We’re not ones for hyperbole, so when we consider exquisite too weak a word for Maggie Austin’s confections, you know they’re worth seeing. More art pieces than simply dessert, her cakes are so impressive, they’ve gained the attention of celebrities and royalty around the world. We recently chatted with Maggie about everything from how one gets into cake decorating, to how ballet influenced her confectionery career, and most importantly, the flavors at the top of her list.
Hi Maggie! We’re huge fans of your cakes here at BHLDN. Can you start out by telling us how you got into cake decorating?
I attended the amazing French Pastry School in Chicago after an injury ended my ballet career. I had always been interested in baking, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to focus on. The 6-month program was a broad overview of French pastries and it included two weeks of wedding cake instruction where I fell completely in love with sugar flowers. The process of creating them appealed to my ballet training (and instinct) for the quiet and controlled pursuit of effortless beauty. Shortly after I graduated, my sister and I thought that we’d try to turn what I love to do into a business. Maggie Austin Cake was born in 2010, and the rest is history!
(The dresses below inspired this cake!)
How does your background in dance influence what you create?
My training as a ballet dancer began at a very young age. The complete discipline and singular focus on perfection was both inspiring and extremely restrictive. I’ve spent most of my life trying to make hard work look easy. Nature is my greatest inspiration—there is such beauty in a torn leaf. Cake design has allowed me to grow as an artist so that now, when a petal breaks or a pearl falls, I see it as a design choice rather than a flaw.
Walk us through a typical day in the life of Maggie Austin.
My sister (and business partner) Jess would tell you that my day begins when my dog Bessie wakes up! I’ll admit that my husband Rob and I are putty in her paws. We recently moved to a beautiful farmhouse that we’re renovating ourselves, so our coffee and toast are prepared in a rather makeshift kitchen at this point. But the view from the porch is gorgeous! One of the best things about doing what I do is that each day is different—I might be preparing a tasting for a client or working on an editorial photo shoot or creating a new workshop. The variation keeps me motivated and interested.
Where do you go for inspiration?
These days, all I need to do is step outside my door. The bees buzzing around the cherry blossoms, the spirals of hosta emerging from the ground, the robins grabbing worms from the clover. On the other hand, Jess will always be the first to take me to the latest exhibit at the Smithsonian. We’re a perfect match, in that way—I tend to look to nature for inspiration and she’s always ready to take me downtown! That balance is what makes us a good fit [as business partners].
Tell us about your favorite cake you made of all time!
I know this sounds corny, but my favorite project is whatever I’m working right now (see below)! I’m a lover of the Dutch masters, and capturing the moody and romantic look of a still life is my current focus.
Favorite flowers or foliage to create?
Oh, the rose. The endless variety. One of my favorite places to see them is the Botanic Garden.
When you’re creating your cakes, do you prefer music, podcasts, or silence?
I keep my radio tuned to WAMU, our local NPR station. I may be cloistered in my studio, but I stay connected!
Explain the process of concepting a cake…
Each cake design begins with the client. I work closely with them to incorporate their individual aesthetic with their overall design concept. A cake should be the unifying design element for the event, so seamless collaboration is crucial. I love to incorporate personal elements into the design, from a favorite flower that might not be in season (sugar to the rescue!) to a hand-carved wild boar in homage to the groom’s family crest.
Your top three flavor pairings?
Chocolate with anything coffee. Pear cake with blackberry and white chocolate. White Velvet cake with apricot and milk chocolate Earl Grey buttercream (trust me).
The intersection of art, food, and fashion is becoming more and more frequent. What do you appreciate about this phenomenon?
Yes! Instagram is such a wonderful platform for interdisciplinary exchange. I follow interior designers and pastry chefs and painters…because we’re all in the same business! We want to see beauty in everything we do, whether it’s a lovely piece of pie or a gorgeous hat or stunning sculpture. There is no need to draw lines when it comes to artistic expression. My goal is to encourage everyone to make their own unique contribution to this amazing canvas of human creativity.
For more on Maggie, her cakes, and techniques, check out her new book!