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She Takes the Cake

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Natalie Sideserf, co-owner of Sideserf Cake Studio and co-host of Food Network’s Texas Cake House, has become an internet sensation by putting her baking and artistry skills on display, sculpting showstopping cakes that are incredibly intricate and hyperrealistic, including busts of Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James.

By Shelley Seale, Photos by Rudy Arocha

In Austin, Willie Nelson is a cultural icon. Much more than merely a singer/songwriter and celebrity, Nelson is part of the very fabric of this city. That said, with his worldwide renown, it’s not at all surprising a Reddit post about the red-headed stranger would go viral overnight, shooting to the No. 1 most-read thread on the site. What is surprising, however, is that such a phenomenon originated from Japan, and the post in question was a photograph of a cake that looked impeccably just like Nelson. Yes, that’s right, a cake.

This wasn’t just any ordinary cake, to be clear; far from it. This was a literal sculpture, incredible in its likeness and detail of Nelson, down to the last minutiae. It turns out the stunning, one-of-a-kind cake portrait of the musician had been crafted by Austinite Natalie Sideserf using a sculpture medium known as edible art. Not only did an image of the Nelson cake go viral on Reddit, thanks to Sideserf’s brother, who lives in Tokyo and is credited with posting the photo, but the cake also won Sideserf the 2012 Best of Show award at That Takes the Cake, garnering media attention from throughout the world.

Rewind a few years, though, and Sideserf, a Cleveland native, didn’t start out thinking she’d make a career out of sculpting cakes. With an upbringing steeped in artistic pursuits and with encouragement from childhood teachers, Sideserf attended Ohio State University as a fine-arts major focused on working with more traditional sculpture and painting media.

After graduation, in 2008, a friend suggested Sideserf try her hand at using edible materials. She took up the challenge, and her rst edible sculpture was a cake in the shape of a cow skull, which she created for a friend’s birthday.

“I fell in love and realized the potential cake has and wanted to bring more of my artistic point of view to the cake community,” Sideserf recalls.

Equipped with her newfound artistic inspiration, she and her husband, Dave, decided to pack up and move to Austin in 2011. She figured the city’s Keep Austin Weird sensibility would provide the perfect dose of support for this delightfully weird art form to take shape.

New to town, Sideserf went to work at a small bakery to learn the basics while she taught herself the artistic process of elaborate cake sculpting.

“My background in painting really helped with the cake art,” she says. “It really comes to life with the edible painting, and that’s the most fun part.”

At the bakery, she met Jennifer Bartos, owner of Make It Sweet, a local baking-supply store and class space, and the founder of the Capital Confectioners Cake Club, the same club that hosts the annual That Takes the Cake competition.

Sideserf decided to jump-start her new intricate-cake-creation endeavor by entering the competition in 2011 with a hippopotamus cake made from a Bundt base. But Bartos says it was Sideserf’s Nelson entry the following year that was the talk of the entire show.

“People were joking that the rest of his body must be under the table. It was just that realistic,” Bartos says of Sideserf’s sculpture. “She has submitted entries in subsequent years, winning awards each year and always stretching and showcasing her talents to create cakes that are so realistic that it makes viewers question if they are really cake.”

That Takes the Cake is among the largest and most respected cake competitions in the country, with hundreds of entries submitted by cake artists, ranging from beginners to professionals and master decorators.

“The distinguished panel of judges are some of the best in the country and around the world, and they comment about Natalie’s growth and application of skills, [and how she’s]always bringing entries that highlight her exceptional talents,” Bartos says.

After the huge success of her Nelson bust cake, Sideserf coined the term “cake studio,” given the emphasis on the artistic aspect of her cakes, and Sideserf Cake Studio was born. She started baking cakes out of her home while her husband helped with the business side of things.

“Up to that point, bust cakes were a rarity, so I really felt like I was onto something,” Sideserf says. Success with her newfound profession escalated quickly. A frenzy of international attention and buzz surrounded the competition’s winning cake, and media and production companies were quick to follow its creator, knocking at Sideserf’s door. She serendipitously became something of a cake-art celebrity and was soon elding invitations to be featured in commercials, as a guest on popular late-night talk shows such as Conan with Conan O’Brien and to have her own Food Network show, Texas Cake House.

“Because our cake designs are so unique and realistic, I had a number of production companies reach out to me asking if I had ever thought about having our own show,” Sideserf says. “We had many conversations that ultimately lead to two seasons of Texas Cake House, which includes a lot of the process of our cakes, but also showcases Austin as a character. Our favorite part of the show is that it gives us an opportunity to work with and promote a lot of local businesses that we know and love. Now that I am part of the so-called entertainment industry, it is refreshing to see this movement of women empowerment.”

The business and artistic medium are truly elements of a creative endeavor of love for Sideserf, who puts an incredible amount of thought into each and every cake design.

“I reference and research fine artists, tattoo artists and special- effects makeup artists daily, and have been pretty successful in experimenting to nd the edible equivalent to traditional art media,” she says. “For example, I found that watered-down royal icing painted onto wafer paper and placed in a bowl set aside to dry would create a papier-mâché effect.”

Sideserf used this technique on a cake made for Creative Action, a nonprofit art-based youth-development program that provides hands-on creative-learning classes. The design was a hand-sculpted chocolate kitten being blown away by an edible parachute.

“The kids had a lot of fun tasting the parachute and learning about how it was made,” Sideserf says, smiling.

Participating in classes where she gets to share her knowledge and skill set with others is one of Sideserf’s favorite things to do. As her cake studio and television show began garnering high-profile attention, she began making the rounds on the food-show circuit, soon headlining events with demos and workshops that focused on her baking process. Sideserf says she enjoys the teaching process, sharing fun and simple techniques with people, ones they can use when baking at home or in their own businesses.

“The techniques are simple enough that no previous experience is necessary, but they are also pragmatic in that they can be applied in a number of ways,” she says.

In more in-depth classes, such as the one she hosted at Creative Action, she gets the chance to work hands-on with students in full- day workshops, helping them create elaborate pieces step by step.

“My students range from young adults to seasoned business owners, and they blow my mind—and their own—every time,” Sideserf says.

There’s one memory, one particular sight from a two-day class she hosted at a food event in Louisiana a few years ago that she can’t shake. In the class, she taught 15 students how to create a cake shaped like the bust of a chimp.

“When we were done, we lined them all up alongside each other. Not only was their work really impressive, it was also incredible to see all their different sculpting and painting styles,” Sideserf explains. “One of the things I love most about hosting these classes is seeing how people take my instructions and make them their own. In the case of the chimp cakes all lined up, it looked like a series of masks from Planet of the Apes. Although they were all chimps, they all had subtle differences that represented them as individuals.”

When asked if she has a favorite cake she’s worked on, Sideserf is quick to respond, noting it was her own wedding cake. As one might guess, her wedding cake was anything but traditional. The creation featured the severed heads of Sideserf and her husband on a cake board with a banner that read, “’Til Death Do Us Part.”

“Dave and I were married at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz in downtown Austin, and it was near the Halloween season, so we wanted to do something fun that was seasonal and movie-related,” Sideserf explains. “Dave loves horror movies, so I had the thought of putting us in the movie, so to speak.”

She didn’t tell anyone about the cake design beforehand.

“Our guests were floored, and when one of the Drafthouse staff members posted an image of the cake online, it had gone viral by the time we made it to the reception,” she says. “It wasn’t all blood and gore, though. The inside was confetti cake, which we thought was a really funny counterbalance.”

Sideserf loves the unpredictable reactions she receives to her cakes. Some people are shocked and some love a creation, while others hate it. She relishes them all, though, and it’s clear the only direction she won’t go in is to design a boring cake that pleases everyone.

“I love that reaction when there are conversations over whether people even like [a cake]or not,” Sideserf says. “There’s no middle ground.”

Another of her favorite designs was one she created for the AMC television network, representatives of which asked Sideserf to make a cake to be featured on a commercial spot that aired during the premiere of last season’s Walking Dead.

“I chose to create a bust of character Mike Ehrmantraut from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, played by actor Jonathan Banks,” Sideserf explains.

“The commercial was a great experience, but the best part is while I was on the late-night talk show Conan, Jonathan Banks personally thanked me for making the cake. Being a fan of both Conan O’Brien and Banks, it is still surreal that they had a conversation about my work.”

Perhaps the only drawback to Sideserf’s amazing creations is that they’re so hyperrealistic, lifelike and artistic, people often don’t want to ruin them by actually eating the cake.

“It’s really fun for people,” she says. “There’s a moment when they hesitate to cut into it and eat. It’s really cool to see people interacting with the cake. It’s de nitely a bit of a show.”

Sideserf enjoys this multi-sensory experience of her work.

“When you see a cake in person that’s sculpted like that, you not only see it, but you smell it, you cut into it, you use all your senses, and people really get a kick out of it,” she says.

So, what sweet project is next in the oven for Sideserf? With constant growth in business, she’s working on opening a brick-and-mortar location for Sideserf Cake Studio, which currently operates out of rented space. The company has become so successful, in fact, that her husband was able to quit his tech job more than a year ago to join the studio full time. Sideserf also says they want to expand their offerings to make the studio more accessible to the community.

“We absolutely love and appreciate Austin,” Sideserf says. “We have had the privilege of working with some of our favorite organizations and plan to continue partnering more with local businesses in the future. We’ve had some amazing clients, like the Alamo Drafthouse, Austin Pets Alive, the Museum of the Weird, South By Southwest and the Moontower Comedy Festival. Our social-media followers are primarily in New York and Los Angeles, and Austin is third. In 2018, we want Central Texas to be No. 1 on that list.”

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