Wedding cake artist Maggie (Austin) LaBaugh still sweats every perfect detail
By Ellen McCarthy,
For 23 of her first 26 years, Maggie LaBaugh’s life had a singular purpose: mastering her technique as a ballerina. Awards and accolades came easily as she ascended the world of professional dance, but to her they seemed superfluous. What drove LaBaugh into the studio every day was the opportunity to have a shot at perfection. Each hour, each fragment of choreography, was a chance to create something beautiful and pristine. She labored relentlessly on tiny details, repeating a movement over and over for days until it was exactly right.
Then, while dancing one day in 2006, she felt a twinge in the ball of her foot. And what had started small in the rehearsal room grew into a lump the size of a golf ball as she walked down the corridor of the prestigious Joffrey Ballet Company in Chicago.
She didn’t know it then, but that was the end. And the beginning.
In the years that followed, LaBaugh’s compulsion toward splendor would manifest itself in another, surprising medium: sugar flowers. And the young woman whose remarkable talent had been in dance, not baking or visual art, emerged as one of the country’s most promising cake makers, garnering international attention for edible sculptures that could double as museum pieces.
LaBaugh’s body faltered, but her spirit — fueled by the same quest for excellence — adapted and flourished.
For a while, though, she was lost.
The months that followed her injury were filled with daily physical therapy sessions and a revolving door of surgeons and podiatrists. She’d damaged a sesamoid, a tiny bone wrapped within a tendon that connects the foot to the big toe. For the average person, such an injury would be a nuisance at worst. For a professional dancer, it’s a tragedy.
After consulting with every expert she could find, and after a year and a half of intensive, but fruitless, rehabilitation, LaBaugh conceded that there was no hope. Her years of work — starting with ballet classes as a toddler in Massachusetts and leading to the coveted spot with Joffrey — culminated in a senseless anticlimax.
“It was awful,” recalls LaBaugh, sitting in an Alexandria cafe around the corner from the cake shop she’s preparing to open. Like her sugar flowers, she is delicate and refined, with lips painted ruby and eyes exaggerated by mascara. “But it’s like a professional athlete: You just never know when your time is going to come.”
LaBaugh tried to envision a life without dance, but she had no experience in anything else and no college degree to fall back on. She considered teaching ballet but couldn’t bear the thought of being in the studio without dancing.
Her husband encouraged her to find something new. LaBaugh was interested in wine and began thinking she might like to be a sommelier. She’d heard that Charlie Trotter, a chef she admired, hired interns with no experience in the food industry. Too nervous to make the cold call, she enrolled at the French Pastry School in Chicago. She’d always liked baking and, more than that, knew that the school regularly channeled interns to his restaurant, Charlie Trotter’s.
During the six-month program, LaBaugh and her classmates spent two weeks learning to make wedding cakes. She was captivated by the construction of sugar flowers, a time-consuming, intricate process that, like ballet, requires enormous patience and attention to detail.
LaBaugh got the internship at Charlie Trotter’s and learned the secrets of making elegantly plated desserts in a high-pressure kitchen where colleagues were regularly fired for not keeping up. But after four months there, her marriage, which had been cracking, fully crumbled. When she told her bosses she was leaving to move away, they offered her a permanent position on the spot.
She declined, and in fall 2009 packed her bags for Washington, where her sister, Jessica Rapier, lived. Once again, she had to imagine a new future. For months, LaBaugh helped Rapier with her small children and tried to regain her footing.
She started to think about whether she could sell sugar flowers to other bakers. But there didn’t seem to be a market, and she didn’t love the idea of someone else’s brand representing her work. So, in Rapier’s Takoma Park kitchen, she began making her own cakes. She could see half-formed images in her head that became real as she rolled out fondant and pressed gum paste between her fingers.
In a loud, messy world, the kitchen, like the ballet studio, was a place of solitude where she could incessantly work to conjure beauty. “It suits my personality,” she says. “You’re not surrounded by a lot of activity or people. You know what the flower looks like, and you work to make it. It’s an unrealistic goal, but you keep trying to get there.”
Cake after cake sprang into her mind’s eye, inspired by art, fashion and nature. She never looked at images of other baker’s cakes and deliberately refused to seek their guidance. “I decided, ‘No, I don’t want to learn from anybody else,” she says. “I just want to do this myself and learn from the ground up and have these be completely original and not be influenced.”
She constructed a backdrop of foam core from Office Max and began taking pictures of the cakes outdoors, in natural sunlight. Though she had an inexpensive camera and no training, the resulting images had the quality of professional studio shots.
In August 2010, she launched a Web site featuring the cakes she’d photographed. They were spare and stunning, sometimes asymmetric, and often dotted with orchids or pansies made of sugar but indistinguishable from the real thing. Some cakes were modeled after Tiffany stained glass, others inspired by high-fashion dresses. If they possessed simplicity, it was Leonardo da Vinci’s definition of the term: “the ultimate sophistication.”
A local wedding planning firm, Ritzy Bee Events, met with LaBaugh and featured her portfolio on their blog. Soon the images were appearing on wedding and design blogs around the world. The week of its launch, LaBaugh’s site was getting 2,000 or more hits a day.
Just two weeks later, the phone rang and a producer from the “Today Show” introduced herself and said that Gail Simmons, host of “Top Chef: Just Desserts,” had picked LaBaugh as one of the country’s up-and-coming cake makers and had nominated her to participate in a “Today Show” wedding competition.
LaBaugh was dumbfounded, but remained composed enough not to mention that she’d never actually sold a cake. In early September, she and Rapier transported a four-tier cake with ruffles along the bottom and a dogwood branch at the top to New York City. Though the producers and hosts raved, viewers ultimately voted for a different cake.
But suddenly, LaBaugh had a business. Rapier became partner and business director in Maggie Austin Cake — Austin is LaBaugh’s middle name — and together they plotted a strategy. Unlike bigger bakeries, the company would take orders for only a couple of cakes a week, because each could take LaBaugh several days to complete. They rented kitchen space and began meeting with prospective clients in the Kogod Courtyard of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, serving cake on fine china and their grandmother’s silverware.
LaBaugh drew from her restaurant experience to develop flavor options such as vanilla sour cream cake with peach-apricot preserves and milk chocolate Earl Grey buttercream. “At Charlie Trotter’s, you always had three or four elements working together. So why not have that in a cake? There’s no reason you can’t have more sophistication, complexity in a flavor profile,” says LaBaugh, who still has the bearing of a ballerina but, with a black sweater tucked into a black pencil skirt and lace stockings, more closely resembles a 1940s cover girl.
Her signature technique involves pressing fondant through a pasta maker until it is so thin, if it were placed on newsprint you could still read the words beneath it. Sometimes the ruffles are layered along the perimeter of the cake, giving it the look of an ornate gown. For other cakes, she rolls the fondant frills into dense rosebuds. She also makes cookies that look like tiny, round paintings.
Most bakeries charge between $5 and $8 a slice for wedding cakes. A Maggie Austin cake starts at $10 a slice, with a minimum $800 order. Last January she became the resident wedding cake maker for the Mandarin Oriental in Southwest. “We wanted a couture designer who was able to push the envelope on different flavors. And we really liked the style, the creativity,” says Dominic Sanchez, the hotel’s director of social catering. “People will walk by those cakes, and the camera phones come out. They really do capture eyes.”
They’ve also captured attention from publications such as “Martha Stewart Weddings,” TheKnot.com and magazines in France and Japan. And this month, the doors will open on Maggie Austin Cake’s private corner of the world. Rapier, who is LaBaugh’s gatekeeper and guardian of her talent, searched for months to find a space that embodied the spirit of the enterprise. The pair settled on a narrow, 1850s house in Old Town with elegant molding where they could paint the walls silver and hang a gilded mirror above the fireplace.
For the past year, LaBaugh has worked on sugar flowers first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Now she will live above the shop, fully immersing herself in an enchanting microcosm of cake batter and quiet.
The truth is, she misses ballet. “That was the love of my life, career-wise,” says LaBaugh, now 30. Still, there is deep satisfaction in creating the cakes. And in knowing that what she poured into dance wasn’t all lost in a split-second tweak. “The same things that helped to define me as a dancer and what I was striving for, it’s very similar in terms of the design,” she says. “Because it’s all about what you see and the beauty of it: the clean lines, the flow, where you want your eye to rest.”
And as they did for ballet, kudos for her cakes have come in abundance. But she never sticks around to see the reaction among wedding guests or attends industry parties to trumpet her talent. There is always too much work to be done on the next cake or the next flower. There’s always one more precious chance to reach for perfection.
“I’d rather be in my studio,” she says. “That’s just the way I am.”