Facing off against some of the top professional cake decorators in the U.S. and overcoming dizzy spells that nearly thwarted her chances, Emily Pille of Karen’s Bakery & Cafe was crowned the grand champion Sunday in the 14th annual National Creative Decorating Competition in Chicago.
The prestigious award includes a winner’s check for $4,000 and newfound attention for the Folsom bakery as a place at the forefront of modern cake-decorating techniques and designs.
“We are happily working hard every day doing what we do, but this kind of thing is a real shot in the arm as far as being noticed for what we are doing,” said owner Karen Holmes. “One of the things that judges are always looking for is the use of new and interesting techniques, and I think that is something we are very good at at the bakery.”
The two days of high-pressure competition took its toll. At one point on Sunday, Pille grew dizzy while decorating a large wedding cake.
“It’s two days, eight hours a day, and there are no allotted time breaks,” said Pille by phone Monday from O’Hare International Airport. “You can’t sleep. You’re so amped up with everything running through your head. I had to take a break and go for a walk in the snow. Then I came back and actually did pretty well.”
So well, in fact, that she placed second in the wedding cake category, first in sculpted cakes, and won the overall grand championship, which is sponsored by the Retail Bakers of America and Pillsbury.
“I think I was in awe when I heard my name,” Pille said.
Pille does not have much time to bask in the limelight. She is due back at work Tuesday, just in time for the Easter baking rush.
Pille said the victory gave her a sense of redemption. Two years ago in Las Vegas, she failed to place in the same competition.
She credits co-worker and friend Amanda Biasi for providing many of the creative ideas and designs she used in her decorating. Among the new techniques Pille employs are wafer paper flowers made of rice paper, allowing the decorator to create much thinner and more elegant flowers on the cake. She also uses Isomalt, a type of sweetener that can be melted down and placed into molds.
As grand champion, Pille, 33, will not be allowed to compete again for five years. Since starting at Karen’s six years ago, Pille has had three children, and says the demands of competition are time consuming.
But entering the competition inspired Pille to elevate her skill set and stay on top of the latest ideas and industry trends.
“It was just a great experience to be working on the level that everybody was at,” she said. “All of us get to talk with each other about what works and share secrets of the trade. We also meet great people. It’s not a cutthroat kind of competition.”
At the bakery, customers pay $100 to $500 for custom cakes. Wedding cakes are generally more expensive and are priced according to the number of guests served. Pille says her favorite cakes are those in which customers “trust us to do what we want.”
Next month, Karen’s will celebrate its 15th anniversary by inviting customers to help decorate a variety of cakes. Holmes says she hopes to work Pille’s victory into one of those cake designs during the festivities.
“I was just telling Emily yesterday that she is such a credit to us, her family and to ambitious women everywhere,” Holmes said.