When considering larger than life cakes with more than a little bit of character and movement, then one needs look no further than the extraordinary talents of South Africa-based Dorothy Klerck of Eat Cake Party.
At her home, less than an hour outside of Cape Town, the art graduate and long-time lover of design used to fill her time with a handmade card-making business, while helping out husband Tobie in with his agricultural business. It wasn’t until she started making birthday cakes for her own children that Dot discovered she had a bit of a talent for cake artistry.
Now known the world over for for her life-size conservation-inspired animal builds and awe-inspiring, gravity defying sculpted cakes, Dot’s work never fails to amaze and inspire. She’s one of those artists that I have known from a distance for a while now, but (if I’m honest) have been a bit too starstruck to approach, so when the lovely Gwen of dragéekíss® invited me to join them for Sunday lunch and a wander around Windsor last weekend, I had to say yes. And naturally I took my Dictaphone along so I could help you get to know her a little better too…
Dot, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me.
It’s my pleasure…
Let’s get straight down to it as I’m desperate know a little bit more about the project you just completed for the international animal charity FOUR PAWS in South Africa.
Your incredible lion family was created to launch their #RiseUpAndRoar campaign in support of South Africa’s lions and it was displayed at the V&A Waterfront shopping centre. And this is after last year’s incredible elephant, so I have to ask, how do these larger than life projects come about?
Well, it all started back in 2016 with a client that wanted me to do a rhino cake as part of a new product launch. She wanted to have a large cake in a cake show food show so that she could put it alongside her product and use it as a marketing tool.
She’s just a really wonderful woman that cares so deeply about animals and so from there it’s just become more than that. She doesn’t even use them to promote her product anymore. She just uses it every year as her way of giving back to the conservationists who work so hard and to make people aware of the sorts of things that are done in South Africa in the name of conservation.
Tourists don’t realise that when they go and pat an animal or interact with an animal and pay for that to support conservation effort – it’s actually totally the opposite. So she’s making people aware of what’s going on throughout our industry.
And I must take this opportunity to thank my generous sponsors too. As you can imagine, these projects are very expensive to produce and Bakels – an old company, who you have here too – they make sugarpaste and bake all the cakes for my charity projects and, of course, Barco who provide my colours. I honestly couldn’t do it without their support.
I must tell you how excited we all are that you are finally bringing your much-sought-after cake classes to the UK. How have the classes been?
Other than at CI, this is my first time teaching here and it’s been fantastic. I had a brilliant class full of fantastic people and they all did really well. I really enjoyed it and had lots of fun.
We all made a gnome cake and they were about 60cm high. We spent lots of time working on key details like the hands and the face and they all did really well.
Any plans to return?
Yes, hopefully! I hope to come back next April and do another class. And, of course, I’ll be at Cake International again in November this year too.
What can people expect from a class with the legendary Dot Klerck?
I try to structure my classes so people know how make the cake from scratch. I don’t just teach people how to make a cake, but rather how to design a cake, how to quote on a cake, how to decide what size to make it and serving sizes.
You do it a little different here, because you don’t charge per serving, but in South Africa we charge per serving so it’s important to get it the right size. Otherwise you could lose out if you make it too big and the client would lose out if you make it too small. I try to teach it so that when they leave the class, with just a little bit of practice, they can design any 3D cake.
It’s pretty much from the beginning.
What do you think set your classes apart from others available?
Well, I try to make it market-based, rather than just a fun experience.
I also try to make it relevant to your business so you can make money out of it and I teach you skills that you can take away and apply to lots of different projects.
How can I find out more?
All my classes are listed on my website under classes, but you can also contact me by email to find out a little more if you’d prefer.
So, tell us a bit more about you. Who is the person behind the public face?
I’m just a normal mum. Well, I like to think I’m pretty normal! I have four children: Jack, aged 19; Alex, nearly 17; Chloe, nearly 14; and Hope, 11; and alongside being their mum, my husband Tobie also has his own business in agriculture, so I’m often helping him out with that too.
I like to keep myself busy and I love to run. We love to run as a family actually and we also love surfing and anything to do with water. We’re very active sport-wise and, to be honest with you, although cake is a huge part of my life, it’s only part of my life. I’d like to think that a pretty well-balanced person in that respect.
What do you think it is about your work that captures people’s attention so much?
I don’t know really. I guess for me, I’ve always been interested in creating a moment in time, so I always try to include some kind of movement in my work. When I’m designing a piece, I consider the whole impact.
So, for example, with the lions, while I had a lot of people tell me it’s lovely, it’s beautiful, etc, I had one woman – an artist – come up to me during the display and say, ‘The whole composition is amazing – it’s like he’s looking you in the eye.’
I was so happy that she saw it, because I designed the cake so that the male lion’s eyeline was at average adult height so he was looking you in the eye. It was designed in very specific way and I was so thrilled that she saw it.
I find that all too often, while people produce amazing work, they forget about the overall design. If you use the example of Ron Ben Israel, I think the reason he is at the top of his game is that he really understands how to arrange flowers in a way that just… pops. And that’s design. It’s considering weight, focus and all of that, which I think is what is perhaps lacking in our industry.
It’s interesting that you mentioned movement as, in the past, some of the best feedback I have had on competition pieces is that the judges liked that the they weren’t static. It was like I had captured some movement in the piece – they told a story.
I think that’s what draws people in. And if you don’t know how to design a cake like that – where to put the highest point, where to put the focus – you have to have a focus in your cake – some cakes are just too busy to have that. I put that down to my design background.
You seem to be constantly jetting off around the world. Did you ever imagine that your early dalliances into cake decoration for the children could lead to such an incredible international career?
No! Never! I was actually very content with my life. When I first got on to social media with Flickr about nine or ten years ago, I started to be exposed to other people and that was amazing, but in recent years? It has just blown my mind actually.
Do you ever just pinch yourself to see if it’s all real?
Yeah, sometimes! Sometimes it is like that. Sometimes you go to these crazy places that you never thought you’d ever go and you think, ‘Wow! I’m actually here!’
Surreal. Definitely surreal, I think… yeah.
I suppose there’s a flipside to that though isn’t there? Although it’s fun to jet off to Australia for a long weekend, it must be tricky to balance a globe-trotting career with raising a family?
Well I do have to structure it all. Most of these things tend to get booked very well in advance so I can coordinate them around my kids’ schedules. And their birthdays are just non-negotiable. I’m never away for my birthday, my husband’s birthday or the children’s birthdays, so I know exactly when I can’t do things.
But I have to plan everything in advance. I have to plan all the meals and everything – people probably don’t see that side of things at all, I’m sure.
Where do you find your inspiration for the masterpieces that you create? I remember being mesmerised by the trampolining cake which you created for your daughter’s birthday earlier this year, which again was all about capturing motion.
That one was actually inspired by a sculpture which I had seen a long time before. I like to follow sculptors online – even if I don’t know who they are – and their work often inspires me and I take mental snapshots of things that I see and carry them around for ages.
When my daughter said she wanted to do a trampoline party, I immediately asked if I could do that particular cake as part of the place she wanted to go had a foam area for somersaults. I was desperate to do the foam pit area instead of the trampoline because I wanted to do the handstand cake. Fortunately, I can usually twist my children’s arms.
I usually say to people – my friends and so on – that for most children, the fact that mummy, daddy or whoever have made a special cake just for them is far more important than what it looks like, but do you feel that your kids have gone the other way now? That they either have ridiculously high expectations or they’re just a little bit blasé about it all?
I guess they are a little bit blasé now, but their friends are still always like, ‘Oh my word…’.
My kids don’t usually eat them anyway – they get so many cake scraps at home! They are always appreciative though.
Reassure us though! Do you still have the occasional cake disaster?
Oh, my word… yes.
When you say disaster, I usually think of the end result – in that respect, I’ve been lucky because I always have time to fix things.
When I do big stuff, I always do a very tight time schedule. When you do a cake like that, you charge for your time so time is very important and it is all well worked out. But in that time schedule, I will always allow time for any potential problems. ‘Disaster time.’
And with large cakes, there are always disasters.
For the lions, our cake arrived four hours late and four hours can be a considerable amount of time in a build schedule – that’s pretty much the time it takes to pack a cake up, so I was already behind on my schedule.
The humidity was insane this last time though too. Because the cake was so huge, I was making it in a big old wine cellar, so it’s a huge open area. When I started, the weather was actually fine, but then I went away to Australia for a week.
Apparently, while I was away, it just rained so so much. Nobody ever wants to moan about rain in Cape Town because we really need rain – we’ve got a huge drought – but I got back and all my work had just beads of condensation all over it – everywhere.
A lot of the work I had done was in powders and with water-based paints and it had all just run.
When I walked in there, I just wanted to cry and, in fact, I did cry – and I don’t cry easily. Oh, and all of the electricity had tripped too, so we didn’t have any electricity. That also threw us behind schedule, when I had actually been hoping to get caught up again. I only had eight days left to do it all and that was pretty stressful.
But it wasn’t all bad news actually. What was amazing, was that the babies that I had already finished were so wet that I was able to stick their corn silk fur on and I had been wondering how on earth I was going to do that. Because they were so damp, I just started applying the fur and they just suddenly came to life. It was almost like the disaster was turned 180 degrees and became something that actually helped us.
Because it was supposed to rain for the rest of the project even up to delivery, I started working with cocoa butter, which I never normally do and that saved us too.
Of course, we still didn’t have electricity so they tried to run a lead in, but every time we even boiled a kettle, it would just trip! I couldn’t put any heaters on or anything in there. It got to the point where I didn’t think that I’d be able to get it to the standard I wanted. It was already having so much attention in the press, with radio interviews and everything and it needed to be perfect!
Thankfully, they were able to eventually come and fix the power and we were able to get some heaters on and from then on it was fine.
Obviously, when it was time to deliver, the tables turned again and a storm hit us with 100km per hour gale force winds and pouring rain!
But do you know, it was honestly like a miracle. It pretty much stopped raining every time we had to take the piece outside and the final time, when it was only just lightly raining, it was like it just set the powders absolutely perfectly on the mom and the babies. They just came to life.
To this day, I’ll never forget it. I was just standing there and it was a surreal experience. I was looking at it and thinking, was this me? I’m never one to look at my work and be like, ‘Yeah I made that!’ I’m always incredibly humbled – but this was almost like an out-of-body experience.
Almost like divine intervention…?
Exactly that. It didn’t feel like it was me. People were asking, ‘Did you make the cake’ and I was thinking to myself… did I?
That light rain set it just perfectly and it just popped.
Of course, I did have a few other issues during delivery – the truck leaked and water dripped on to some of the animals, so we had a little bit of damage there.
But if you hadn’t mentioned that, I wouldn’t have noticed it at all.
Actually, the big drips on the mother ran down inside the leg – if it had been even a centimetre to the side, it would have been much worse, so it was like divine intervention as you said.
What would you say has been the most challenging project you have taken on?
I think the most challenging, although people may not realise it, was the rhino because the head weighed 150kgs hanging out on the side. Transporting it and just the engineering of it was incredibly tricky. I think engineering-wise, that was the biggest challenge for me.
They are all challenging really though – they all have their own challenges to overcome. For instance, the weather – for the lions – was challenging because I couldn’t control it. Sadly, I can’t control the weather.
But yeah, probably the last one and the rhino.
And I know this is probably a tricky question to answer, but what would you say is your favourite cake creation you have ever made?
Oh, I don’t know! At the time, I fall in love with them and they become…
Like your children?
…like my children and it makes it very hard to give them away. But I must say, at the end of last year, when I made that little ‘Guess How Much I Love You’ bunny, I was completely in love with it. And even though I do love the elephant cake, I still think the bunny was my favourite cake of 2017.
I don’t know why – it was easy. It wasn’t challenging at all. But each of them, like children, you love in different ways, I guess.
Are there any cake projects that are currently languishing on your ‘wannado’ list that you would love to get to in 2018?
Top top top of my list is a life-size giraffe, which I have just been given the go ahead to do next year!
I’m not sure we’ll be able to pull it together within a year though, because the logistics are going to be a nightmare so we’re still discussing with the client whether we’ll do that or something else and give ourselves two years to work out the giraffe.
So that’s top of my list, but I’d also like to do an armadillo. I know everyone has done them, but I just think they’re cool.
Now, you were telling me earlier about an exciting project that you have coming up soon, for Nelson Mandela’s birthday…
Oh yes, it’s Nelson Mandela’s centennial year this year and his 100th birthday would have been on 18th July 2018.
In celebration of his birthday each year, across the whole of South Africa, people are encouraged to give 67 minutes of their day to somebody else unselfishly in memory of Mandela’s 67 years of service to our country and this year, because it’s the centennial, people, companies and even big corporations are all trying to do even bigger things.
I’ve been approached by a charity to make a Nelson Mandela cake in Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton, Johannesburg to try and raise R6.7 million for a foundation called Cupcakes of Hope – a children’s cancer charity. http://cupcakesofhope.org/
There will be a whole load of celebrations and commemorative events in the week leading up to his birthday and then it will all finish at the end of his birthday month with my live build in the last week. It’s all completely live and there will be webcams and even a radio station broadcasting live from down there – it’s quite a big thing.
I’m so nervous, because I’m going to make such a mess and people don’t realise how messy sculpting cake can be! They’re going to think I’m so disgusting! *laughs*
And although I trust the engineering because I have experience with it, I can never think, ‘This structure works 100%’ because I’m always designing new structures. Obviously, if we’re going to have a disaster, it’s will to be in front of everyone on camera, so it is a little bit daunting, yeah…
What else would you like to achieve in 2018?
I have a lot of classes coming up and I guess, for me, it’s just to continue to give my best to my clients and perhaps to develop two more new classes.
I love that it’s still ultimately about the clients for you.
Ok, now I have some questions that I always ask everybody that I interview. They’ve become a Mr Baker’s Blog tradition now. Firstly, what would you say to anyone considering getting into cake artistry?
I think the main thing is educate yourself and – I say this over and over – don’t make your clients pay for your education. Go learn the basics first so that it’s less stressful and you can begin with a sound business instead of just winging it and flying by the seat of your pants.
Just because you’ve made your grandma’s chocolate cake recipe every Sunday or at least twice a month and it’s never flopped, try doing that over and over again. you just have to overbeat it or just change this or that and suddenly something goes wrong – there are so many variables that can just make a cake flop.
You might not have taken that into account when you were just making one a week, but now you’re having to do six of those and little things can make all the difference. It might sound silly, but if you go and get the basics, you’ll know all the whys and wherefores.
What would be your top cake decorating tip for my readers?
Take time to plan. And plan to fail – leave yourself time to solve any problems that arise.
Thank you so much for the chat, Dot! It has been a real pleasure. We shall look forward to seeing you back in the UK in November – for Cake International – and the Cake Masters Magazine Awards of course!