Cake: It’s Not Just For Breakfast
Debbie Goard, a former erotic baker, makes delicious cakes that look like eggs, sneakers, and bowls of ramen.
Debbie Goard enjoys making intricate, original cakes.
Photos by D. Ross Cameron
Debbie Goard makes cakes for a living, but she won’t make you a traditional tiered wedding cake. Nor will she make you an elegant baby shower cake or an adorable birthday cake for your toddler. She will, however, make you a cake that looks exactly like your favorite pair of Jordans, a yellowed copy of the Constitution, or an everything bagel with lox, down to the smeared cream cheese.
For more than a decade, Goard has carved a niche for herself in the Bay Area with her sculpted cakes, designed to resemble products, animals, or other foods. She has made endless bowls of ramen, a garage’s worth of car cakes, and more than a few gun cakes, with every component, from the shoelaces to the sugar packets next to a Starbucks cup cake, entirely edible.
“I really enjoy doing things that people say, ‘you can’t eat that,’ or ‘you shouldn’t eat that,’” she said. “I think the worst thing that you could ever say about someone’s work is that it’s mediocre; it’s unremarkable.”
Goard grew up in North Carolina (she still has a lilting drawl) wanting to be a fashion designer. In the ’90s, a friend got her a job decorating cakes at a Harris Teeter supermarket. It wasn’t a great fit. Goard enjoyed making intricate, original creations; the store wanted her to adhere to the predetermined designs they offered at every location. But despite frequent reprimands from her boss, her cakes gained a following, and customers started coming to her with requests for things like a Salvador Dali-influenced cake.
In the early 2000s, Goard moved to the Bay Area. She quickly got a job at an erotic bakery, molding phalluses out of yellow cake and buttercream. Soon, she was the bakery’s go-to for sculpted cakes, including one memorable request for a cake featuring a dead rat. In 2005, she decided to open her own business. She named it Debbie Does Cakes, after the iconic porn film, and stuck a sticker advertising “sculpted cakes” on her car.
It was a hard sell. In 2005, TV shows featuring elaborate cakes like Ace of Cakes and Cake Boss hadn’t yet aired. People didn’t know what a sculpted cake was and balked at her prices. She sent her portfolio to an influential cake decorator, who responded that her work was impressive, but could she please get rid of the dead rat cake?
But slowly, Debbie Does Cakes gained customers who wanted creations that looked like chicken wings (complete with a side of ranch made from buttercream), or corporate clients like Nissan, who wanted a Nissan Leaf cake to celebrate the launch of the electric car.
And unlike other bakers, who achieve their verisimilitude with the help of unappetizing fondant, Goard prioritizes taste, and uses the least amount of fondant she can get away with. Her cakes’ realism can cause an existential quandary for some customers. One customer, who ordered one of her red sneaker cakes, wrote on Yelp: “It was kinda funny when we cut it and the red was inside—we just kept cracking jokes about eating the foot inside the shoe—but rest assured that it tasted great and nothing like a foot.”
Goard’s boyfriend delivers the cakes, but other than that, Goard does everything herself in her rented bakery near Lake Merritt. Once a customer and she have agreed on a design, she gets to work. “How I can turn an edible object into something that looks completely inedible, or like some other food?” she said. “I find that so exciting. It’s a lot of trial and error. I do a lot of my cake planning when I’m lying awake at night.”
First, she’ll acquire the object, whether it’s a model of a Tesla, or dried anchovies for the Malaysian dish pan mee. After studying every inch of it and taking measurements, she’ll draw up a design in Adobe Illustrator. Then she’ll use an edible printer to print the design onto a thin icing sheet, which she attaches to the cake with a piping gel.
It’s a mix of artistry and science that sometimes frustrates her. “I work with models and blueprints and calipers and a calculator,” she said. “And the worst thing you can tell an artist, [is] you need a calculator: ‘Nooo!’” she said with a mock shriek. Cars, with their tiny parts that require an exacting, precise design, are the most labor intensive, and sometimes she’ll come home to her boyfriend, wailing, “But I don’t want to know all about cars!”
But then she’ll talk to her baker friends across the country, who cycle through the same nonthreatening, conventional cake designs, and she’ll be grateful for an order of yet another Ferrari or ramen cake. “They have to do traditional things because that’s what people want,” she said.
In the Bay Area, she has more freedom. “It’s a combination of me putting it out there for people to see what’s possible, and people here being more open minded to having something quirky,” she said. “I’m not sure that I could do that in a lot of areas of the country.”
Published online on May 17, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.