It's a long story..
I live in Switzerland, but my story didn't start in this alpine country. I am a Native Californian. Although I’ve spent a total of 20 years living in Zurich, adopting Swiss culture and somehow managing to learn the Swiss dialect of Schwiizerdütsch, my genesis began in a world entirely different from the quaint villages and rolling hills of Switzerland. It all began across the ocean in a little city you may, or may not have heard of: San Diego, California.
I was born in San Diego, California to a very beautiful French Madagascan mother and very handsome, towering Mexican father. I guess that was my first encounter with good luck. My mother, with her intelligence, grace and sophistication and my father with an equal intelligence, perfectionism and iron-clad work ethic provided me with the foundation of who I am today.
I spent my entire twenties living in South Florida, where I studied Political Science at Florida Atlantic University and worked in the fine dining and hospitality industry to support my studies.
During those ten years, I had the privilege of working for renowned Michelin-starred restaurants and luxury resorts on South Florida’s most famous and exclusive island, Palm Beach.
I was extremely fortunate to obtain employment working for the world famous French Chef, Daniel Boulud at his Palm Beach restaurant, Café Boulud, located within the very exclusive Brazilian Court Hotel. A place where the über-rich and famous mingle freely thanks to its impenetrability by the paparazzi and NDA signatures of the entire staff.
I saw them all. All the famous people. And true to my word, my lips are sealed.
It was there where I was exposed to a world unlike anything else. The rigorous training in all aspects of hospitality, culinary and wine was intensive, exhaustive and incredibly rewarding, in a brutal, self-flagellating way. Anyone who has worked in the culinary underbellies will know exactly what I am talking about. No explanation needed.
For the rest of you, what I mean by brutal and self-flagellating is this:
the high octane pace of fine dining and hospitality is not for the fate of heart.
It's hierarchy and hell. And you better know your place.
There’s the front-of-house staff, which I was employed under, and the back-of-the-house staff, or also known as the kitchen brigade.
These guys, (and very few gals) are made up of a motley crew of artists, egos and former pirates. A colorful assortment of characters who have zero time for your inadequacies.
They are led by the Chef de Cuisine – the executive chef, or the boss who is in charge of the entire kitchen. You never address him by name. EVER. In fact you only speak when being spoken too. And if your response is too long, he will let you know it.
It’s "Oui Chef", or you better get the hell out, and fast.
But, believe me, it was respect very well earned.
In fact, that is what I love about the hospitality and culinary world, something that is unlike any other place of employment, you only move up by earning it.
Not by being an ass-kisser, a savvy game-player, a talker or a charlatan.
The slimy opportunistic-sort do not last. They eventually get eaten alive.
Yes, pure skill and talent moves you up. Nothing else.
Unlike the corporate world (more to that later) - in culinary, you either sink or swim.
Nobody is going to hold your hand.
I recall once, during the pre-meal meeting, not being able to answer in swift enough expediency when Chef asked me the origin of the oysters that were featured on the specials menu. I stuttered, froze and within a nano-second was told to “go home”.
I went home that night without the precious money I could have used as a struggling college student. Those are the kinds of mistakes one only makes once.
(FYI: Kumamotos. They were Kumamotos oysters. From the Japanese island of Kyushu. Those Kumamotos cost me a Friday night shift and half of my rent.)
Chef was brutal, but he was passionate and cared deeply for his craft. He insisted everyone who worked front-of-house must be thoroughly and entirely trained; trained by him and his handpicked brigade. You had to know everything about the product you sold; and you better be passionate about it. Otherwise, you can leave. It's that simple.
The beauty of that ethos was that everyone - and I mean EVERYONE - who worked at in Boulud's restaurants was passionate about excellent food, fine wine and being envoys of presentation and perfectionism. There is something to be said about working with people who love what they do. You can fight me on this.
Chef trained the entire front-of-the-house staff every year for an entire month, before season hit. I loved those marathon trainings. I had the privileged of sitting vis-à-vis graduates of some of the finest culinary institutes in the world as they schooled us on what, how and you-better-get-it-right.
From the Saucier, the Garde Manger to the Patisserie - the servers, bartenders, bussers, hostesses, and sommeliers had to know exactly how the kitchen operated, otherwise, we had no business representing their hard work on the floor.
I loved it.
I respected these people and I also feared them.
I absorbed everything I could. Nothing in my University studies -or any where else educated me quite like the world of hospitality. If you can survive "the biz", you can survive anything.
I consider myself extremely fortunate and eternally grateful for being able to work with some of the finest people in the culinary arts. An invaluable education that has benefited all aspects of my life. In fact, to this day, no matter the capacity, I always organize myself by setting up a mise en place.
It wasn't just the food we had to know, we had to know wines and liquor too; training in the world of viticulture was mandatory. (poor me)
We were subjected to tastings, pairings and all aspects around serving and storing alcoholic beverages. Again, my luck at working with some of the countries top Master Sommeliers - learning about how to properly cork a bottle (never let it POP!) to identifying flavours notes and vendange.
Here I was a college student studying political philosophy, history of nuclear weapon negotiations and the general principles of international law by day, and by night, I was tasting truffles from Alba, couverture from Belgium and learning how to dissect the notes of a Château Mouton Rothschild Pauillac.
As I sit here and recall all of this, I simply cannot believe my luck. Not because of the celebrities I met and got to know. (Yes, there were a ton of celebrities) - for me. The true rock stars were the artists who worked no less than 18 hour days only to show up the next day, with the same unrelenting passion.
Palm Beach is very season driven. Business booms during the months of October to May. The summer is when business wanes significantly. As a college student, I had to keep working. So I continued working in hospitality by working for resorts like PGA National Resort & Spa, The Palm Beach International Equestrian Center and several catering companies and restaurants all throughout Palm Beach County. Here again, gaining invaluable experience in weddings, large scale banquets and all aspects of hotelier. If I felt capable maneuvering myself through the microcosm of haute cuisine, then working in luxury hotel resorts was like second nature.
From million dollar weddings, to intimate celebrity affairs, fund raisers, golf tournaments, equestrian tournaments, and galas - I passed around crab cakes, poured prosecco, and polished towers of glassware more times then I can count.
At some point I was graduated from Florida Atlantic University with an honors degree in Political Science & International Relations. Merely weeks after marching across the stage to Pomp and Circumstance and shaking the Deans hand, I was on a plane to Switzerland.
I had fulfilled my original intention of obtaining a university degree and my time in Florida was done.
In May 2011 I landed in Zurich, where I had left 10 years earlier. Curriculum Vitae and diploma in hand and hungry to get a "real job" behind a desk. (major eye role.. in hindsight)
It did not take long before I found a job at the headquarters of a pharmaceutical company. Thus beginning my transition into the corporate world. Transition into the corporate world was surreal. I made more money than I had ever made in my life - by simply sitting at a desk for merely eight hours a day.. 40 hours a week.
I couldn't believe it sometimes. I was used to busting my butt for a paycheck and here I making a proper salary by writing emails, constructing PowerPoint presentations and sitting in meetings discussing the need to book more meetings.
When some of the assistants would complain (even cry) of being stressed out and super busy, I couldn't understand why? "This is nothing" I'd think to myself. Try working a slammed bar on a Friday night, 10 deep with the service bar tickets pouring out like melted butter and five items on the menu 86'd and no bar-back, all while maintaining a friendly smile.
It did not take long before I began to miss culinary and hospitality. I missed the quirky characters, the sweat and the hard work. I yearned for the creative outlet, the passionate chefs and sommeliers and even the arrogant maître d's. That was WORK!
All those years in hospitality I used to dream about getting my degree and becoming a "professional" - and here I was, finally working in a fancy office, wearing fancy business clothes with a fancy salary.
But the reality was, it was boring as hell.
It was anything else but creative.
It was stifling.
Every time I'd try to be creative, bring new ideas, or shake things up, it only got me in trouble.
Shuffling from pointless meetings, squabbling over silly PowerPoint presentations and petty office hierarchical drama is where my soul went to die.
The culinary / hospitality world was intense, exhaustive but it gave me a feeling of purpose. I realized that all those amazing people whom I've met, whose faces I still can vividly see when I close my eyes; those amazing people lived and breathed their creativity! I envied them and missed the world I was adopted into.
The corporate world chewed me up and spit me out. I did not play the game well.
I was not capable of being successful in that microcosm. My need to be creative was not appreciated or welcomed.
I was not good at being a sniveling, slimy corporate ladder climber.
Backstabbed by the very team assistant I helped hired, I was defeated because It never dawned on me to play dirty.
After five years, I was made redundant from that fancy corporate job.
Steve Jobs once said: "I didn't see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again ... it freed me to enter one of my most creative periods."
This could not resonate with me more. Yes!
A Cake Story was born after I realized I didn't need fancy office clothes or a whatever- that-means corporate job title to dictate the definition of success. I wanted to be creative and not be held back by that's-not-how-it's-done-here mentality. I was well equipped, prepared and capable of writing my own damn rules.
I craved the kind of exhausting happiness those colorful assortment of characters I once worked with had. I too wanted to create things for people and spread happiness dammit!
Then one day, a banal request for birthday cake opened the flood gates. I had found it. That thing that brings out my inner crazy creativity and I became obsessed.
All the disappointment I felt for failing in the corporate world; all the anger I had accumulated from being man-splained in overly air-conditioned meetings rooms; all the times I should not have been too nice - or gave my extra time and expected to be treated as human as opposed to a HR file folder in a very poorly organized C:drive morphed into a frenzy of late nights and fondant discovery. In my darkest hour, I discovered healing through art.
To be specific, ephemeral art - from the Greek (ephêmeros), meaning "lasting only one day", "short-lived", without specifying a specific time, but always with the condition of its expiration. Because of its perishable and transitory nature, Cake Art is an artistic expression conceived under a concept of transience in time.. its ephemeral.
It's a strange transition to go from student of Political Science, to Hospitality, to a corporate Compliance Officer to Cake Artist. I'll admit to that. But it makes for a damn good story during parties. Of course for the sake of brevity I have left a lot out. There is a lot of sadness, trauma and painful parts that need not be revisited. Important as they were to shaping my experience not only as a person, but more significantly as an artist - let's just leave those parts where they belong; in the past.
Everyone has a story.
It is our stories that make us unique, vulnerable and powerful all at the same time.
My story is about learning, persevering, discovering something about yourself you never knew you had, and pursuing what sets your soul on fire.
Everything I learned throughout my life is nothing shy of metaphor for exactly what cake is: a collection of totally unrelated ingredients, mixed together in utter harmony, resulting in something magical.