One of the breakout stars of the latest series of Channel 4’s Extreme Cake Makers and social media darling, Ben Cullen – The BakeKing – is quickly becoming a favourite with cakers and caking fans alike.
After studying Art and Graphic design at Chester University, Ben dabbled with graphic design, before entering into a tattoing apprenticeship, but it wasn’t until he was shown an example of a decorated cake by a customer, whilst tattooing in 2014, that Ben was inspired to create his first novelty cake – for his dad’s birthday. In time honoured tradition, friends and family started to ask him to contribute his sculpted wares for their birthdays and eventually The BakeKing was born.
I’m lucky enough to be able to consider Ben one of my best cakey friends and can genuinely attest to the fact that he is an all-round top bloke. So naturally, after spending a weekend starring as his devoted groupie at November’s Cake International (fortunately, I didn’t make it into the final edit of the show), I figured it was only fair for Ben to return the favour with an exclusive interview for Mr Baker’s Blog…
I know you’re a busy chap of late Benny boy, so thank you for taking the time to sit down for a catch up. Let’s start at the beginning, because I’m sure people are wondering, what makes a tattooist switch from working with skin to working with sugar?
I just love art – whichever way it comes – but tattooing appealed to me as I love the commitment make when they put art on their skin. Working as an apprentice tattooist, I loved the industry and would have loved to work my way up to my own shop one day, but then I was shown some fondant figurines by a customer and it made me want to have a go myself – as it was a type of art I hadn’t tried before. Once I had had a go, I really took to it and changed all my plans as a result [laughs].
2017 was a big year for you. Personally, I lost count of how many of your cakes went viral, you appeared on stage with legendary cake artist Karen Portaleo at Cake International, you appeared on LFCTV with your Main Stand cake, you were a finalist at the annual Cake Masters Magazine Awards and even more besides. In such an action-packed year, how do you even begin to pick your own personal highlights of the year?
Ahhhh… 2017 was an incredible year for me. I decided, at the start of the year, that I wanted to take The BakeKing as far as I could by working as hard as I possibly could. Thankfully, there were a lot of opportunities presented to me that gave me some great exposure!
In terms of my personal highlight, I think it is just being recognised within the industry more – and being nominated for the Rising Star award at the Cake Masters Magazine awards in November. I was buzzing about that. Oh, and getting drunk with my pals at the awards too, of course… 😉
I don’t know WHAT you could mean, Ben! *changes subject*
Now you’re appearing on our screens this month as part of Channel 4’s Extreme Cake Makers, where, you’re wowing us all with your insane cake projects. How does it feel to be so suddenly thrusted into the public eye?
To be honest, I have to say I absolutely love it. I’m really enjoy the entertainment and video side of my cake sculpting, so the programme was a great fit for me. It’s definitely strange being noticed more by people and I regularly worry about what I might have said or done when I watch the show back! [laughs] But it’s all a good laugh and I think the show gives a real insight into what it’s really like for a lot of us cake artists in the industry.
What sort of reactions have you had from people you meet?
People are always amazing that meet me out and about – so positive! I haven’t got the biggest following in the world, but the people that do follow my work are always extremely supportive of me – both online and in person.
In today’s episode, we saw you attend the world’s largest cake show, Cake International. Although it didn’t all make the final cut, I know the film crew were with you for the entire weekend. How did it feel having them following you around ?
It was totally surreal. Usually at the Cake International shows, I’m in and out quite quietly – just hanging out with my small group of pals. However, this time having the crew behind me, filming away actually made the whole experience a lot more exciting – and purposeful. I actually really enjoyed it!
You also completed your first demonstration at the show. I didn’t envy you trying to sculpt your Karen Portaleo head with Rosie Cake-Diva soooo relentlessly teasing you. Was it as hard as it looked?
[laughs] Well, when I originally agreed to do my demonstration, it was months in advance, so I was like, “Yeaaaaaaah, course I can make a sculpted head cake in 45 minutes! No problem – I’ll get it bang on…!”
I honestly had no idea what I was letting myself in for – it was completely ridiculous to try and achieve any kind of standard at all! [laughs] And then with Rosie, of course [laughs again]. She’s the best at capturing your attention and she did a bang on job of stealing mine throughout, to put me off. I loved having her up there with me though – she is a great presence on stage, which made it so much easier for me. Impossible to achieve any real standard with the cake of course, but I really enjoyed giving it a go! In fact, I now know that if I did it again, I could do it with much better results! 😉
How did you feel when Karen walked out at the end?
They really got me there! I knew she was teaching a class at the same time as my demonstration, so I wasn’t too fussed about doing it – I thought she would never get to see it! Karen’s work is incredible and she doesn’t know me – or my work – at all, so when she came out, all I could think was, “Great, now she’s going to judge me and my work based on this mess I’ve created!” [laughs] But actually, she was genuinely lovely. An incredible artist and a fantastic woman!
You’re also well-known for the quirky YouTube videos of you making your cakes – often it seems, just for fun. How do you find the time to produce these in addition to your clients’ cakes?
Well, I love making the videos – it’s probably what I love doing the most – so they are a priority on my weekly to-do list. Luckily for me, I have some amazing customers and so a lot of the pieces I feature in my videos for are actual client orders. However, if I have specific cakes I want to make, I will leave a day aside to make and film them. Honestly, I’m pretty much working all of the time to ensure I can fit in my clients’ orders as well as the videos, but it’s worth it for me when it gets a good reaction.
So, what is next?
Right now, I’m looking at developing my YouTube channel and building up the audience for my videos. I’m going to be teaching and demoing in a few different places around the world too, which is really exciting for me and I have a fair few other things up my sleeve that I’m hoping I can pull off this year… so fingers crossed!
That leads very nicely into my next question, what is your ultimate goal for 2018?
I want to improve my skills and improve the way in which I present my work through my videos, but if I had to limit myself to only one goal, I think I would have to say I would love to win an award. I would love to be recognised as ‘up there’ with some of the most amazing artists in our industry.
So, tell us a bit more about you. What one thing might people not yet know about the BakeKing?
Ooh… let me think….
My favourite song in the world: The Gambler by Kenny Rogers. What. A. Song.
If you don’t know it, have a listen. Greatest song ever written.
Who inspires your work?
Generally, the world itself inspires me. I’m constantly being inspired by everything around me. I also love the work of Banksy, pop artist Roy Lichtenstein and the entire concept of Madame Tussauds. When it comes to other sugar artists, it would have to be Natalie Sideserf of Sideserf Cake Studio in Austin, Texas. And I always love the work of Karen Keaney of Roses and Bows Cakery.
What would you say has been your biggest challenge in your cake career so far?
I’ll tell you actually a funny story. Picture this…
So, I was delivering the cake replica I had made of a man’s personal briefcase – completely life-size and realistic. When I arrived for the delivery – I’m literally carrying the box in – the lady who had ordered the cake said, “I can’t wait to see this cricket bat!”
MATE! My heart just dropped…
Long story short: it was a crazy miscommunication on both of our parts and nobody’s fault, but this was at 12pm and the party started at 6pm! Luckily, my mum and dad don’t live too far away from where the cake was needed, so I had to go and make a cricket bat cake to incorporate into the original design. It was such a stressful day, but the client was so happy in the end and that’s what really matters.
What would be your top piece of advice for anyone who fancies getting into cake artistry?
Just do it! Don’t worry about what others are doing and don’t compare yourself to the people at the top. Just set your sights higher with each cake you make and focus on bettering your work. And if there’s something you don’t know, just ask people in the community. There are a lot of amazing cake artists who actively love to help and build up other cake artists, so the support is definitely out there!
Finally, what is your top cake decorating tip for the readers of Mr Baker’s Blog?
Oh dear, I’m not really great with decorating tips! I always do things the wrong way or in the wrong order!
Right, ok… My top tip is use your airbrush – and if you haven’t got one, get one! Its my favourite bit of kit and it can raise the quality of your work incredibly. You may well already know that, but I couldn’t believe the results I could achieve after I got my first one!
Oh, and my other top tip is subscribe to Mr. Bakers Blog!
Excellent tip! 😉 Thanks for the chat, Ben!
Thank YOU mate. It was my pleasure!
Ben is currently appearing on Channel 4’s Extreme Cake Makers, which airs daily at 5.30pm or catch it on Channel 4 +1 at 6.30pm.