Monday, 1 July 2013

Inspiring, Interesting Interview No. 2: Fiona Cairns, Luxury Cake Maker

Fiona with the Royal Wedding Cake (pic from
Fiona Cairns launched her luxury cake business from her kitchen table over 25 years ago. Since then, the company has moved to a state-of-the-art bakery not far from Fiona’s home in Leicestershire. She runs the company with her husband, Kishore, and every cake is lovingly made by hand. Fiona Cairns cakes are now sold in Waitrose, John Lewis, Selfridges and Harrods, and she has a long list of celebrity clientele, such as Sir Paul McCartney. Most famously, however (sorry Paul!), Fiona made that Royal Wedding Cake for 650 guests of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in 2011.

Dior at Harrods Banner
Fiona's adorable cakes for Dior at Harrods
But Fiona hasn’t slowed down since then – she’s starred in her own ITV1 TV programme, The Home of Fabulous Cakes, designed and made an exclusive set of Dior Fairy Cakes for the World of Dior at Harrods (extremely popular amongst the fashion crowd), as well as a huge celebration cake for Hello!’s star-studded 25th birthday party, to name but a few of her amazing ventures! We have Fiona’s recipe books at home (I recently made her shortbread - divine) and I’m a huge fan of both Fiona’s recipes and her cakes, although mine never look as perfect as the pictures! Continuing my Inspiring, Interesting Interview Series,  Fiona kindly spared a few moments to chat to me about helpful husbands, The Great British Bake Off and, of course, CAKE:

Fiona's books and some of her gorgeous cupcakes

1. Hi Fiona! Tell us a little bit about how you started baking.

Like many people, I started baking with my mother at home! I used to enjoy making fairy cakes, and remember making Viennese Whirls too. I trained in graphic design, and then worked as an illustrator for a few years. I didn’t really cook at all until I went on a cooking course in the 1980s - at La Petit Cuisine in Richmond, London. Lynn Hall, who ran the school, taught me a lot about cooking. Then I went to work at Hambleton Hall, a nearby country house hotel in Rutland, and learnt so much from Nick Gill, who was head chef there. It wasn’t until I made a batch of tiny decorated Christmas cakes for friends one Christmas that my husband Kishore saw an opportunity to market the cakes. I think our cakes are different because we focus on the design and flavour with equal importance.

2. Well your cakes are definitely unique in their beautiful designs and decorations! Where do you find your inspiration? What’s your secret for moving with the times and what baking trends should we look out for?

Inspiration comes from all over - it can be travels, a fabric, design that sparks an idea. In the bakery, we have a very creative and collaborative design and product development team. It’s important to keep up with trends, but also to interpret them in your own style - that’s how you create products that people remember.

The retro theme is still very popular. We have just launched a range of giant biscuits in Waitrose - bourbons, custard creams and jaffa cakes three times their original size! We have also launched a range of traditional ice cream flavoured cupcakes- including raspberry ripple and mint choc chip. These nostalgic flavours have been flying off the shelves!

3. They sound AMAZING! What’s your most popular product?

Our fairy cakes are probably our most popular product. Actually developed in the bakery by my husband, Kishore! Our fairy cakes are different to cupcakes that you now see for sale everywhere - they are topped with a flat fondant icing instead of piped buttercream. We make many thousands each week, each one decorated by hand. My absolute favourite, though, is a piece of freshly baked shortbread.

4. Well, I am definitely a fan of your shortbread too. Nowadays, baking is seen as young, trendy and cool, and a whole host of celebs claim to be bakers. Why do you think baking is currently so in vogue?

I firmly believe that the process of baking is just as enjoyable as the eating.  Baking really is for everyone and, thankfully, more people than ever are having a go. In these lean times, it’s important that we can all get involved in something that doesn’t cost the earth. Though we may yearn for a brightly coloured Kitchen Aid, all you really need for a successful bake is a bowl, handheld whisk, a pair of scales and an oven. A bit of patience helps, too! Baking allows us to get in touch with our creative side, something people so rarely leave time for.

5. What do you think of TV shows such as The Great British Bake Off for launching baking careers?

It’s a great source of inspiration for so many, and encourages viewers to just have a go! It’s brilliant that baking is so high profile.

6. How exciting was it being asked to make the Royal Wedding Cake? Was it hard to keep the secret?

We were absolutely thrilled and overwhelmed, and daunted at the same time! It was not difficult to keep a secret, but it became more difficult once knowledge of the fact we were making it was announced worldwide, because we were inundated with enquiries!

7. How did you feel when you published your first recipe book?

It was the most amazing feeling to hold the first finished copy. Writing a recipe book is such a lot of work - each recipe has to be tried about five or six times until it is perfect, and then made again for the photo shoot. People are often amazed at how much work goes into a recipe book. The second  book, The Birthday Cake Book, was published in 2011, and a third, Seasonal Baking, is out this September.

8. Ooh, can't wait! Nowadays there are so many foodie bloggers who only dream of having their own recipe books – did you ever imagine when you set up the business that you’d one day have your own, not to mention all your other successes?

If you told me 30 years ago what I’m doing now, I’d have never believed you! My husband, Kishore, had the vision to build the business up over many years, and it has been a lot of hard work but it’s definitely been worth it. We set the business up in 1987 and my first book was published in 2009, so by that point I’d developed many recipes! It was a real privilege to be commissioned to write a baking book.

9. What advice would you give to aspiring bakers who’d like to follow in your footsteps?

Be prepared to work every hour. When I was building the business up I worked seven days a week. Like any business, you need to give it your all - it requires an amazing amount of commitment. Half of the challenge is having a brilliant idea and half is having the business acumen to carry it out. I was lucky to have a husband to see the potential, grow and develop the business – there would not have been a business without him.

Practice, patience and passion are the three ‘P’s you can rely on in cake decorating and baking – with an emphasis on Practice! Training is hard work, and especially when you’re trying to start your own business, look out for every opportunity. Be prepared to sometimes work for nothing, and give it 110%.

Great advice, thanks, Fiona! *Goes off in search of cake-business-savvy husband*

'Seasonal Baking' is out on September 12th. 

If you enjoyed this, there's every chance you'll enjoy my first interview of this series, with the awesome Pioneering Digital Entrepreneur, Tanya Goodin.

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