HOW AUSTRALIAN KERRY VINCENT BECAME A MIDDLE AMERICAN CAKE QUEEN?
When Western Australia’s Kerry Vincent moved to Oklahoma with her American husband, she thought she’d lead a quiet life.
Then one day, a friend asked her to make a wedding cake.
by Stephanie Wood
A middle-aged woman driving a mobility scooter halts Kerry Vincent’s brisk progress through an expo hall full of cake. The woman, Jennifer, has a walking stick tucked between her legs and a camera in her hand. She wants to get a photograph of her friend, Darlene, posing with the Western Australian-born global cake legend.
I ask Jennifer and Darlene, who are from Arkansas, if they watch Kerry Vincent on America’s Food Network channel. “Yes ma’am,” says Darlene. “She’s better than a rock star to me. She’s amazing. She can be very detail-oriented, but she helps people learn.”
Vincent has already marched off through a fog of deep-frying food to attend to the details of her baby, the Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show, one of the largest of its kind in the world and a centrepiece of the annual Tulsa State Fair. I catch up with her and share the news of her rock-star status. “Not bad for an old lady,” she says, before muttering about unevenly spaced tables for the wedding cake competition entries, and a cake decorated with flashing coloured lights: “What the hell was she thinking?!” I tell her that, earlier, I’d overheard show visitors admiring the luminous confection. “Of course they do,” she says, crossly. “Let me tell you, the ugliest cake in the building will win the People’s Choice award, always.”
Kerry Vincent’s opinions are fiercely held and forcefully shared. The Tulsa-based master sugar artist likes to tell people that she’s been called the “Dominatrix of Decorating” and the “Simon Cowell of Cake”. As a judge on Food Network shows Challenge (about three million viewers per episode), Last Cake Standing and this year’s Save My Bakery, she has reduced contestants to quivering wrecks.
“If I keep telling them they’re fabulous, they’re not going to get better,” says Vincent. Over the years, brutal Vincent-isms have included, “[His] cake decorating was gaudy and looked incompetent,” and “The most awful-tasting thing I’ve ever put in my mouth”. The opinions are delivered in a voice to shatter glass. The tone is haughty. The accent somehow manages to be both deafeningly Australian and posh at the same time. The laugh is raucous.
In Australia, Vincent is still mostly a face in the crowd, despite her first local television outing in last year’s The Great Australian Bake Off. But in the United States, where cake contests make prime-time television, Vincent has built a serious fan base as a reality TV judge-villain-with-a-heart-of-gold.
As she’d be the first to admit, it’s all so unlikely. Now 69, she was in her early 40s when she found fame as the creator of wedding cakes for the Tulsa country-club set; in her late 40s when she co-founded the Sugar Art Show in 1993; nearly 60 when the Food Network first put her on television. And here, now, is the unlikely outcome: star-struck, camera-waving, middle-aged women bailing up a retirement-aged Australian wearing sensible shoes and a headband that could have been borrowed from a Stepford Wives wardrobe department.
Still, it might not be so unlikely that what started as a little Tulsa cake show with 148 entries should have grown to become a cake powerhouse. Tulsa, which burst out on the back of spurting oil wells in the early 1900s, is firmly Middle America. The sprawling city of 400,000 that some call “the buckle of the Bible Belt” falls midway along Route 66. If serious cakes won’t go off in Tulsa, they won’t go off anywhere. And if the Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show’s serious cakes can’t draw crowds at the Tulsa State Fair, America’s Sugar Association might as well hang out a “Gone fishin’ ” sign.
Kerry Vincent’s Sugar Art Show is set amid a world of cotton candy and candy apples, buckets of soda pop and snow cones and chocolate-covered bacon. There are stalls selling pink glittery cowboy boots; another hawks T-shirts with slogans like “I don’t dial 911” (with an image of a handgun). There are exhibits of pick-up trucks the size of semi-trailers and spa tubs as big as houses. There’s a Miss Tulsa pageant and stalls for the Republicans, the Democrats and Jesus.
And there’s cake. About 700 cakes – sugar art – from about 375 contestants. Not cake that you’d eat, mind – these cakes have Styrofoam foundations. The Tulsa show is all about the artistry of the entries’ exteriors – in fondant and gum paste, butter cream, marzipan and modelling chocolate. Vincent calls the increasingly popular fondant – a mixture of icing sugar, gums and gelatin – “big girls’ play-dough”. (Fondant is rolled out like pastry and used to cover cakes; gum paste has a higher gum content, dries harder and is usually used to sculpt decorative features.)
The magic of rolled fondant and gum paste has allowed one competitor to make a cake that, from five paces, you’d totally mistake for a red toolbox, with edible screwdrivers, pliers, a paint scraper and grease-smeared fondant rag. In the hands of another, fondant and gum paste have morphed into an oversized cheeseburger with frilly lettuce, red onion rings, oozing mustard and shiny tomato slices. There’s a tiered cake that’s a magical underwater world with a mermaid, octopus, coral and anemones, and a gruesome dinosaur skull cake. (It may be on the way to proving Vincent’s theory that the “ugliest cake in the building” always wins the People’s Choice award, which is determined by the amount of money visitors drop into boxes next to each cake; the box next to the skull is stuffed with greenbacks.)
Fondant has allowed Hannah Iseley, a nervy 15-year-old from Tahlequah, the home of the Cherokee Nation about 100 kilometres south-east of Tulsa, to enter a pastel-hued, five-tiered wonder in the teenage division. “I like to read a lot of books and I watch a lot of Disney movies,” says home-schooled Hannah, who has already finished her high-school studies and is thinking about becoming a professional cake decorator. “This one’s kind of a mixture of Alice in Wonderland and a little bit of The Wizard of Oz.”
Hannah is wearing a ’50s-style, mint-green frock she made herself and a pink bow in her hair – to match her cake. “You can’t have a cake without matching, I always say.” Last year, she won first place in her division for a wedding cake inspired by a tuxedo. She made a “tuxedo-looking” dress to match it.
It’s an exciting weekend for the Iseley family – Hannah and her mom, Kim, have been entering the show for years, but it’s the first year for seven-year-old sister McKenna and father David, who has a carpet-cleaning franchise with 86 locations around the US. His cake is in the non-wedding cake category. It’s a Christmas scene: snowy-roofed houses and reindeers pulling a sleigh across a fat-mooned night sky. The former rodeo rider isn’t in the least concerned what his friends might say about him entering a cake show. “I’m too old to be playing that game,” says David, who’s wearing a stetson and a cowboy-patterned ‘kerchief Hannah made for him. “That’s a middle-school game there, you know.”
It’s romance, of course, that explains how Kerry Flynn could have been born in Wyalkatchem, north-east of Perth, grown up making slab sponge cakes for the shearers on her returned-serviceman father’s property, then ended up living as a cake queen in Middle America.
“I went out one night for a quiet drink with a friend and Kerry happened to be sitting on the side of me, and it’s never been quiet since,” says her Louisiana-born husband, Doug Vincent. Kerry, who was on a working holiday, had popped into a crowded pub in London’s West End with a friend in 1973, squeezing into a booth that was already occupied by a tall American. She wasn’t just vocal. She was beautiful.
Back in Western Australia, Miss Flynn had been a model. She made the state finals of the 1964 Miss Australia contest. The fashion co-ordinator at the Perth department store Boans wanted her for millinery: “She said, ‘I could put a jerry [chamber pot] on your head and it would look good.’ ” For tobacco brands Rothmans and Dunhill, Kerry wore navy and white, pillbox hats and white boots, and moved from trackside to cocktail party as a promotional girl. “It was elegant then; you smoked with a pair of long satin gloves and a holder.”
In 1974, Mr Vincent married Miss Flynn. The bride cooked the reception food and someone picked up a wedding cake from Harrods at the last minute. Then the “kangaroo” and her “24-carat Cajun” took off, following his work as an engineer in the oil industry. Over the next decade, they moved from London to Singapore, on to Mexico City and the Hague, and finally to Tulsa.
The couple didn’t have children. “I don’t think about it; I never did,” says Vincent, who, at certain angles, looks like the actor Julie Andrews. She could not have imagined she would find another sort of family altogether in Tulsa. “If I was psychoanalysed, they would probably say my ‘cake children’ are my children, [but] my cake children go home.”
On the face of it, the Tulsa cake queen is imperious, overbearing. She’d argue she simply speaks the truth and she’s never had a big head. Her adoring cake children would agree with their mentor and mother figure.
“She’s Mary Poppins – firm but kind, and practically perfect in every way,” says show entrant Dianne Holgate, who might well say that cake – and Vincent – brought her back to life. In mid-2009, a month or so after Holgate’s 2008 Sugar Art Show entry was featured in the prestigious Brides magazine, she was rushed to hospital with pneumonia. She went into a coma and her organs started to shut down. Her fingers and legs blackened as tissue degenerated and, while she was still unconscious, doctors amputated her toes. When she emerged from the coma after six weeks, it was clear that her legs had to go, too.
Five years on, Holgate, 51, walks with prosthetic legs and makes cakes. “This woman here is amazing,” says Vincent, stopping to chat with her friend, who is fussing over her cake. It’s a tiered teal, purple and green wedding cake inspired by a cross-stitch sampler of a geisha that Holgate spotted one day in a craft shop.
Holgate, from Farmington, New Mexico, was madly colouring gum-paste roses and wiring leaves and flowers for the cake in her hotel room in the early hours. “I just ran out of time,” says Holgate, whose frantic wedding season included a trip to a wedding in Trinidad, where she waged war with humidity-affected fondant.
Through the last months of 2009, during rehabilitation, she could not have imagined that such a future was possible. But there was fondant. Holgate’s physical therapist knew she was a cake decorator. “She said, ‘Do you work with that ‘fondue’ stuff?’, and I’m like, ‘Fondant, with a ‘t’ on the end.’ She said, ‘Knead that fondant.’ ” So Holgate would sit at her kitchen table and roll and knead and work her crippled hands until they ached.
And there was Kerry Vincent. While Holgate was in a coma, Vincent had called Holgate’s family frequently. When she regained consciousness, Vincent was a persistent voice. “She called and said, ‘I will expect to see you next year [at the show] and I will expect you to bring a cake.’ Her encouragement really kept me focused in the cake world, because I could have just said, ‘My hands are a mess, I don’t have legs, I can’t do cakes anymore.’ She really didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”
Vincent has built more than just a cake show. It’s a community. Each year, volunteers from all over the US come to work for the show. “They love me and we’re all growing old together,” says Vincent. She knows the volunteers’ stories. Those like that of Edith Hall, 56, from Columbia, Missouri, who was sexually abused as a child, whose father shot her mother, then himself. Hall discovered their bodies. She was eight years old.
“She’s pulled her bootstraps up from some pretty nasty stuff that happened,” says Vincent, who last year asked Hall to be the food stylist for Save My Bakery.
“I was scared to death and then I finally told her, ‘I’m scared that I will disappoint you.’ Kerry said, ‘You’re not going to disappoint me,’ ” says Hall, who this year has an entry in the Grand National Wedding Cake Competition, the Sugar Art Show’s companion wedding cake contest, and is judging another category.
In 2010, a year when Hall was bereft of ideas for her entry and decided she would skip the show, Vincent nagged her. “She said, ‘You really need to do it, it’s the only way you can push yourself.’ ” Hall pushed herself, and took the best cake she’d ever made to the show. She got first runner-up in the Grand National. “Kerry doesn’t let you give up on yourself.”
I’m trying to keep up with Kerry Vincent as she marches around the Tulsa fairgrounds hall. We pass a demonstration kitchen, where Melbourne-based master patissier Shayne Greenman is making a Man from Snowy River cake. It’s a very famous story, he tells the audience. “It’s about a mountain stock rider, you know, like a cowboy.” A large lady in a mauve shirt sits on the bleachers and eats a candy apple. A woman in a pink shirt pulls up close to the stage on a mobility scooter.
Vincent shows me a rack of frilly aprons; they’re some of the many prizes Grand National winners will receive. She stops to tap on a glass box and wave at a woman inside. The woman is wearing a Hazmat suit and a mask and is slapping butter on a life-sized wire frame of a bucking horse. She looks up and smiles at Vincent. A girl passes us wearing a T-shirt with the pink-glittered words, “Let Them Eat Cake”. A man goes by wearing one saying, “I’m the husband, I just carry the cakes.”
Kerry Vincent never planned to make cake. When the Vincents arrived in Tulsa in 1983, the idea was that Doug would retire and they’d lead a quiet life, with a little travel thrown in. But a frantic phone call changed everything. The wife of one of Doug’s colleagues was desperate. “Can you make a wedding cake?” she asked. The woman’s son was getting married in two weeks and there’d been a stuff-up with the cake.
Vincent felt a sense of obligation – when they’d first arrived in Tulsa, the woman had been good enough to introduce her to the city – and she liked a challenge. She knew how to make patisserie-style cakes, but tiered wedding cakes were a different thing altogether – architecture, really. Vincent sought information at a local cake shop, then went home and started work.
“I made a buttercream cake with piped buttercream roses and leaves and lots of scrolly piping; I’m a bit artistic anyway,” says Vincent. After the wedding, five of its bridesmaids asked Vincent to make the cakes for their weddings. Her cake-queen life had started. “My house was settled and I had all the drapes up; I needed something to do.”
American wedding cakes were predominantly butter cakes decorated with buttercream. Rolled fondant icing had become popular in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand in the 1950s. “No one was doing it in the US.” Vincent went home to Perth for supplies.
Back in Tulsa, she reached out to couples through the engagement notices. The appearance of a Kerry Vincent wedding cake was followed by thronging guests wanting one for their weddings, too. She pushed her prices higher. Her business card read, “I don’t open my oven door for under $2000.” She travelled the US teaching fondant techniques, and persuaded a manufacturer to start producing fondant commercially. “That was the beginning of the change from buttercream to fondant in America. We made it sweetie-sweetie for the American palate.”
Bad tablecloths were what spurred Vincent to start the Sugar Art Show. “I’d get to a wedding and people would have the most atrocious tablecloths that had nothing to do with the design of the cake that I’d made.” The cloths would be yellowed with age, or unironed, or simply inappropriate. And then came … the mardi gras tablecloth. Vincent had been commissioned to provide the cake for a “really up-your-nose country club wedding”. She’d been told “elegant, dogwood flowers, understated, beautiful, blah-blah-blah”. She arrived with her cake. She took it to the table where it was to be displayed. “I looked at the cloth and I said, ‘You have to be kidding.’ It was Bourbon Street mardi gras, purple, gold, green and yellow with masks and leaping French things and fleurs-de-lys … it was awful; so that was the moment I said, ‘The show has to start.’ ”
At Vincent’s Sugar Art Show, there might be hamburger cakes and cakes that look like dinosaur skulls and all manner of other nuttiness, but it’s the Grand National, the professional wedding cake contest, that’s the pinnacle. “I’m shoving people, just pushing their bottoms up all the time, saying, ‘Raise the level,’ ” says Vincent, who continues her campaign for correct tablecloths: 10 points out of a possible 100 in the Grand National competition are given for “the table”.
The Grand National should be the end goal of all entrants, says Vincent, right down to seven-year-old McKenna Iseley. Her Minnie Mouse cake, entered in the junior competition, fails to place this year. “Sure thing,” McKenna says, when I ask if she’ll enter a cake next year. It’ll be a rodeo cake. A rodeo cake with horses, a little gate and barrels.
The Iseleys haven’t had the most triumphant of years. Hannah is disappointed about her third-place ribbon, and David’s Christmassy cake fails to get a gong of any description. He’s thinking of taking another tack. “I notice they’ve got a really nice stage over there and they’ve got really good guitar performers; I might maybe pick out a Robert Johnson tune on my guitar and do that next year instead.”
Kim Iseley has the family’s greatest success: her cake, in the shape of an Italian villa, scores a second-place ribbon in the adult advanced division. “I’m just so proud that I was able to ribbon,” says Kim.
Her husband adds a philosophical note: “You can’t win ‘em all, but you can’t lose ‘em all, either.”
It’s reasoning that pastry chef Dawn Parrott is likely to agree with. Parrott, 43, from Houston, Texas, had entered wedding cakes in the show for eight years. She had planned to retire from the competition until her stepmother announced she’d booked air tickets to come to this year’s show. “She must be a good-luck charm, because look what happened,” says Parrott.
All week before the show, Parrott’s husband, Dwayne, had told her that he’d call the Smithsonian museum, because that’s where he thought her cake belonged. About 6.30pm on the Sunday of the show, his belief in his wife’s abilities was vindicated when she was announced the winner of the Grand National. Her cake, a pure white, “old-school”, Victorian-style cake, featured 47 layers of icing, 13 decorating techniques, and minutely piped Shakespearean characters. In a challenge to fondant’s supremacy, Parrott used 100 per cent royal icing: a mixture of icing sugar and egg whites.
And in a challenge to the supremacy of Kerry Vincent’s fiercely-held opinions, the People’s Choice winner isn’t the ugliest cake in the show. Instead, it is a pretty pink-and-white cake in four tiers with white roses, a pink bow and a pink flower on top.
Vincent has a little laugh when I suggest she may not always be “practically perfect in every way”. She is happy with what she has achieved, at least in the US. She wouldn’t mind, though, if Australian TV producers were to look favourably in her direction again.
If that doesn’t happen, there might be other things she can consider back home: when Vincent was eight, she won first prize in the adult division of the Albany Show for her fairy cakes. The Albany Agricultural Society recently got in touch. They’d read about her success in the US and thought she might like to enter a cake in the show. “For a lark, if I was home and it was on, I’d do it.”