The Wedding Cake Race


Article by freelance writer Denise Roig

Published in the Montreal Gazette on July 28, 2004 (Wednesday Final Edition)

“Heat”s on, girls,” Rita Djerrahian says cheerily, shepherding us into La Gaterie, her Dollard des Ormeaux cake shop, where we”ll spend the week working 11-hour days.

Welcome to wedding season. As new pastry grads from the Pearson School of Culinary Arts in LaSalle, classmate Trina Rehel and I are here as stagiaires. We”ll help, learn, keep the fondant rolling.

Tuesday

It”s 7:45 a.m. and Djerrahian has beaten us by an hour. “You two need coffee,” Djerrahian says, leading us from her showroom with its show-stopper cakes into a 15- by 30-foot space that functions as commercial kitchen, cake-supply store, classroom and cozy congregating spot for friends, family and customers. Cake pans of every persuasion hang from the ceiling. Plastic tubs of rolled fondant stand person-high.

Sheathing her cakes in seamless sheets of fondant, Djerrahian then adorns them with flowers so startlingly real you have to taste one to believe it”s not. The flowers are made of sugar – white, moldable, edible. Learning to make these flowers in pastry school nearly put me over the edge, but here we are rolling, shaping and sculpting stephanotis buds and flax blossoms. “Yes, like that,” says Djerrahian, whose business card aptly reads “Sugar Artistry.”

She fills us in on the week. Three wedding cakes are to be made for Saturday. The first, a three-tiered white cake, is for a couple from Nigeria. They don”t have a huge budget – $200 – so Djerrahian has promised something pretty, but not too elaborate.

The second is for a French-Canadian couple. The groom”s a pianist, so Djerrahian will top their three-layered chocolate ganache with a crown of sugar treble clefs.

Then there”s the couple from Hong Kong: three ovals of white cake adorned with sugar calla lilies. Djerrahian shows us the magazine photocopy the bride brought in on her first visit six months ago. The cake looks complicated, with lilies coming out the top layer and stems showing between the first and second layers. It will involve building a special stand. Price tag: $700.

The day flies as we fashion flowers, treble clefs, calla stems. The Nigerian groom brings in his family to show off the model of his cake and pay the balance. There are some tense calls from the Hong Kong couple”s wedding planner. Apparently they don”t want to pay Djerrahian”s downtown parking when she delivers the cake Saturday.

“How much longer are you staying?” Trina asks when we leave at 6:30 p.m. “Oh, another five hours,” Djerrahian says.

Wednesday

More flowers. And coffee and bagels and Armenian music on the CD player. “You go crazy otherwise,” says Djerrahian, who, eight years into this biz, has come up with other sanity strategies. “There is a psychology of directing people. When Martha Stewart comes up with some new look, everyone wants that. When it”s impractical, I feel like killing them and her. So you take couples” photos, but you add your input. I want to make something that also gives me pleasure. I want there to be love in there.”

By 2:30, it”s cake time. We shave off the tops of all nine layers to make them equal in height. I try hard to keep my hand steady as I guide the serrated knife. Try to keep my mind steady, too. Who”s getting the chocolate cake and what kind of butter cream goes inside?

Friday

“I did not receive the cheque yet and you didn”t call me back about the parking facility.” Djerrahian”s on the phone with the Chinese wedding planner. She”s calm but firm. “The cheque,” she repeats. The balance should have arrived two weeks ago. “I need to think about my car. I need to think about my cake.”

When she gets off the phone, Djerrahian looks more tired than she has all week. She rolls a giant circle of fondant on a thick piece of plastic, then lifts it carefully up and over the waiting cake – the
bottom layer of the Nigerian couple”s – peeling off the plastic when it”s in the just-right position, because once that baby”s down, there”s no moving it. She strokes the fondant smooth over the top and sides. She has tried to keep the costs down on this cake by limiting the flowers, but it”s a beauty even so.

Her husband, Levon, comes by to cut the Plexiglas platform for the calla lily cake. “Now I can breathe,” she says. Between more calls from the Chinese wedding planner (asking about the refrigeration requirements of the cake), she”s redoing the treble crown for the musical cake. “The couple and I had so many discussions over it, I forgot what our final decision was,” she says, unsticking the little royal icing roses Trina and I had attached and substituting large fondant roses.

Saturday

The nuptial hour is upon us. Overnight, Djerrahian has draped the lily cake with pale avocado-green drapes; the musical cake with regal white ones. “I worked until 2 in the morning, then came back at 6,” she says. “I”m so tired I don”t know if I”m speaking English or Armenian.”

Trina and I fit the lily stems onto the Plexiglas stand, brush gold dust on the white drapes, pearl on the green.

At one, Djerrahian dons a clean chef”s jacket, packs up her cake repair kit – a jar of royal icing, white cotton gloves, extra flowers, X-acto knife, floral tape – and we”re off to the Dorval church where the Nigerian couple will soon exchange vows. My job is to sit in the back of the van and make sure the cake doesn”t go anywhere.

The church basement is alive with African music as we add extra tiny pink flowers at the cake”s base. Then it”s back to the shop to finish the other cakes. No one”s joking now and no one thinks to turn the radio on. We dust the lilies – yellow inside, green at the base; Djerrahian twists them into sinuous bouquets. Then we load the cakes onto bread racks and ease them into the van. The sky is clouding up as we head down St. John”s.

The banquet room in the Helene de Champlain restaurant is decorated like a music conservatory, the tables with name cards reading Vivaldi, Chopin. The treble clefs on Djerrahian”s three-tiered,
$600-creation bob rhythmically as she settles it on a table.

A few blocks from Centre Mont Royal, it begins to rain. Where are we going to park? It was never settled. Djerrahian gives it her best guess and somehow we end up in an underground loading zone, find a cart to load the lily cakes on, find the right banquet room, the right display table.

But it”s only when Djerrahian steps back and looks at her cake that I”m reminded what this is all for. It has been easy to forget in the whirl of the week. She steps back and then she steps in and removes
one of the lily bouquets. She”s right. In this case, less is more beautiful. There”s love in that gesture.

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