his career as a math teacher and go back to school to be a video game programmer. So, we packed up our bags, closed the bakery, and moved to Canada! It might all seem a bit extreme to just pack up like that, but we’ve lived here for more than four years and have zero regrets. We now have our permanent residence visas. I do miss the bakery and having a shop of my own, but also love the new opportunities I’ve been given over the past few years.
RM: Now with an international audience and hundreds of thousands of followers, how has blogging broadened not only your fan base, but also your abilities when it comes to photography and food styling?
TH: I started blogging after closing the bakery. I was losing my local clients, so I joined the online community of food bloggers. The big difference was that even though I was still making cakes and pastries, nobody was there to eat them! So while I was providing the recipes and methods online, I quickly learned that I needed the stunning photos and styling to get people excited about making my recipes themselves.
In between closing my bakery and starting my blog I had the wonderful opportunity to assist as a food stylist on a friend’s cookbook. Being in the photography studio every day for a week styling and decorating cakes was a total game changer for me. I didn’t know much about the publishing world, but I knew that this is where I wanted to be. I wanted to create my own cookbook. Also, my brother is a very talented photographer. He generously set me up with his old camera and helped me get started. I took a few photography workshops, but most of it was trial and error and lots of practice.
RM: Not only are you a contributing columnist to several outlets. but you released your first book, Layered: Baking, Building, and Styling Spectacular Cakes last year, and are currently in development for your second book. How do you come up with your recipes?
TH: I make a lot of lists! You should see my notebooks. [Laughter] But really, I write down every idea that pops into my head. I might be at home experimenting with flavors in my kitchen or out and about with my son and an idea just might randomly come to me. I read a lot of cookbooks, too. Sweet and savory. I’m also constantly inspired by flavors around town – Vancouver has an excellent, international restaurant scene. Particularly though, I love giving classic pastries a modern twist. I may do this by pairing unique flavors together — think earl grey tea and salted caramel or pink peppercorn and cherry — or giving a cake a whimsical, buttercream finish.
RM: I’m sure your family is always getting beautiful and delicious treats to try. Do you ever repeat recipes if they request their favorites or are you always trying something new?
TH: If they request their favorites, then I try to oblige. However, I am very guilty of always trying new things on my family members or giving even a simple chocolate chip a new, and sometimes unnecessary, twist.
RM: Speaking of family, as a wife and a toddler mom, that adds a couple more titles to your pastry chef, author, writer, designer… what advice can you share with others trying to navigate work with family?
TH: This is probably the hardest part. I love my job, and one of the main reasons why is because I get to work from home and spend so much time with my son. But it’s not easy and we are constantly trying to adjust our schedules in order to squeeze out as many hours in the day as possible. It really does come down to priorities. I learned this quickly as a twenty-five-year-old trying to start a business. I sacrificed weekends away with friends [while] establishing my bakery, and nearly every Friday night and Saturday, in order to make and deliver the week’s wedding cakes. But when I had a job that I loved, the sacrifices were easy to make.
Now, with a job that I am truly passionate about and a family that I adore, I can’t really sacrifice either. Work and family are my priorities. Everything else unfortunately will have to come in second, at least for now. It sounds simple, but I know it’s not and there is still a lot of guilt sometimes, especially when feeling torn between work, family, friends, and even some much-needed alone time every now and then. For others in a similar position, just know that you are not alone!
RM: What does faith look like in your life and how does it influence your work?
TH: Admittedly, I can be a bit high-strung and crave plans and structure, but faith has taught me to be patient. I can’t control everything. But as the saying goes, everything has happened for a reason (so far). I was forced to quit dancing, but then was able to throw all of my energy into my craft and start my business. I had to say good-bye to the bakery in order to create a better lifer for my family and fell into an amazing new career for myself. Now, I try to take it day-by-day. I believe in hard work and perseverance, but I also try not to worry about every little detail and live in the moment as much as possible. Things aren’t perfect, but I do find that I am most creative when I let go of some of the control.
Baking can be intimidating because there is some science involved, but that doesn’t mean that it has to be difficult.
RM: I love that you have tutorials on your website to help break down the intimidation factor when it comes to being in the kitchen, what are a few simple misconceptions when it comes to baking?
TH: Baking can be intimidating because there is some science involved, but that doesn’t mean that it has to be difficult. Practice really does help when it comes to cake decorating or perfecting the lattice on a cherry pie. But as far as recipes go, try to follow them as closely as possible until you understand how different ingredients work and why, then you can start experimenting and playing around to make them your own. In the end, baking should be fun! And hopefully taste good, too.
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