Better by design

15 December, 2006
With the publication of her first book, Spectacular Cakes, Little Venice Cake Company creator Mich Turner is being catapulted further into the limelight. But her story is one of humble beginnings, skill and a healthy dose of opportunity, as Mary Barber reports
Page 18 
Gordon Ramsay has described Mich Turner as the "Bentley of cake baking" - high praise from the Michelin-starred chef who is notoriously difficult to please.
The praise is deserved. Top-of-the-range cars can often be seen parked outside her Little Venice Cake Company, tucked away in the heart of London's fashionable Marylebone.Chauffeurs wait while high-profile clients discuss their cake requirements with creative designer Mich Turner and her team. The consultation is very detailed, but the end result is often spectacular.Celebrities such as Madonna and Guy Ritchie have been queuing up to place orders. Superstar Sir Paul McCartney and his now ex-wife Heather Mills were apparently "thrilled" with their stunning wedding cake - an eight-tier white chocolate truffle torte covered with 200 hand-moulded chocolate roses.Meanwhile, James Bond actor Pierce Brosnan and his wife Keely were equally delighted with their "luscious" six-tiered wedding cake.At Keely's request, it was based on a style similar to Jackie and John F Kennedy's wedding cake. Mich says: "I was told it had to be incredibly romantic, traditional and smell as good as it tasted."She used marzipan and ivory sugarpaste to cover each tier and then decorated them with the same intricate design of piped ivory icing, scented with orange blossom.Every pearl on the 'fleur-de-lys' was glazed so that it shimmered. Mich sent samples of different recipes by courier for the couple to taste at their home in Malibu, California, and they opted for a "very flavourful, spicy and moist" carrot cake.Wedding cakes are a big slice of the business - and not just for celebrities. Mich and her team create up to 30 a week in the summer.Clients choose from four basic recipes: the carrot cake, baked with walnuts, rum-soaked sultanas and coconut; a rich fruit celebration cake; a chocolate truffle cake layered with chocolate ganache buttercream; and a lemon cake with a lemon curd buttercream.Mich uses mainly organic ingredients and caters, as much she can, for special dietary requests. For example, she made a honey cake for the top tier of Heather Mills' wedding cake, as Mills is allergic to sugar.But the Little Venice Cake Company also provide cakes for other special events - some at very short notice. Posh Spice, aka Victoria Beckham, gave Mich just 48 hours to create a 30th birthday cake for her husband, ex-England football captain David Beckham, last year.She was given an unusual design brief - a confidentiality agreement forbids her from revealing what it was - and was asked to deliver the cake to their home in Madrid. Says Mich: "I felt that, if we could pull that off, then we could do pretty much anything."As well as orders for christenings, Bar Mitzvahs and anniversaries, the firm has created a cake for Prince Charles and has catered for many corporate events.In recent months, these have ranged from a window display at Harrods to the wedding cake in actress Emma Thompson's film Nanny McPhee. Winners of BBC's Strictly Come Dancing and ITV's X-Factor were also presented with one of Mich's creations.Commissions are varied, also coming from bridal and home magazines. "They are all big jobs," says Mich. "It could be anything from a small cake to a six-foot helter-skelter. It means we have to be very organised."For the star-studded TV BAFTA awards last year, it took three of her team three days to create the dark chocolate 'sculpture'.The cake, which used 7.5kg of chocolate, was decorated with 125 dark chocolate fans and 15 BAFTA masks, each with a gold lustre gilding. They also produced 150 smaller versions for each table.With so many orders, it is surprising to find the Little Venice Cake Company is still based in relatively small premises.There are eight staff, including two sugar crafters - one of whom is also a model maker, a pastry chef, and a chocolatier, who work in the 'design studio', as well as four others in the design and sales office.Mich's love of cake design began in 1987 when she was 17 and studying A-levels in biology, chemistry and food nutrition in Devon.A teacher had asked her to decorate her wedding cake, but the teenager, who was naturally artistic and had won cookery competitions, had never decorated a cake before. So she enrolled on a four-day course to learn the basics at the Mary Ford Centre in Southbourne, Devon.Since then, Mich has spent hours recreating her designs on cakes. "I find it therapeutic. I'm probably the only person who is quite happy to sit and draw lines."Her artistic talents follow on from her parents; her mother is a dress designer and her father's ancestors were master enamellers on canal boats.Mich's venture into cake design was put on hold while she went off to university to study food nutrition. It was only later, while working in a wholefood shop, that she began to explore the possibility of turning her skill into a career."I didn't do any more courses, so none of my training was particularly formal," she admits.Mich had been asked by customers at the wholefood shop in Little Venice to bake and design cakes for them. After the success of these commissions, she wrote a letter, enclosing a photo of one of the cakes, to the top London stores.To her delight, Harvey Nichols in Knightsbridge took her on as a supplier. Soon afterwards, several five-star hotels also put her on their books. "It literally snowballed from there," she says.But it wasn't all plain sailing. The relatively inexperienced designer's first commission in 1995 could not have been harder. In fact, it is still "the most technically difficult work" she has ever done. It was a replica of St Bride's church in Fleet Street.All she had was a tiny black and white photograph to work with. Fortunately, with her scientific background, Mich worked out the design of the structure - from how to support it to transportation."It was incredibly architectural and very mathematical," she says. It took her four days of planning, designing and creating the four-tiered octagon cake before it was finished.Bosses at the store were impressed and gave her more orders, but a year later, her career took a different path. Harvey Nichols asked her to work for them as a buyer in their bakery and patisserie department. It took a lot of persuading. "I'd found my niche in cake-making," she says. "But I decided the experience would be invaluable and I learned a hell of a lot. I'm a supplier now, but I understand how to get the best out of a buyer."Now 36, Mich set up her own business in 1999 in her three-bedroom flat in Little Venice, London, from which the company name is derived. Her intention was to combine family life - she is married with one son - and her love of cake design."I didn't have any special equipment," she says. "It was very basic: just an electric oven, fridge, freezer and sink."She quickly re-established herself as a supplier to top stores and hotels and, just a year after starting out on her own, she was asked to design Madonna's wedding cake. "I was thrilled", she says.The superstar's wedding organiser had spotted her setting-up and dressing a cake at the five-star Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Knightsbridge.He was so impressed with her work and her professionalism, that he offered her the commission. Again, due to a confidentiality agreement, she cannot reveal the design.On the day of the wedding in 2000, she was flown to Scotland with the cake accompanied by Madonna's father and Guy Ritchie's mother. They had a police escort all the way to the event at Skibo Castle in Sutherland."It was quite surreal," she says."You get caught up in the adrenalin of the day. There's a real buzz."Both Madonna's and Pierce Brosnan's wedding cakes were made in her kitchen at home. But, as the business expanded, Mich hired staff and looked for commercial premises.In 2001, and after months of searching, she found the current property and had it adapted. It is situated in a quiet cobbled mews - perfect for high-profile clients to visit without being spotted.Initially, baking was done on-site, but as orders increased, Mich moved production to two other off-site bakeries. One is in nearby Euston and the other in Greenwich, south-east London.The cakes are baked to her exact requirements and delivered to the design studio to be iced and decorated.Mich also leaves nothing to chance. "You can't get it wrong. These people [celebrities] ensure they surround themselves with absolute professionals."But she does take spares. For Pierce Brosnan's wedding she made an exact replica dummy of the cake. Polystyrene tiers were iced and decorated in the same way as the original.If there were any damages a spare tier could be put in its place. Mich delivered the 24 boxes to his home in California with the help of special services at London Heathrow airport.This is all part of her service and is included in the cost. Clients can expect to pay anything from £600 for a three-tier cake for up to 120 people, to about £5,000.The amount includes a consultation, usually three months before the event, to discuss themes, design ideas, recipes, decoration and size.They can choose a cake from a portfolio or Mich will adapt or design a cake based on their brief. When she creates a new design, Mich is the only one in her team able to do so.She will make a prototype or have it photographed and will then give the qualified production team tuition on how to recreate it. If the event is in central London, the cake will be taken to the event, set up and dressed.The Little Venice Cake Company, which is a member of the Federation of Small Businesses, never advertises. Work comes from recommendation or through articles in magazines or other media.Mich has been interviewed on TV and radio and has given lectures. The company's website also gets about 10,000 hits a week.Its audience has grown with the publication of Mich's first book, Spectacular Cakes. Even the Queen was sent a copy. The book won a national award for best dessert book in the Gourmand World Cookbook awards.It is a beautifully photographed step-by-step guide to designing and decorating cakes for all occasions. It is aimed at both the novice and accomplished baker and includes the principles of constructing a cake, icing techniques, moulding and design.Mich is looking to expand the business and increase turnover - currently £500,000 - but not by increasing production. "Having bigger premises means more cost and you are not actually making any more money."She aims to boost profits through more design consultancy work. The firm already works with the multiples, including Marks & Spencer. By 2010, when she turns 40, she hopes the business will be where she wants it.Its success so far is down to Mich's unerring belief in herself. "I've always been headstrong; if I turn my hand to something, it will be successful," she says.But she has also worked hard to make it happen, and she would advise anyone thinking of setting up a business to plan carefully before starting."It's really hard work. The buck stops with you. If you are working at 2am on a cake that has to be done, you have to do it. You have to put the business first."But the rewards are worth the effort, especially when you have made something stunning. As she says: "It's nice to be able to say, 'Yes, I did that'."* Spectacular Cakes by Mich Turner is published by Jacqui Small.



Site Search

Webinars 

    Insights from the Bakery Market Report 2016

    You can now purchase the Bakery Market Report 2016, which offers insight into the retail bakery trade in the UK.