How I broke the rules and found my own style

How I broke the rules and found my own style
I graduated high school with an ENTER score of 96.95 and don't have a degree. 

I wouldn't describe myself as a rule breaker as such but if you ask my family, that's the first thing they'll tell you about me alongside stubborn. To my mum, having her 5 year old daughter kick up a fuss and insist on choosing her own outfit everyday must have been exasperating. To me, it was just exercising my right to freedom of choice, even at five years of age. 

Since then, I've continued to insist on my freedom of choice every opportunity I got and I want to share with you some of those instances for no other purpose than to remind you that no matter what it is you are faced with right now, you hold the to power to choose. 

 

Education

Albeit graduating year 12 with an ENTER score of 96.95, I don't have a university degree. I've done 3 semesters of Media & Communications at the University of Melbourne on a full scholarship and another 3 semesters of Landscape Architecture at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. Despite the free education and the prestigious reputation of both universities, I 'threw it away' as one might describe it. Well heck, I was miserable and certainly did not see a career in these fields. Why stay in misery? 

However, this meant that whatever I did next I needed to be certain I could stick it out. I didn't want to get caught up in a revolving door of quitting and giving up for the rest of my life. Here entered my hobby baking. As you may know from last week's blog post, my passion for baking lead to me opening Don't Tell Charles Coffee & Desserts. I had no experience in running a business, a cafe nor a bakery. But I did it because the experience was going to be my education. Boy, what a valuable education it turned out to be! I'm in my 7th year of this 'degree' and bloody loving every lesson. 

 

Thao installing Don't Tell Charles logo for the cafe

Me installing our cafe logo in June 2012 

Cakes

You may also know that I am completely self-taught in the kitchen. I never attended a cooking class or a pastry course. Ironically I am now teaching them, haha. I didn't, not because I thought I was above them but simply because I couldn't afford any of them. Self-teaching was my only option. You guys are lucky these days with so many online cake decorating courses available but back then, I learnt through cook books, blogs, lots of Youtube videos, TV shows etc.

I broke a lot of rules while learning. Thanks to my 'untrained background', I was free to do whatever I thought was logical in order to achieve my desired result. A lot of the steps and methods I read about sounded unnecessary, so I cut them out. In some instances, doing so turned out to be a massive mistake 😅. But all the mistakes - trust me when I tell you there were LOTS of them - lead to the fail-proof buttercream cake system that I use and teach now. 

It took me 5 years to make enough mistakes and gather enough skills to have the confidence to comfortably express my own style. 

The good news is, it doesn't need to take 5 years for you. This fail-proof buttercream cake system that I'm teaching can be accessed from anywhere in the world and it's called the Buttercream Cake Mastery Online Course

Check this out, my first EVER bake - Red Velvet cupcakes made for a friend's birthday in 2011 and one of my favourite buttercream creations this year, 2019. 

 

Red Velvet cupcakes in 2011 and DTC modern cake lamps in 2019

Left: first ever bake, 2011. Right: DTC modern cake lamps, 2019

 

How I found my own style

Everyone goes through the same learning journey, that is you first learn by imitation. In order to figure out how something is made, you have to learn to make that exact thing. It's the same with cakes. In my earlier years of cake making, all the cakes I made were traditional and popular designs found on the internet like doll cakes, cupcake bouquets, drip cakes etc. 

As I became more familiar with the fundamentals of how a cake is made, I'd start experimenting with putting different elements from various designs together. In this stage still, I looked to existing cake designs for inspiration. 

Then came a point where I felt stuck. I was now confident enough in my own abilities to make buttercream cakes however, was still looking at other cakes for inspiration. It felt extremely limiting. But how do I break out and start making something I can call my own style? What even was my style? 

Watching the first episode of Netflix's Chef's Table unlocked a new door in creativity for me. The episode was about one of my favourite chefs, Massimo Bottura, in which he talked about how he turned the Italian food tradition upside down. 'Italians hated his food at first, but they learned to respect his modernist approach.' Massimo's 'aha' moment came in a Venice art gallery in 1997, where he observed 'an instillation depicting taxidermied pigeons in the rafters defecating on older works of art' and realised exactly what he had to do with Italian cuisine - treat it as art. Watching this scene was the 'aha' moment for me. 

I realised I needed to look outside of cakes and deeper into other articulations of art that I enjoyed. I stopped following cake artists on Instagram. My Pinterest boards became full of pins from interior design, architecture and abstract art. It didn't take long for the inspiration to start flooding in. Everywhere I looked, I could see a cake design. A rug, a concrete wall, vases, paintings etc. 

Like Massimo and his journey in modernising Italian cuisine, it took a while for people to start appreciating my concrete cakes. But over three years after the first concrete buttercream cake came out of the DTC kitchen, people are finally catching on. Try searching 'concrete cake' on Google, Instagram or Pinterest and you'll see its popularity today. 

 modern concrete cakes by Don't Tell Charles

 

Break your own rules

At any stage in your endeavour to hone your craft, be prepared to break your own rules and pivot when needed. I started a cafe which turned into a designer cake studio and workshop which resulted in an Online School for modern cake designers. My style now is different to what it was 3 years ago, it's becoming more minimal each day. But who knows, I might decide that I like the maximalist approach better next year. I'm open to breaking boundaries, even if they are my own. 

So, how can you start to find your own style? 

  1. Get the fundamentals right and build a strong foundation. Learn how to make a cake the efficient way aka the DTC way 😆. 
  2. Build confidence in your skills. Practice, practice, practice.
  3. Once you have the skill set, step away from imitation.
  4. Look outside of the cake world and into other areas of visual design that you enjoy. It could be floristry, painting, sculpture, landscape, ceramics, even music (EP cover artworks). 
  5. Don't be afraid to break the rules, even your own. 

 

Til next week. 

Thao xo

1 comment

  1. Full University scholarship!!!? Then again why should I be surprised, have always thought what a clever cookie (cake) you are!
    Fab read Thao, loving your new blog ❤️❤️❤️

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