Nicholas Lodge scanned a sea of students and saw trouble.
“I’ll never make this cake sober again,” Kelly Kramb hissed.
She was trying to create a toile du jouy pattern on a thin sheath of white fondant by stenciling it with black sugar as wispy as a puff of eye shadow.
The goal was to create a purse-shaped cake like the one on display at the front of the classroom. The model was a marvel of intimidating perfection executed by the class instructor, “international sugar artist” Lodge.
Kramb, of Marietta, gritted her teeth. The sugared toile started to smudge.
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“I’m too nervous,” she said, her voice quavering.
Gently, in his soft British accent laced with encouragement, Lodge advised that the smudges could be whisked away with a few dabs of vodka from vials on each table.
Kramb hesitated. She eyed her tiny bottle.
“Hmmm, I could drink this,” she said.
“I don’t think you’d want to,” Lodge replied. “It’s pretty cheap.”
The class couldn’t stop laughing.
If you enroll in a cake decorating class at the International Sugar Art Collection School of Sugar Art in Norcross, you probably do so knowing that Lodge, the founder and sole instructor, made cakes for the House of Windsor — including one of the wedding cakes for Princess Diana.
It’s a big part of why you show up, to be taught by a baker to the royals. You pay up because this is an exacting man who became a big deal in his peculiar field by making sugar flowers so lifelike they could pass a botanist’s scrutiny. And any baker with that talent can charge quite a lot for a fancy birthday cake.
While he’s not a showy loudmouth like the “Cake Boss” guy on the TLC network, Lodge has been a judge and consultant on Food Network shows. He is a frequent guest instructor at the French Pastry School in Chicago and a member of the International Cake Exploration Societé, which is kind of like the Hall of Fame for cake decorators. He operates a sister school in Tokyo and teaches more than 500 students a year who make the pilgrimage from around the globe to either campus. Most show up in Norcross.
So how come Lodge isn’t more of a household name?
“He’s not a mass producer of cakes the way some are,” said Nancy Siler, vice president of consumer affairs for Wilton, one of the country’s biggest cake decorating supply companies. “He’s a fine artist, and I mean it in the sense of fine art. If he makes a Monarch butterfly, it’s going to look like an authentic Monarch butterfly. If he makes a lily, it’s going to be botanically correct and have the number of stamens it’s supposed to have. He really is an underappreciated rock star.”
The Norcross school is housed in a low-slung office park across from The Varsity, where the art of chili slaw dogs is plied. Part retail shop, part classroom, part cake museum, the school is usually and curiously devoid of that warm, freshly baked aroma.
A mix of professional bakers and novices, the students decorate Styrofoam forms instead of cakes and take their work home to show it off — or to use it as a reminder of what not to do.
Everything from front door to back at International Sugar is meticulous, including Lodge himself. The 47-year-old is lanky, with close-cropped hair the color of butter-yellow fondant. He dresses in traditional chef’s attire that matches the school’s color scheme of black, white and zesty lime green.
“I suppose I am a bit of a control freak,” Lodge said.
His title, “sugar artist,” sounds dubious until you witness the pinching, pulling, patting, painting and patience it takes to make little wads of sucrose gum paste look like dew-dripping dahlias and fairies that seem to scamper across icing. And those flowers, let’s just say people have been seen sniffing them.
“I could be sitting in a restaurant or hotel and see drapery and think, ‘Hmm, that could be placed down the side of a cake,’ ” Lodge said. “But I’m not a believer in copying.”
That may be true, but talk to enough people, and you’ll hear an urban legend (or is it?) that goes something like this: Lodge once taught a class in Singapore and made a gum paste replica of an endangered snake so realistic he was questioned by airport customs officers.
That’s the kind of skill Rosemary Palmer would like to master. It’s why the 52-year-old Chattanoogan was in the purse-making session with Kramb.
“I still have my first cake pan that I bought from Sears when I was 13,” she said. “I’ve played with cake decorating all my life. Taking this class is my birthday present to myself.”
She was having much better luck with the toile than Kramb, by the way. But the would-be sugar artists who come to International Sugar learn it takes more than a few days and a few hundred bucks to create something that begs a double take.
If a confection could propel a career, then Princess Diana’s cake did so for Lodge. Opportunity knocked and he greeted it with a gum paste rose.
As a boy in Essex, England, Lodge figured out he liked baking as he helped his mother and grandmother. In his teens he entered the National Bakery School in London and on weekends moonlighted at a florist’s shop. When he wasn’t making bouquets, he was dissecting blossoms to figure out how he might create, with edible glue and sugar the consistency of Play Doh, what nature had done from seed.
His early attempts wound up “looking like cabbage.” By his late teens, when a judge at a London food and wine festival told him that some blackberries and roses he’d created looked so real he thought they must be plastic, “that’s when I realized that I’d found my way,” Lodge said. A teaching job at Mary Ford’s Cake Artistry Centre in Bournemouth followed, and he began to write his own cake decorating manuals.
It was the right place at the right time. The House of Windsor was about to celebrate the biggest wedding in decades, the marriage of Lady Diana Spencer and Prince Charles. Cakes were needed for souvenir slices for scores of dignitaries. Lots of cakes. Still at Mary Ford’s, Lodge said, he worked on one of them.
It was a fruit cake.
Not one with rubbery fruit the brazen colors of traffic signals, but a dense, buttery thing stuffed with raisins and currants swollen from a drunken mix of brandy and rum. A smooth shell of white fondant coated the nine-foot behemoth, made to look less like a behemoth by a blanket of sweet filigree. A tasty cathedral Lodge never got a morsel of.
“The cake must have weighed 300 pounds or more,” Lodge said. “The whole thing had to be transported with a dolly.”
It must have made an impression, because three years later the school was commissioned to make a christening cake for Prince Harry. This time, Lodge said, he pulled out all the stops, making swans, water lilies and a miniature baby in royal swaddling clothes. Soon Lodge was writing more books, making instructional videos and touring the world. He wasn’t yet 30.
At cake decorating conventions in the U.S. in the 1980s, he said he was, well, appalled at what passed for a fine cake.
“It was typically gloppy butter cream with piped icing,” he said. “I was shocked. It was very unsophisticated and, coming from Europe, I was used to a different standard.”
Seeing opportunity, he moved to the States to open his own school. Atlanta had an international airport and not much cold weather. He met business partner Scott Ewing and the two opened the school in Norcross in 1992.
He hasn’t looked back across the pond. Several years ago he “denounced the queen,” and became an American citizen.
“The first time I came to Atlanta, I felt connected ...” he said. “And I never felt a connection to England like I do here.”
Though Atlanta is home, he spends a third of the year crisscrossing North America presenting his work at conventions to those who can’t come to him. Couldn’t he just stay home and make fancy cakes and get paid without all that traveling? If Lodge still made wedding cakes, he could command a steep fee. His contemporaries, such as Colette Peters of New York, (an originator of the asymmetrical, multicolored, multitiered cake) won’t make a cake for less than $1,000.
“I have no desire to have a bakery,” Lodge said. “I do enjoy making cakes, but I enjoy teaching more, dealing with open students as opposed to difficult, dictatorial brides and their mothers.”
Wouldn’t he like to be a culinary rock star?
Lodge chose his words carefully.
“In my field, I’m well known, but it’s a specialty field.”
And anyway, if he were going to be that kind of star, he said, he’d rather be classical than rock.