Polly Schoonmaker Interview


Polly Schoonmaker is the owner of Polly’s Cakes out of Portland, Oregon.
Polly’s Cakes was started in 1993, and since then her cakes have been featured in several wedding books as well as Conde Nast’s Bride’s Magazine, Food and Wine, Pastry Art and Design and Vogue.

Q – Polly, how does one ever learn how to make of those elaborate cakes? Can you really learn that in school?
A – Well, you know what? You really can’t. They’re one of a kind. And, it’s really my art in the cake baking world. I did not learn these designs in culinary school. This is something that I came up with. They are really one of a kind. They are Polly cakes.

Q – You’re not just making cakes for the people of Portland are you?
A – No. We ship. You can see from my website (pollycakes.com) we ship all over the United States and we will fly with the cake to a destination.

Q – Does someone other than yourself make and mix the batter, or do you do everything that’s involved in the preparation of a cake from start to finish?
A – During the heavier part of the season I have two part-time assistants that will help with that, but, my hands are still in every step of the process.

Q – You’re actually from Portland?
A – Yes.

Q – Why then, did you move to Santa Fe, New Mexico to work as a chef?
A – That was just after school. It’s ‘cause it was just sort of a personal desire.

Q – You then moved to New York to study at Peter Kump’s School of Culinary Arts. I take it this is a rather prestigious school for the type of work you wanted to do.
A – It’s very well-known and very well-respected I would say. But, I just simply applied and wrote my essay. I didn’t think about not getting in.

Q – How tough was it to get accepted?
A – I have no idea. All I know is, I got in. I don’t know how tough it is to get in the CIA (Culinary Institute of America), but, it was a shorter program for me, because I didn’t want to do a 2 year program. I just wanted to do a 3 or 4 month program, because I was older and I figured I already worked in the culinary world for 10-12 years. I really just wanted a good, solid, quick, well-done course in pastry just so I could move on. I already decided to do wedding cakes before I went to culinary school.

Q – After you completed the course, you returned to Portland. Why?
A – I grew up in Portland, and it’s an incredibly wonderful place to live. And, I wanted to buy a house. Personal reasons basically. Have some equity basically instead of trying to survive in New York in some apartment. So, it’s my place. New York is not my place. I love it, but, I am a native Oregonian, 5 generations and that’s my home. When you really have a place you love, that’s where you’re gonna settle. So, that was always my idea.

Q – Do you have to accompany the cakes when you ship them?
A – No. I can Fed-Ex them to a place and on the other end I will be in very solid content with the recipient whether it’s a hotel or a catering firm or the bride herself. They’ll have full instructions of how to put it together, how to deal with it once it arrives on their doorstep.

Q – So, you don’t do what cakemaker Sylvia Weinstock does which is bake a cake on the premises?
A – Well, I have done that kind of thing as well. But, that’s different from Fed-Exing a cake. So, I have traveled with my cakes. I’ve never had to bake them elsewhere. If I am going to fly with the cake to a destination, I will probably have the cake mostly made and then fly with it and do the finishing touches, on the other end.

Q – Besides you and Sylvia Weinstock, who else is dong this type of work?
A – Well, there’s various cake designers, doing their own sort of thing. Margaret Braun is another person who’s doing her own sort of thing. There’s at least 20 names I can come up with.

Q – That many?
A – Yeah, but 20 serious cake designers out of how many cake designers are there in America? That’s still a pretty slim slot.

Q – Have you ever made cakes for any celebrities?
A – You know I have done a movie producer, First Ladies. For the most part, being in Portland, I make things for fancy society clients and that sort of thing, all around the country. I don’t really market myself to movie stars. If they want to call me-----that’s fine.

Q – Who was the movie producer?
A – I think his name was Joel Silver. He produced all the matrix films.

Q – Has a customer ever come in with what you considered an odd request for the design of a cake?
A – The oddest request I think I’ve had is doing a Jaguar engine. It was kind of fun. I don’t normally specialize in novelty cakes like that.

Q – You design more than wedding cakes don’t you?
A - I design birthday cakes, special occasion cakes.

Q – Polly, you’re really an artist. When someone asks you to describe what it is you do for a living, what do you answer?
A – Well, I guess I have a couple of descriptions. I would say baker, designer. To go into cartoonist or whatever, I take all those kinds of elements of art, bring a sculpter, being someone who illustrate and put them into my cakes. So, I still say cake designer. It’s simple, but then, also baker because I bake my own cakes. I don’t have someone else baking my cakes and then shipping them, or dropping them off at my doorstep. It all happens in the studio bakery.

Q – You could probably do this forever couldn’t you?
A – Well, I won’t live forever, so, I probably can’t. (Laughs)

Q – What I meant was, career-wise, you can do this type of work until you get tired of it.
A – Yeah. I can do this for as long as I want to.

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