Rita Llanso admits that she embellished the truth a bit to get her first cake decorating job at a supermarket in Virginia. In fact, the only cake she had ever decorated was the one for her own wedding. "And that was for budget reasons," says Llanso, a 44-year-old Columbia resident and cake decorator at Touché Touchet Bakery in Atholton Shopping Center.
"It was the only job I could find that paid above minimum wage. So I got some books, and a week later bluffed my way into a job," says Llanso, now the 2010 grand champion of the Retail Bakers Association/Pillsbury National Bake-off competition.
"I had to teach myself," says the former engraver and biological illustrator.
How does one go from drawing ducks and birds to becoming the top commercial decorator in America?
It wasn't such a reach, says Llanso. She grew up entering art shows, whether it was watercolors, jewelry or egg decorating.
"Decorating cakes re like sculpting than drawing," she says. "If I can draw it, I can sculpt it."
She started working for Touché Touchet the day before the bakery opened, and from the beginning Llanso's talent was obvious to bakery owner Michael Touchet.
After years of reproducing designs used by supermarket chains, Llanso found creative freedom at the private bakery.
"Long ago it was rote. It was a paycheck. Now, when I take an order, it's like an interview. We talk about the design, and I might sketch something out for the customer," she explains.
Touchet entered Llanso's growing cake portfolio into the 2007 RBA/Pillsbury National competition in Atlantic City, which Llanso says is the highest level of competition for commercial cake decorators.
"Nothing like being thrown to the sharks," she jokes. She had to assemble and decorate nine cakes in three hours.
"There are two kinds of decorators: speed demons and detail persons. ... I'm a detail person," says Llanso.
Still, she medaled in three categories, including earning a gold medal for her wedding cake. Four competitions later, she has a total of nine medals, four trophies and a lot of ribbons, she says. They're all at the bakery, along with some of her award-winning cakes.
One, an under-the-sea theme, took 23 hours of sculpting, including forming mermaids and sea creatures from gum paste and painting them. Another, called Alaska, which won a gold medal at the Great American Cake Show in Westminster last year, was equally intensive, with figures of Alaskan wildlife and kissing Eskimos.
Llanso has learned that assembling a cake can be more challenging than decorating it.
"Sometimes you almost need a degree in engineering so it's transportable and doesn't fall apart," says Llanso. A tilt of a few degrees shows up to the human eye.
Her philosophy is to keep her decorations edible, and she's learned a few tricks to help keep tiers together and prevent sinking, such as using a thin coating of white chocolate on the layers. When it hardens, the chocolate acts like a structural shell but is still thin enough to cut through.
"Fondant is a challenge. I must admit I cussed a lot when I was learning to work with it. If you get a hole or crack or stick your fingernail in it, you have to start over. It can't be fixed," she explains. "You just get a feel for it after a while."
Despite the rise of cake decorating as the "sport du jour" as Llanso calls it, it's hard work. Sometimes she stands 14 hours a day, and she has been known to pull all-nighters.
Since winning the RBA competition in Las Vegas in October 2010, she can no longer compete in that event. She will, however, serve as a floor judge for this year's competition in Chicago.