Atlanta’s Karen Portaleo has Food Network special July 30 ‘Caketastrophe’

Karen Portaleo

By RODNEY HO/ rho@ajc.com, originally filed Saturday, July 29, 2016

Atlanta’s Karen Portaleo will be tested on the Food Network Saturday for a potential series. Framed as a “special,” “Caketastrophe” features Portaleo as the “cake fixer.”

Clients who had horrible cakes give Portaleo a second chance to work with the cake artists to do it better the second time around.

The special airs at 6 p.m. Saturday. Food Network will gauge reaction and decide whether to greenlight it for a series.

Here’s a quick email Q&A:

What’s your background with cakes?

I have no formal culinary training, but my grandfather was a pastry chef, and I grew up in bakeries. I had no intention of becoming a cake artist, it all just sort of fell together once I offered to make some pretty cookies to liven up the pastry case at Highland Bakery (having zero cake experience at the time) after a friend opened the first location in 2005. From there it has progressed along an unexpected path to where I am today.

 Where are you from and when did you move to Atlanta?

I was born in Rhode Island, but grew up in South Florida (Jupiter). I moved to Atlanta in 1984 to go to The Atlanta College of Art, and so far I haven’t found my way out.

Which bakeries have you worked at in Atlanta?

Highland Bakery is the only bakery I’ve ever worked in. (Besides working the counter at the bakeries where my grandfather worked when I was a kid).

What do you specialize in?

My specialty is large sculptural cakes. I make all different cakes, tiered, wedding, etc., but I am most known for large, very intricate sculptures that happen to be made of edible materials. Delicious edible materials!  Besides making cakes, I teach all over the world. I am passionate about cake, and strive to improve the quality and craftsmanship of our industry.

Octopus cake

What are your most favorite cakes you’ve ever made?

My favorite would have to be a large (over 200 lb) octopus cake I made fairly early in my cake career for The Georgia Aquarium. Besides being my favorite animal, the cake went viral, and it impacted my career probably more than any other cake I’ve ever made. I’ve also made a few big zombie cakes for the cast and crew of The Walking Dead, those were super fun to make!

What’s your philosophy in terms of cake creation?

It doesn’t matter how great the cake looks, it’s got to be delicious. If it’s only satisfying visually, then it’s not successful. After all is said and done, all the hours or days spent on a cake, it should be more than a client could have wished for, both as art and as cake. I work with a team of pastry chefs and bakers, and I work as quickly as possible (often through the night) to ensure that the cake tastes amazing, and stays fresh and delicious. Design, execution and flavor all need to be on point.

Conceptually, explain how your Saturday special works.

While wandering the internet cake world, I’ve seen a few cakes that simply have not been executed to the standards any client would reasonably expect. Usually these cakes are pelted with bad reviews, either for the way they look, or how they tasted. On this show, I get to find some of the artists making these poorly executed cakes and have a bit of a “what were you thinking” moment with them. Most bakers love what they do and want to do better. Some think they’re doing just fine, and don’t see what all the fuss is about. On the special, I locate the creator of the infamous “Ugly Elsa Cake”. You’ve probably seen it. Ultimately what she and most decorators who have had a bad cake go viral wants is to improve, and then have a shot at redemption, both with the client and the people all over the world who have seen their ‘caketastrophe’. I’m there to give them a second chance but it won’t be easy.  If they are willing to come to my kitchen and work through some unconventional exercises to build their skills, I give them that shot at redemption with their client. At that point, it’s up to them!

 What do cake artists often do wrong that causes problems with their clients?

The biggest problems come from not meeting a client’s expectations. In defense of cake decorators, some clients have unrealistic vision-versus-budget expectations, but those issues must be sorted out during the design process. Both parties should have a clear idea of what is going to show up on the day of the event. A decorator is always free to over deliver and exceed expectations, but it is never okay to over-promise and under-deliver. The first step in making sure this doesn’t happen is for decorators to have an honest assessment of the scope of their skills. If their skills don’t quite reach the level they ultimately want to achieve, they need to work at them before they agree to cakes that are out of their scope.

How do you work with clients to ensure they’re happy?

The key, initially, is communication. Design can be subjective, so I strive to be sure the client and I are imagining the same thing. This may involve sketches, color samples, cake tastings and looking at pictures either of cakes I’ve made, or pictures that help a client express what it is they want. If the client wants something unrealistic, I let them know right away. Many decorators want so much to please their clients, they don’t say no when the answer is no, and then end up delivering a buttercream cake to an outdoor wedding in the middle of a Georgia summer. That never works out well.

How did this special come about?

I’ve worked with Food Network before on Halloween Wars and Sugar Dome. They proposed this idea, I thought it sounded like big fun, and here we are!

With so many cake shows over the years, how can yours differentiate itself if it becomes a series?

There are a lot of competition shows out there, I know because I’ve been on several of them. While it is so exciting to see the most skilled artists competing at the top of their game, there’s not been a show about decorators who are struggling or just starting out. This special is about the decorators who have the passion, but have not fully formed their skill set yet (or maybe think they have, but need a dose of reality!), and what they are willing to do to get better. I also get to offer up some valuable techniques and information about decorating, and this is something I think people have really wanted to see! And there’s a huge playful aspect to the show, so people who don’t decorate at all will love it, too!

Do you have a particular cake-related reality show you’ve liked more over the years than any other?

Halloween Wars, hands down. I was on the first season (and my team won!), and it was so much fun! But I also love it because I love Halloween! If you look at my website ( www.karenportaleo.com ), you’ll see what I mean, I’ve got a few spooky cakes on there. I’m also a sucker for anything Ron Ben-Israel is on, I adore him.

You were on Andrew Zimmern’s show. Tell me how that happened and what the experience was like…

Andrew was coming here to do an episode on Atlanta with his friend Margaret Cho, who lived here. She mentioned that one of her favorite places to eat was Highland Bakery. At the time, I was still working there full time, and my work was up on their website (It is no longer on there). The production company was looking over the website and saw my work, and contacted me directly to ask if I would do a cake for the show! At first they asked me to do a cake of the show’s logo, but I said that if that’s all they wanted, they could get that anywhere. I offered to do a cake of Andrew being attacked by some of the creatures he has consumed on his show, and they loved the idea! I also brought my friend and gifted pastry chef Taria Camerino in to create an unusual cake flavor (you can’t serve vanilla to Andrew Zimmern!). She created a cake that had powdered roasted prawn shells and pink Sichuan peppercorns in the batter, and was layered with a pear miso pate fruit, with a bay leaf simple syrup soak. He loved it, and said the cake was “tattooed on his heart forever”.

Are you holding a public viewing party or a private one?

Private, just a few friends and family.

TV PREVIEW

“Caketastrophe,” 6 p.m. Saturday, July 30, Food Network


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