This year has brought us many cake shows including America's Cake Fair, SoFlo, That Takes the Cake, San Diego Cake Show, Show Me Sweets and more! Whether you have been watching via social media or taking part in some of these shows yourself, you have probably noticed the incredible cakes in the cake competition.
For years, I was deep in the cake competition world, my first competition taking place at Austin That Takes the Cake in 2014. That was my first cake show, my first time competing, my first time flying, my first time meeting a lot of my cake heroes! It was thrilling and the icing on top was that I won first place (by a few points). After that, I was hooked. I would say I have done well competing but I have had my ups and downs, and was even disqualified once for not following some basic rules! Stupid mistake on my part but still, I had so much fun.
Competing is a great way to push yourself, to strive for your personal best, to do the best work you’ve done so far.
Now that I am retired from competition, I really want to focus on teaching the next generation of competitors what it's like to compete. To win, to lose; to learn and grow. There are always a lot of questions coming my way regarding cake competition and I could definitely answer them from my perspective but really, the best person to ask is a judge.
Susan Trianos of Susan Trianos Custom Cakes in Toronto, CA has been competing and judging for 1 million years. She has graciously agreed to give us some insight into what goes into judging, how you can do your best and the most important tips to successfully competing at cake shows.
Cake Competitions, Why we do it?
You’re on your way to a cake show, you decided not to enter the cake competition… you get there and spend the entire weekend wishing you did.
Why did you decide not to enter?
Was it fear?
Could it have been a lack of time?
Whatever the reason, you’re kicking yourself now. So what is it that draws us in? Why do we do it?
#1: Enter For The Right Reasons
There are many answers to this question… but let me talk about why you should. It shouldn’t be about outdoing your fellow competitors, it should be about outdoing yourself. Competing is a great way to push yourself, to strive for your personal best, to do the best work you’ve done so far. You are competing against your personal best, do it for you and be supportive with the other competitors, they are just as nervous as you are.
There is another great reason to enter. Many of us make cakes for a living, and often we are not making cakes WE want to make. Our clients choose… we may help them come up with a design, but ultimately we are designing cakes to suit their needs, to satisfy their vision. Competing in cake shows allows our creativity to thrive. It is here that we can truly showcase our style, try a new technique and blow the judges away or, we can use those techniques that we never get to use due to lack-of-budget or what your client wants. Creating something you love is almost like chicken soup for the soul, and allows us to be the artists that we are. If you’ve never competed, don’t be afraid… take the plunge!
You want to grab the judges attention right way, with an attractive cohesive design. Remember, you never get a second chance to make a good first impression.
#2: What The Judges Are Looking For
You want to grab the judges attention right way, with an attractive cohesive design. Remember, you never get a second chance to make a good first impression. Once you have their attention, you want to keep it within your techniques, and techniques that have been executed well.
What are your strengths?
Is it painting?
#3: Multiple Techniques
Whatever your strengths, try and use as many techniques as you can, but remember… they all have to work together, your design needs to be cohesive. Clean work is also at the top of the list when it comes to what judges look for in a cake. For me, this is the magical formulation: an eye pleasing design, that has lots of techniques (it’s even better if the techniques are innovative), and clean work.
Judges want to see a design that is eye-catching, cohesive and has multiple techniques.
Following these 3 simple rules will really increase your chances of a ribbon. Let’s talk about what judges don’t like.
There are so many tools and loads of time saving equipment out there… and I own them all, LOL. I’m talking about: molds, lace mats, flexible lace, stencils, edible printers, cutting machines, embossing mats, the list goes on and on. These tools are amazing, and really help decorators make beautiful cakes for their clients quickly, which earns you more mullah… time is money, after all.
When it comes to competing, I recommend staying away from using too many of these time-saving tools. I’m not saying don’t use them at all on your cake, but be careful… they don’t earn many points. They can help contribute to the overall look of your cake, which will get you points but that’s about it. There’s a term out there… ”lick-and-stick.” Don’t make a lick-and-stick cake for a competition.
When it comes to competing, I recommend staying away from using too many of these time-saving tools.
Let me give you an example where one of these items can be used successfully in competition… let’s say you want flexible lace draped on your cake. Well, use the edible lace mix, but rather than spreading it on a patterned silicone mat, flip the mat over to the flat side and pipe your own lace design (be sure to write that down in your description so the judges know). When I compete, I make a rule for myself and never use these items, but that’s me. It’s okay to incorporate some of these things… just don’t rely on them. Make sure your hand-made work shines!
READ THE RULES!!!!!! You can have an amazing cake (a first place contender even) but if you don’t follow one of the rules you stand to lose a lot of points, or even worse… be disqualified. I have seen cakes that should have won first place, not place at all. This is so disappointing, for the competitor, and even for the judges… it kills us too.
I once entered a competition (one of my very first), and won first place, not because I had the best cake, but because the winning cake was docked so many points for breaking a rule, it took her right out of the running. A lot of time and effort went into her cake so, to say she was disappointed is an understatement. It’s not the way I wanted to win either.
I once entered a competition (one of my very first), and won first place, not because I had the best cake, but because the winning cake was docked so many points for breaking a rule, it took her right out of the running.
The Unwritten Rules
Now, I’m going to talk about a little pet peeve of mine… unwritten rules.
A few classic rules that apply at every competition, and often aren’t written in the rules are things like not putting wires directly into the cake, you have to treat your cake as though it’s real, so wires should be put into a floral pick or into a straw that’s been inserted into the cake. Be sure that the straw or pic is slightly visible… if it’s not, be sure to mention that you used them in your description, the judges need to know.
Cover Those Cake Dummies
Another rule that sometimes gets overlooked is to cover the underside of your dummy cake if it’s visible. I usually cover the base well in advance with fondant, and allow it to dry. Some judges will be ok with a cake board covering the underside of the dummy, as that is what would be exposed if the cake was real. I play it safe and use fondant, it’s also a nice clean look.
The last one I’m going to mention is to cover your cake board. If you’ve spent all this time and effort on a beautiful cake, you don’t want to spoil it with an exposed cake board.
When these rules aren’t noted, it’s points that a newbie will lose when they didn’t even have a clue the rules existed (which I don’t find fair) but, they’ll never do it again, lol.
Your attitude towards competing is very important. There is no guarantee of a win, or even placement. Judging can be very subjective, and you may have an amazing cake that the judges just don’t appreciate in the same way you or others do, for whatever reason.
Be proud of your work, and proud that you even had the guts to enter (it takes a lot of guts). It’s very important to keep a positive attitude and understand you are opening yourself up to constructive criticism along with positive feedback. This is part of your growth as a decorator/designer and those comments will help you understand what areas you need to improve or practice.
Be proud of your work, and proud that you even had the guts to enter (it takes a lot of guts).
There are always competitors who disagree with the judging and will voice their opinions in a less than constructive way. It’s important to take a step back, take a deep breath, and count to ten. After all, this is what you signed up for, isn’t it?
Judges are quite open to discussing the scores and comments they’ve given, and you don’t have to agree… just keep your composure and remember that judging is always final. Be kind and considerate with other competitors and congratulate those who’ve placed. This is their shining moment, don’t be the one to burst their bubble, even if you don’t agree. Take a look around… those that are at the top of their game always win with grace, but have just as much grace when they don’t place. A positive attitude will bring positive results.
#6: How the Judges Feel
Judging is not easy. Last week, I spoke to someone who had just judged for the first time, she said it wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. Let’s face it, judging is hard work. The last thing a judge wants to do is crush someone’s spirit. A lot of time and care is taken for this very reason, which is tiring.
Judges do their very best, and really do worry about offending or hurting someone’s feelings.
Judging takes a long time… sometimes an entire day, and often with little-to-no-compensation. They do it for the love of cake, to contribute to the community, and to help with the growth of the new up-and-comers in this industry we all love so much. Judges do their very best, and really do worry about offending or hurting someone’s feelings.
I have a little story for you… I compete at OSSAS every year, and recently spoke to one of my judges from my most-recent entry. I mentioned that he had judged my cake and I saw first-hand what my face looks like when people say that to me. He winced, put his head down and asked “what did I write”? He looked like he wanted to run and hide, just like I have felt in that same situation. I immediately told him I really appreciated his feedback and that he didn’t write anything I didn’t agree with. So when you speak to a judge, thank them even if you disagree with some of their comments. They are human too.
I’m very thankful that there are so many shows and competitions available to us, and that I’m able to attend so many. I find the cakes so inspiring, and they make me want to go back home and create. So a big THANK YOU to those who go through all of the hard work making competition cakes, and traveling long distances to get them to shows. To those considering entering a competition, take that plunge… come join the fun!