Jayne Dwyer meets the York woman who has swapped an intensive legal career for a new slice of life
Last weekend, Fiona Brooks celebrated a very important first anniversary. I am suspecting there was a cake or two to mark the celebrations.
Twelve months ago Fiona left her job as a corporate lawyer after 11 years, a career that she had envisaged doing since she was 13 and had expected to do forever. Today she runs her own baking business in York: Cakes By No More Tiers.
When the recession took hold, Fiona’s firm placed its staff on a three-day week. A lot of her work literally dried up overnight. Most people would have been worried by the downturn, but Fiona began to enjoy having some spare time and found herself indulging in her hobby of cake-making and decorating.
She had taught herself some effective techniques already, but used her spare time to attend a couple of courses. By her own admission, she was shocked to discover that she could produce something “half-decent”.
She had always regarded herself as un-artistic and still finds drawing difficult but quickly learnt that she had a real ability to create in 3D, and in sugar.
She started attending exhibitions and reading up on websites and magazines. She attended the Harrogate Biennial in 2009 and when she entered as a novice in 2011, won Bronze for her Lily of the Valley cake and Gold for a selection of different flavoured cup-cakes.
When she announced that she was going to give up her career as a lawyer to start a new one, Fiona found her colleagues supportive – but she suspected that they pictured her pottering around at home, making the occasional Victoria sponge. After all, TV has become saturated with cookery programmes, and who hasn’t become a bit savvier with a sieve and rushed out to buy baking beans as a result of Great British Bake Off?
Sitting in the café in Rowntree Park, Fiona tells me that she approached cake-making with the same professionalism as she gave to her legal career. In her early days, it would have been tempting to take on the regular orders to supply to cafés, but her focus from day one has been to create bespoke cakes. She has maintained her ethos of working towards high quality, rather than quantity.
When talking about her cakes, her face lights up. This is something she evidently enjoys doing very much. Looking through her catalogues of previous designs, I cannot help but smile too. They are beautiful and fun and some of them a little bit quirky. I think of the poor attempts I made at cake decorating when my children were little. I repeatedly used the same design my mum had used in the Seventies (a pirate chest) but without the finesse required to make it look edible.
Cake decorating for me these days is even more slap-dash. It usually involves a couple of bars of chocolate and the “pour it quick before you burn your hands” technique. Looking at Fiona’s designs, you can imagine how much joy one of these cakes would give.
It is not unusual for her cakes to take as long as a week to create. They range from novelty cakes, classic sugar flower designs, contemporary to wild and wacky. Recently, Fiona made her first divorce cake. (I acknowledged my own Decree Absolute with a bucket of Pinot and a packet of Nobby’s Nuts. Cake seems much more civilised.)
Fiona’s philosophy is, “if you have an idea, I will make the cake to fit”.
She always endeavours to make her cake as personal as possible. One of the exciting things for Fiona is that she can have a brief and an idea of how she will make the cake, but until it is finished, there is always an element of surprise.
One of Fiona’s favourites is her Anglo/Indian wedding cake, which took two days to do the piping alone. An intricate henna design and paisley print reflected the groom’s heritage, whilst the bride’s was represented with an English rose. A disco ball made its appearance to reflect the fact the couple met at a dance class. The design is utterly unique. Fiona loved being able to tell a love story in cake.
Fiona’s enthusiasm is infectious and she obviously thrives on the challenge of bringing her ideas, and the ideas of her clients, to fruition but I wondered if there had been any other challenges during her first year of business.
Tim, Fiona’s husband, has some involvement in the business. He is a keen photographer and documents Fiona’s creations for magazines and websites. He has himself learnt new skills whilst creating the website. Most importantly, Fiona says he is her sounding board and gives endless moral support, and that has been vital. They say that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, and Tim is lucky enough to be paid in cakes for the foreseeable future.
The jump to cake-maker may seem extreme, but Fiona has found that her lawyer background has given her the confidence when meeting new people and networking. Being organised and working to deadlines have been important skills that she has brought with her from her old career to her new, but she feels the most important attribute is her professionalism.
I am amazed by what Fiona has achieved in her first year of business and she describes this year being a bit like “a weird dream”. In recent weeks, her cakes have appeared on the BBC website and the Mail On-line. A friend of hers was standing in Millennium Square in Leeds last week and saw Fiona’s Anglo-Indian cake appear on the huge BBC screen.
Fiona and her cakes are also gaining notoriety worldwide. Some of her designs can be found in blogs as far afield as America and China and she been featured in several magazines, including one in Germany.
Fiona’s first clients came via word of mouth – now she is also being approached by magazines and clients that have seen her designs on American websites. One of her highlights of the last year was an invite to have her Jubilee cake displayed for the British Sugarcraft Guild on their Table Of Excellence at the International Sugarcraft Exhibition. (The creation also made the front cover of Cakes & Sugarcraft magazine.)
During the Olympics, Fiona wanted to indulge in her own fantasies and create something a little quirky. She spent an indulgent afternoon making Boris Johnson cupcakes! Perhaps, not her prettiest cakes to date, but they are nevertheless endearing.
So, after something of an Olympic year for Fiona, I asked about her plans for 2013. She admitted that in some ways she feels a little pressure to win the competitions she did so well in over the last year, but her main priority is to expand further into the wedding market. She has also recently embarked on giving one-to-one tutorials, as well as writing tutorials for magazines.
I know that Fiona could teach me a thing or two in the kitchen, but I’ve also been inspired by her motivation and drive. So many of us talk about our plans for a new career but spend our spare time glued to the TV (watching Come Dine With Me and Great British Bake Off). Fiona told me that she rarely watches these programmes as she is too busy perfecting her latest creation. I know that I will never be a maker of cakes but it has been refreshing to realise that in these challenging times, it is possible to recreate yourself, to change career, learn new skills and spend your days doing a job that makes you and other people happy.
- Cakes By No More Tiers is based at Holgate, York
- You can see more of Fiona’s cakes on her website, nomoretiers.co.uk, or on her Facebook page