The art of baking
October 22, 2018
Ellen O’Dwyer-Cunliffe meets a young Wellingtonian entrepreneur with a creative approach to cakes.
The baker focuses intently on her canvas. Through a bright blue piping bag she squeezes neat dollops of cream onto the sponge. Next she arranges a layer of lychees topped with peach and passionfruit compote. Then, calmly, she begins again. Several sponge tiers later, we reach the top, where she sprinkles pomegranate seeds, and places freeze-dried strawberries between wedges of kiwifruit. It’s a colourful finishing touch to her latest work of art.
The baker has already prepared two other cakes: a golden-red velvet cake, and passionfruit meringue tart with mandarin, mint and pistachio. They are all for her grandma’s birthday which she’s off to celebrate that evening.
Meet Vicki Young, Wellingtonian, patisserie chef-in-training and creator of VickiEats
Rewind 15 years and 93.7 km to Levin. It’s Sunday again, Vicki and her brother are hanging around the oven as the smell of her mum’s sponge cake fills the room. As soon as it’s ready and out of the oven, Vicki peels the skin off the top of the sponge and eats it – the sweetest part of the cake.
Sponge, custard with stewed apples, rice bubble cake with malt syrup, the childhood deserts remain vivid in Vicki’s memory.
“Nana would make steamed cake – you’d smell it in the kitchen and she’d spent a whole day making it and you’d eat it fresh from the steamer.”
For Vicki’s family, food was always important. Her parents immigrated from China, her Dad first in 1975, and then Mum in 1986, when they established their business as market gardeners in Levin, selling on a commercial basis to retail stores and distribution centres. Food was a livelihood, but it also signified family time.
“I remember hearing that quote somewhere,” Vicki says, trailing off slightly “food is an expression of love when words aren’t enough.”
“It was just so central in our family. Growing up nana would make lunch, and as soon as lunch was over, she’d be thinking about dinner. I used to think – why is she so stressed? Now I realise it’s so ingrained in us to think about the next meal.
“Food is our way of saying I care for you.”
That connection to food carried forward into Vicki’s life at university. Now 27, she baked as a hobby throughout her studies in Chinese and criminology at Victoria University, digging out the flour, butter and sugar from her different flats’ pantries to make 21st birthday cakes. Though she earned a first class honours degree in criminology, she couldn’t leave the cooking behind. When she was working, the challenge became to cook for workmates. They would say, you should be a baker. At first Vicki brushed off the comments, but found herself baking late into the night.
“I would think, why am I putting myself through this? It was just for work morning tea, or a new recipe you wanted to try and you’d spend the whole night trying to perfect it.”
Like many creatives and entrepreneurs, Vicki seems to have a constant drive to say ‘yes’ to things, enthralled by the challenge, experience, or passion to make something good.
“It was my way of downtime, ” she says.
Completing a free evening course in Small Business and Project Management at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa helped VickiEats become a fully-fledged business.
“That really helped me set up stages of what I needed to do. We had modules to focus on accounts side, or focus on the whole business vision and goals, it really helped you think about things, critically and in more depth.”
Around the same time, Vicki started the level three certificate in baking at Weltec and is currently completing the level four certificate. Cookery tutor Robert Bok says the course is designed to arm students with practical skills and theoretical knowledge of the baking industry.
“Vicki has passion and has planned her intentions already, and to top it all off, she has already begun a small business in custom baking,” he says. “My role is only to empower her better. She has already made her own blueprint for success.”
January 2018: Vicki awaits takeoff on a flight to Auckland. In her lap sits a two-tiered lemon passionfruit wedding cake. It’s the only way she can get it to her clients in one piece. She’s carried the cake through check-in and it’s passed screening at security. Nothing can stop this cake now, nor the creative drive behind it.
VickiEats is Vicki Young’s customised cakes business. It is not yet a year old, and she has already made countless cakes and baked goods.
Vicki explains the concept of her business over tea at her kitchen table. She seeks to collaborate with the client, to encapsulate some of their vision in the cake. It may be a favourite colour, flavour or hobby that finds its way into the finished product.
“It’s not just cake, it’s so symbolic for people.
“People really want something that’s tailored to them – and I think it means a lot, not just the design but the time that other person has taken to really think about what the customer wants, and connecting with that customer. ‘’
Vicki describes each cake as her canvas.
“Growing up I was interested in art and drawing, now cakes are my way of adding art to something. And I like that because it’s challenging, you want it to look nice, but you also want it to be edible and tasty.”
Scrolling through VickiEats’ Instagram profile, you can see what she means: the cakes are architectural, delicate or fun – depending on the client. Vicki says she has been lucky to be part of the social media generation, and has used this as a springboard for her business. It has helped her connect with other entrepreneurs in Wellington and produced some winning collaborations.
Last year, Vicki was invited by Whittakers to take part in their 12 days of Christmas social media campaign, where different artists and entrepreneurs across New Zealand were invited to feature Whittakers chocolate in Christmas themed creations.
Auckland based Behemoth Brewery has collaborated with Vicki on several occasions. Brewery operations manager Hannah Childs recalls Vicki making 500 cookies to accompany their brews for Beervana in 2017.
They also collaborated for the brewery’s fifth birthday celebrations in Wellington. Vicki made a birthday cake incorporating the brewery’s Moccha Madness beer. Speaking before the event, Hannah said she was excited to see what Vicki would come up with.
“We knew we needed a birthday cake coming up and I just automatically thought of her. We’ll let her do what she thinks is awesome and I’m sure it will be.”
Hannah describes Behemoth Brewery as specialising in fun beers, and says they were initially drawn to work with Vicki due to her strong social media presence.
“Vicki’s always doing fun, outside-the-box things. We like to align ourselves with businesses like hers that stand out from everyone else.”
Vicki says her baking dreams are expanding the more she learns.
“I want to do more than cakes, I want to do patisserie, to collaborate more with businesses and artists. And one day, I want to have a dessert restaurant.”
Creating a business from the ground up as a sole trader has ongoing challenges. Vicki says she’s learning all the time.
“Pricing, marketing, sustainable competitive advantage, how do you build that trust with people? How to promote your business and products, how to create work for yourself ahead of time?’’
Leaving her previous stable job at the beginning of it all and pursuing the life of a baker was a big risk. But Vicki says with that risk comes excitement, too.
“Every week is different, you’re building what’s around you.”
And she says the example of her parents is always in the back of her mind, pushing her on.
“I have so much admiration them, now that I have started my own business. I’m in awe of what they’ve achieved.”
Every morning Vicki wakes early to iron her chef whites, then she’s off to baking school, practicing or studying for exams, afternoons and nights planning or cooking for VickiEats and maintaining a part-time job as a pastry chef as well.
For Vicki it’s part passion, part necessity.
“It’s amazing the power of a sticky situation – when you have to do it to survive or you have to do it because there’s no other way. I had to start it because I left my job and I just had to do it, there was no other option.
“You just have to knuckle down and do it.”