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Food Issue - Let them eat art

How Atlanta artist Karen Portaleo mastered the craft of cake decorating

? Inside the original Highland Bakery in Old Fourth Ward, a flour-covered crew is hard at work kneading dough for breads and pastries. Beyond the chaos, however, Master Cake Decorator Karen Portaleo's private studio exists quietly in one of the bakery's back rooms. She's not directly affiliated with the popular bakeshop/eatery anymore. But her tenure in its ranks has secured this home, just steps away from where she got her start, for her private cake decorating workspace. The gleaming metal tables are mostly barren, save for a few tools, dyes, and a one-foot-tall sculpture of a cherubic woman dancing with an octopus on her head. It glistens on the table, the paint still wet. The room smells of warm cake.?

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? "I just finished this one," she says, smiling affectionately at her creation. The dancing woman seems paused in time, as if enchanted. Her rosy cheeks and white teeth sparkle in the afternoon sunlight. The octopus' tentacles threaten to writhe back into action at any moment.?

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? Portaleo is among the best cake decorators in the world. The Atlanta-based artist has molded cake and chocolate into terrifying clowns, a grotesque, blood-stained zombie (a gift for the cast of "The Walking Dead"), and a disturbingly accurate bust of Tim Burton. She's triumphed on numerous TV cake competition shows, and has been featured on Andrew Zimmern's "Bizarre Foods" and National Geographic's "Strange But True." Her former clients include Sir Elton John, the cast of "Downton Abbey," and Usher. Folks fly her around the world to Australia, the Netherlands, and Jakarta to teach others how to create confections like the dancing woman.?

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? In the decade since she's been crafting cakes professionally, Portaleo has paved her own spirited path in the cake industry sculpting edible works that blur the lines between food and art. But despite the accolades, the international recognition, and multiple national television appearances, Portaleo and her work has largely remained under-the-radar in her own hometown.?

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? Portaleo's baking life started in a series of small Florida bakeries. Her grandfather, Joseph Aloe, was a Sicilian immigrant and self-taught baker. She grew up in his shadow, at first working the front of his various bakeries across Palm Beach County while he worked in the kitchens.?

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? "I don't use his recipes, but I do have some of his tools he used for decorating," Portaleo says. "I keep them at my house, it's very special to have his things around." Her heirlooms include Aloe's piping tips, his flower nail — a tool used to make buttercream flowers — and his bench scraper.?

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? "He was old school, and got a lot of mileage out of those steel piping tips," she says. "Not only did he make flowers and borders, but he made beautiful pastry swans, which he piped, then baked, and filled with pastry cream. I always thought they were magical."?

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? Portaleo watched Aloe work and studied his processes, but didn't pursue a culinary career from the outset. Instead, she followed her passions of sculpture and metalsmithing at the Atlanta College of Art (which SCAD later absorbed in 2006). After graduation Portaleo picked up odd jobs around Atlanta to pay the bills and eventually found her way into prop-making and set design. She remained in that industry for 17 years before a collapsing economy caused her to look to other avenues for work.?

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? "It's been a natural transition to creating cakes the way I do," Portaleo says. "In art school you learn about color and anatomy. Then, doing props, you learn about building structures for things that don't necessarily have to last for very long. It's basically the same thing for cakes — you have to learn how to design and execute quickly, because you want the cake to stay fresh."?

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? Portaleo's relationship with Highland Bakery came about by chance. In 2005 the economy was in decline and Portaleo, recently separated from her partner and taking care of her 4-year-old daughter solo, was struggling to make ends meet. It occurred to her that she might be able to put her childhood cake-decorating talents to use.?

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? She approached Highland Bakery owner Stacey Eames and asked if she could decorate cookies at home and sell them at the bakery.?

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? "She said no at first," Portaleo says. But Eames' business partner eventually talked her into it. Soon Portaleo was working at the bakery part time, learning to frost cakes for the restaurant while her daughter was at school. "I could never in my wildest imaginings have foreseen what would come from that," she says. The part-time gig quickly snowballed into full-fledged cake decorating. Then Portaleo discovered modeling chocolate. A white or dark chocolate base mixed with cornstarch, modeling chocolate is more blendable and easier to shape than sheets of pliable fondant icing. Plus, she could paint on it.?

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? "It's such a perfect medium," she says. "The creativity is really endless. I'm completely unlimited." If it weren't for this critical discovery, Portaleo says, it's likely she wouldn't have stayed with cake decorating at all.?

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? With this fresh artistic freedom Portaleo's designs gained new life. Her first breakthrough was a three-dimensional likeness of Marie Antoinette sculpted out of cake. When she finished, she posted photographs of it online. People in the baking community began to notice her work, most notably fellow Atlanta cake maker Joshua John Russell. An already established cake artist at the time, Russell joined Portaleo's team at the corner of Highland and Sampson. The two constantly collaborated, so when Russell was invited to compete on Food Network's "Cake Challenge" in 2012, he asked Portaleo to assist.?

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? "She is an artist and a sculptor," Russell said when asked about the time he spent working with Portaleo. "She taught me how to be more of an artist and less of a cake designer."?

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? Today Portaleo crafts her cakes much in the same way she would a sculpture, building metal structures out of pipes and wood to support the weight of her cakes. She charges around $1,000-$5,000 on average for her creations, but her price tags have been known to run as high as $20,000. Portaleo's most recent public accomplishment was a bust of Maggie Smith, better known as the Lady Violet Dowager Countess of Grantham, for "Downton Abbey"'s season five premiere party. The finished product, made with eight vanilla buttercream layers soaked in Earl Grey tea, took 18 hours to make. The head was carefully sculpted from modeling chocolate atop a metal pipe skewering the cake layers, which Portaleo cut and shaved into the shape of the Dowager Countess's chest and neck. The second day was spent covering Lady Violet's bodice in a decadent frock of fondant and molding chocolate, which Portaleo ultimately painted in stunning detail. The result was a wrinkly, blue-eyed bust of the Lady Dowager so lifelike that a quippy remark seemed ready to burst from the cake's pursed lips.?

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? "The cost is in the artistry, not really the cake itself," she says. "In my previous career as a clay sculptor, I found art collectors were prepared to invest in artistry and craftsmanship. In the 10 years since my very first cake, I have seen the audience for artistic cakes become aware of not only what is possible, but that there is a cost associated with it as well."?

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? She's made groundhogs and chipmunks with kewpie doll eyes and a giant octopus that seems transfixed mid-undulation across the sea floor. "People are always stunned when they see them and find out that it's cake," she says. "But the best part is when they smell it and realize they can eat it."?

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? Portaleo recalls a memorable collaboration with fellow Atlanta confectioner Taria Camerino, formerly of Sugar-Coated Radical. Camerino, who has synesthesia, perceives the world around her predominantly through flavors and tastes. They were tasked with making a cake for Andrew Zimmern that was inspired by all the freaky things he eats on "Bizarre Foods." Camerino pulverized toasted shrimp shells and Sichuan peppercorns to sprinkle into the cake batter. A pear pâté de fruit separated each layer and the whole thing was soaked in bay leaf simple syrup. Portaleo then proceeded to sculpt the cake into an uncanny likeness of Zimmern's head covered in creepy crawlers, a "sort of 'revenge of the creatures' theme," she says. The "Bizarre" medley included a prehistoric-looking yellow and black beetle, a slimy maggot as big as a toddler's fist, and a menacing gray rat.?

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? Portaleo has spent the most recent leg of her career traveling the world. She's taught in Germany, Australia, Spain, Hong Kong, Italy, and France. "People see a cake on my website and pay for me to come out and teach a class on how to recreate it," Portaleo says. Her classes often take her out of the country for at least three days at a time, but usually much longer.?

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? "It's hard to be gone for seven to 10 days every month — I mean, I have a fourteen year-old daughter," Portaleo says. "I would like to start bringing people to me, to have things that happen here."?

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? After dozens of requests, Portaleo is finally working on a book. Not an instructional book, though, because there are already hundreds of those on the market, she says. Portaleo's yet-to-be-named, self-published book will be a nurtured and loving effort to show the real craftsmanship behind her cakes. The book, which she hopes to release by next fall, will be brimming with her own illustrations, recipes, and full of inspiration. This Christmas, she's signed on to craft an intricate custom gingerbread house at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center, a project that will lay the groundwork for an annual gingerbread house competition there in 2016.?

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? Back in Portaleo's studio, the cherubic cake continues to glisten under the bright fluorescent lights as it dries. Her remarkable edible sculptures, no matter how many times you see them, imbue a sense of awe. Like Portaleo's four-foot-tall panda sculpted from 17 mandarin-liqueur-soaked layers that's robed in a Chinese hanfu and headdress bedecked with pale-green butterflies; or the haunting, decrepit corpse of Sleeping Beauty left waiting too long for true love's kiss. Teaching and writing may distract her for a while, but there's no question what Portaleo's true vocation is.?

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