From steel worker to cake maker not exactly a likely career progression more like chalk and cheese. However, Lightbody Celebration Cakes’ David McClymont proved that this unusual career path can indeed be a winning one after being crowned Celebration Cake Maker of the Year, sponsored by Renshawnapier, at the Baking Industry Awards last year.

When he was made redundant following the closure of the steel factory he worked at, a family member suggested McClymont sign up to do a bakery course, as he had always liked cooking and baking at home so he did. His college tutor happened to know Martin Lightbody and, after his course, McClymont got a job at Lightbody’s, where he has now been for over 17 years.

In his role in the NPD department, McClymont says there is no typical day. "I mostly do the designs for the licensed celebration cakes that are predominantly supplied to the supermarkets. That can involve anything from looking through the style guides, working up cakes or working with the licensing companies, to costing the cakes," he explains.

He says that when he first started at Lightbody’s it was more like a retail bakery, with consumers requesting bespoke designs for high-end wedding and birthday cakes. Today Lightbody’s, part of Finsbury Food Group, manufactures celebration cakes by the million, with 7.8 million produced last year. However McClymont says it was useful to have had that background when entering the Awards.

All in the planning

When designing a cake, McClymont says it’s important to plan exactly what you want to do. "You have to have a strong image in your mind of what you want the cake to look like, and get all your ideas down on paper while they’re still fresh."

He likes to create mood boards, including everything from the ideas he has for the figurines to the colours he might use. "If you can achieve the cake that you’ve got inside your mind, then you know it’s going to be a good one. It’s only your inabilities that you’re competing against," he says.

McClymont admits he was lucky with the brief as, just prior to the competition, he went on a trip to New York with his wife, which inspired him to create chocolate replicas of the Chrysler Building, which he says is an iconic image of that era. He had also recently been to Eygpt, a country that had inspired some of the fashion of the 1920s and ’30s, such as the jewellery. For BIA he created an art deco-themed Moonlight Over Manhattan cake, which featured a flapper girl made from Mexican paste, sporting an Eygptian-inspired bob. The figurine was surrounded by brush-embroidered flowers in red, purple, black and white colours favoured by art deco designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The judges said his entry showcased his skill level to the maximum, demonstrating his attention to detail.

"I had a really strong image in my mind of what I wanted the cake to be like," he says. "I didn’t want the figurine to look female, I wanted her to look quite boyish, because if you look at the flapper girls from that era, they wanted to be more like tomboys, and had short haircuts for example."

He also explains that he didn’t want his entry to be just a cake covered in sugarpaste. "I wanted to put some old-fashioned cake decorating skills into it. When I started at Lightbody’s the royal-iced cakes were very much the trend and now it’s sugarpaste. Royal icing skills are really dying out, so I wanted to cover the cake in brush embroidery and line-work and get it absolutely perfect."

He says there weren’t any particular challenges when it came to making the cake, because of the planning and preparation he had done beforehand. Once he had his idea, he dedicated an intensive two weeks to producing it, and says he was grateful to the company and his colleagues for allowing him the time to concentrate on it.

Having never entered any kind of competition before, he admits he had no expectations of what it was going to be like. Martin Lightbody was the driving force behind the entry, as he was keen for the firm to gain some recognition for its achievements in the industry, explains McClymont, who says he was nominated to go forward and represent the business in this category.

Growth in licensed cakes

Lightbody has significantly grown its licensed cake business, over the last couple of years, to around a £14m turnover, says brand manager John Steele. "The category has gone through a recessionary period in the last couple of years, which has somewhat stifled innovation, but having a guy like David working on our licence portfolio is a great selling tool to retailers."

He says that the Awards win has been a fantastic selling feature for the firm; with Disney being the largest licence, the Award is a reassurance that the firm continues to invest in innovation and has the best people working for it. "From a celebration cake perspective, as we’re coming out of the recession, over the next 12 months we’ll start to see some real innovation in the category, and when we see the supermarket shelves in a year’s time they will have a very different range," Steele foresees.

McClymont says that when entering the Celebration Cake Maker of the Year award he had it in his mind that he would love to get to the final, so to win it was amazing. He says he remembers seeing the other two finalists’ cakes on the Awards night, and thinking "Oh no", because, sat next to the other two, his entry looked really small. "The other cakes were amazing, so it just blew me away when they announced that I’d won it; I couldn’t believe it," he says. "I look at the award not just for that one cake, but for all the work that I’ve done in the trade. From being a steel worker to being a baker, it was like well done, you’ve made it."

He certainly had his five minutes of fame, with journalists phoning him for interviews on the way back from the Awards, and an appearance on live television on the Five O’Clock Show, not to mention phone calls from family and friends, some of whom he hadn’t spoken to for years.

For those thinking of entering the category in years to come, he says, you have to be confident in your own ability and trust your taste. "You’re competing with yourself. You have no control over what anyone else is doing. So if a better cake beats you, then so be it, but if you’re happy with the work that you did, then that’s all you can do."

Sponsor’s comments

"David’s written entry was well put together and presented in a very professional format. The cake he created to capture the theme of the glamorous 1920s was visually excellent and the attention to detail and all-round neatness was superb.
"His love of art and the use of intricate details in his design showed that he could adapt to any challenge set."
Nicola Hemming, business development & technical sales manager, Renshawnapier

What does winning mean to you?
"It’s a recognition of how you’re doing in the industry. Before that, I just saw myself as a steel worker that worked in a cake factory, but recognition like that gives you the confidence to say: I’ve got something to add here."
David McClymont