Get to know a Baker: Jessica Smith, Cake Opera Co.
Co-owned by pastry chef Jessica Smith and artist Alexandria Pellegrino, Cake Opera Co. is as glam as cake shops come. From baking with her grandmother at a young age to creating elaborate wedding cakes for celebrities, Jessica certainly has come a long way in a short time. With many delicate cakes on display, most of which can easily take hundreds of hours to perfect, there's an immediate sense of artistry and elegance. Here, Jessica tells me about her best learned secrets she's learned along the way, the most outlandish requests she's received, and what advice she can don those looking to pursue a career in baking.
Did you always want to be a baker?
Yes, definitely. When I was seven, I started a little something called "Jessie's Café." I ran it out of my parent's basement, baking fresh cookies every day, making up chits, receipts and a daily menu. I would even charge my parents to pour coffee in their cups. Serving my parents is my first memory of earl grey tea--making it, placing a tea cozy over it, and serving it. It's a very poignant memory for me.
What's the most important thing you've learned working in Michelin-starred patisseries?
Work fast and work clean. I think you can train almost anyone to be a pastry chef. You don't need an innate knowledge of food, but you do need a certain eye for details. For instance, ganache will break easily and certain things will happen to butter cream, so you need to be attentive, even during the minutiae of decorating the pastries and cakes. At Yauatcha, they had the most beautiful pastry cakes. Everything looked like jewels and had to be perfectly laid in a row, gorgeous and pristine.
What is your favourite item to bake and why?
Caramel. When I'm making caramel, everyone that walks in asks, "What are you making?" Caramel is so gorgeous. You take a bit of water and sugar in a pan and cook it until it's a deep brown gorgeous caramel colour. Then you pour in cream and it creates this bubbly, beautiful concoction. You can use it as a sauce, you can use it as an injection, and you can use it as a base for ganache--all sorts of things. Getting a perfect rise on a cupcake is also very rewarding.
What's the secret to making a good cake?
Premium ingredients and following a really great recipe. Any recipe you find in a book or on the internet is rarely going to be perfect based on your conditions, your altitude, or even what baking powder you're using because it's all going to modify what you're baking.
We spent weeks sourcing the right flour for our cakes because none of the ones that we found were suitable. You have to practice according to your oven's temperature and the humidity in your shop. Baking elsewhere always poses challenges for those reasons.
Aside from yours, which bakery makes the best cakes in Toronto?
I have a killer affinity for Nadège. She was the executive sous chef at Yauatcha and she hired me. She does French pastry, the macaron and a beautiful montage of mousse cake and tarts and sandwiches and she's just really elevated the level of Toronto's pastry scene.
What advice would you give to those looking to pursue a career as a baker?
We always get people looking for jobs here but it's not an easy industry to be in, as any cook can attest to. The hours are crappy and the pay is crappy. We may make $3000 cakes, but we work for every penny. The advice that I would give is, go intern somewhere. Take an internship, even if it's one day a week, at a bakery. See if you like the atmosphere, the hours, and all the little jobs that come with it too, because it's not all painting cakes and making sugar flowers. A certain type of person can really thrive in a kitchen environment whereas others may just whither.
What's the most outrageous cake request you have ever received?
Once in a while we'll have clients in for their wedding cake consultation who request really savoury flavoured cupcakes. I totally understand that people want something new, but at least call it a muffin instead of a cupcake. A warm taco muffin somehow sounds better than taco cupcake, no? Nobody ever asks for a cupcake flavoured taco.
We've had some big orders, too. We went down to Arizona for a sweet sixteen party and flew down 60 sugar roses in our carry-on luggage because they are so delicate that we couldn't risk checking them. This was when security in the states was at its peak and so they confiscated our fondant because it looked like plastic explosives and they had to go through all the flowers to make sure they were fine. Once we got there we assembled this 4.5" Alice in Wonderland cake.
What do you do when you're not baking?
I live close to High Park, so walking through the park is amazing. I don't tend to go dancing, but on a Saturday night, I love to go for a 9 o'clock dinner and just spend hours eating and drinking good wine and cocktails. I have a crazy thing for bourbon right now. I love finding a little hole in the wall bar and spending time relaxing with good friends.
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS
Cake or Icing? Cake
Best beverage to drink with cake? Champagne.
Most underrated ingredient? Flour.
Best baking tool? Silicon heatproof spatulas that are stiff enough to scrape bowls for macaroons, tempered chocolate and caramel.
Strangest thing in your fridge at home? Homemade cinnamon vodka with cloves, oranges and cinnamon. Also the little very little shrimp from the Korean market for making Kimchi. I have a huge canister of it.
Book of the moment? World War Z
Someone who inspires you? My immediate family and my grandmother. My first memories of baking are with my grandmother.
Read more baker profiles on our Toronto Bakers Pinterest board.
Writing by Jillan Locke, photos by Stephani Buchman