Meet Katja Seaton
Thursday, April 24, 2014
Award winning cake artist Katja Seaton invites Lisa Brown into her vanilla scented flower world of cakes and shares her ideas, inspirations and skills.
As a collector of flower paintings I got very excited when an old school friend of mine contacted me after too long a time and modestly mentioned that she had a business making cakes with a particular niche in floral designs. This all seemed rather unlikely. I couldn’t quite imagine my talented, larger-than-life friend Katja settled into so domestic a career after her busy art student days in London, but perhaps it was not so far away from our favourite pastime of musing and fantasising in our late teens on various business ideas that would make us both rich and fulfilled. A company making designer rugs was one of our better ones, if only we had pursued it… but, as our paths went separate ways it seemed that Katja had taken that very difficult step on from making a good idea into a viable business; one that was both creative and successful. She suggested I look at her website. I was intrigued by what my friend was up to and was thrilled to discover that she is truly a master in the art of decorative cakes, with Crème de Beurre as her medium and garden flowers as her muse. Her cakes were more beautiful than most of my painting collection, they looked too good to eat, giving them an additional poignancy, created for a moment, commissioned then consumed.
I wanted to know how, after her joint honours degree in Visual Arts at Camberwell School of Art, she had found her way to a career in cakes “I didn’t intend to go in this direction at all,” she explains “I was and still am interested in design/crafts of all kinds and wanted to design lighting and furniture. I did try to set up a company making fish tanks at one point! However, my life took a different turn when, visiting my brother in New York in the late nineties, I was lucky enough to meet Ann Warren who owned The Cupcake Café. I can still remember walking in to the shop and being absolutely blown away by the plethora of exquisite blooms festooning cakes; it was captivating.”
Ann Warren was at the forefront of the cupcake trend and her business was so successful that customers, from local firemen to political royalty queued around the block for the promise of a cupcake. Katja initially got a job in the shop selling products and spent her spare time learning to pipe, working amongst the other art graduates that Ann (herself a gifted painter) preferred to employ and after some time training was finally allowed to make cakes for the shop. “My break came when I had to step in and make Linda Evangelista’s cake at the last minute. Up until then I had been an understudy, piping patiently in the wings waiting for my moment. Fortunately for me a day came when, during an extremely busy time in the shop, Linda’s cake order had been forgotten, I seized the moment, offered to make it immediately (there was no way Linda would not have her cake and eat it when she wanted) and did a great job, Linda was happy, I had proved myself and it all began from there.”
After three years away Katja planned to come back to England and discussed with Ann the idea of setting up something similar in the UK. She initially planned to open a shop but, as is often the case, for a while life got in the way. While staying with her mother in Stockport she met her future husband Howard and consequently decided to settle in the same area. Plans for a shop were put on hold but in the meantime Katja set up a small business making her cakes and word soon spread.
This was in 2001. She now has a thriving business making cakes to commission, anything from a single cupcake, to tiered wedding cakes. Each design is unique, “I try never to make the same cake twice” she tells me. “Customers look at what I have done previously and then after a consultation I work to make a bespoke cake that they want in the area of colour and design and in the case of flowers, one that often has personal meaning.” For such an edgy girl flowers seem rather a romantic area to specialise in, but of course they are ideal for cake decoration. Katja explains “Ann Warren specialised in flowered cupcakes so my training was in this area. I’m particularly interested in colour and texture and flowers lend themselves extremely well to this. Also, looking at nature is a constant source of inspiration for me – the colours that get thrown together are incredible.”
Of course they are perfect for celebrations, in the same way as it would be to present your host with a bouquet of the most glorious flowers, but this time vanilla scented and edible. Additionally flowers have meanings; Katja uses a lovely book that explains this called Meaning of Flowers by Gretschen Scoble and Ann Field. A Forget Me Not is self-explanatory while few people know that sunflowers signify good luck in Chinese culture. “I don’t always decorate cakes with flowers and love doing other designs but have come to be known in this area,” she adds. “I enjoy doing the flowers and my favourite constantly changes. I like doing animal cakes every now and then, because they’re sweet but they take a long time. The most unusual cake I have done so far is a wedding cake which was adorned with a fish and a chicken!”
More usually celebration cakes are decorated using sugarcraft techniques which achieve a controlled and neat finish but what is unusual about Katja’s cakes is that they are decorated entirely with buttercream or Katja’s signature Crème de Beurre which is a more sophisticated version of buttercream, with a delicious custard-like flavour and consistency. “Working with buttercream is a little like working in oil paint,” she explains. Having drawn out and coloured a final design for approval she then mixes up pots of colour for the design creating a palette much like you would for painting. Her colours are strong but slightly muted making the overall effect feel natural and organic. Of course it is essential that the whole cake is delicious as no matter how good they look it is equally important that they taste nice. Katja has won a Great Taste Gold Award as well as a North West Fine Food award and offers a selection of recipes for her customers to choose from so that her canvas tastes as good as it looks.
The cake is basted or covered with layers of Crème de Beurre in preparation for the final decoration, then armed with piping bags and tips Katja sets to work. This part is truly astonishing to watch and it is clear that three years training and sixteen years of experience has paid off and is necessary to achieve this level of professionalism and surprising speed. “I have to work quickly because the butter cream will melt if handled too long. Working this way is part of the process, I like to add movement to the design giving it a natural flow and at this point it is depth and texture I am playing with rather than trying to produce exact replicas of real flowers.” She rapidly changes nozzles using different ones for the petals and leaves and adds a touch of white or extra colour into her butter cream as she goes along; “tiny streaks of white coming through add highlights and bring the flowers to life,” she explains. I barely breathe as the cake comes to life and am astounded at the result.
Working from a purpose-built studio in the garden at home, Katja completes her commissions and carefully packs these extremely delicate pieces. Luckily there is a huge array of boxes to carry the cupcakes and she makes polystyrene boxes for wedding cakes which are then hand delivered, “when you have someone’s dream in the back of your car, driving a wedding cake to a London job for instance can be very nerve wracking!” she laughs.
The scope for creativity in cake design is never ending and so I am interested in finding out what Katja has in mind to do next? “I would be very interested in working in collaboration with other people and am aware that there is a growing voice calling for cake decoration to be recognised as ‘art’ – I’d like to be able to explore what I can do in this area. Then I have lots of ideas for new cakes. For example, I’ve been wanting to do my Dutch Master series for ages!” With a head full of ideas and the drive to create an already successful business, we are certain to see more of Katja and her cakes. I am very much looking forward to sinking my teeth into a slice of one of her next creations and will have no qualms about eating it up – no matter how close to a Bosschaert painting it looks like.
Katja made us a showstopper of a celebration cake for our April issue! Click here to find out how to make it.