Meet Kathryn Gunderson of Grace & Gusto Cakes
It takes a lot of grace to run a successful pastry business and it takes a lot of gusto to make Sia’s famous black-and-white wig out of nothing but fondant and dreams. Kathryn Gunderson, a professional pastry chef baking out of San Francisco, is doing both, boldly carving her sweet niche in the wedding cake world with her company, Grace & Gusto Cakes.
Kathryn’s creations are crafted with life-like precision, works of edible art reflective of hard-earned experience and talent. Kathryn spent years honing her skills in professional kitchens, including the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, where she obtained her degree. In every Grace & Gusto cake creativity abounds, and the only thing better than looking at her works of edible art is eating them.
MELISSA: How did your career as a professional pastry chef begin? Was pastry always a lifelong dream or a hobby-turned-career?
KATHRYN: Cooking in general has always been a guiding force in my life. It sparked my creative spirit as a young child, grew exponentially as a passion with the addition of my pink Easy Bake Oven, comforted me through my teen years, and was honestly the only career path that I have ever realistically considered when the time came to “get a real job.” I’ve always loved the energy around food and what it allows you to express. After over ten years working in both restaurants and bakeries, I realized my place was on the sweet side of things. What attracted me to pastry and wedding cakes specifically was the aesthetic – celebratory, elegant, decadent and beautiful. I wanted to make food that truly marked an occasion and matched the essence of event – what is sweeter than a wedding?
You’re a graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley. What was the most important lesson you learned there about making pastry and/or food?
The CIA taught me to take myself seriously. The environment was competitive and the instructors were so inspiring. Everyone wanted to impress them, but standing out among a sea of white toques is challenging. It taught me that my passion for baking could in fact be a viable career path, but that it would take diligence. Almost half of my baking and pastry class dropped out before graduation, unable to “take the heat” as they say. For me, it was the most fun experience ever. It gave me maturity and a solid work ethic and I’m forever grateful!
Tell us the story: How did Grace & Gusto come to be?
The name Grace & Gusto comes from a book by my favorite writer of all time, M. F. K. Fisher. She’s been my culinary muse since the day my sister gave me a first edition copy of Serve It Forth – the first of what would become a massive collection of M. F. K. novels. I like that the name is two-fold, “Grace” alluding to the meticulous detail and polished style of a great wedding cake, and “Gusto” which represents the wildly creative projects I so much enjoy such as a towering Inari Fox groom’s cake or carved celebrity bust. I began Grace & Gusto only after learning everything I could about specialty cakes and the art of weddings at Sweet Treets Bakery in Austin, TX. It was my favorite job I had ever had and when I left, I knew I was ready to do it on my own.
Even a quick scroll on the @gracenandgusto Instagram proves you’re an absolute artist. Do you have any background in art?
Thank you! Without even realizing it, I’ve been creating art my whole life. I’ve never met a craft that I don’t adore, but painting is my absolute favorite. I feel very lucky that my parents have always seen value in artistic endeavors, even at the expense of their clean tables and carpets!
In your business, do you ever feel creatively uninspired and if so, how do you overcome that feeling?
Honestly, no! At any given time, I have dozens of cake designs that I am dying to materialize. The products available for cake decorating right now are incredibly inspiring on their own. Did you know there are a dozen shades of edible gold leaf? What a time to be alive! With all of the creative resources available, it’s really just an issue of hours in a day.
From a client saying, “OK I need a Johnnie Walker Blue Label whiskey cake,” to you baking one with insanely life-like precision (and a perfectly fitting bourbon cake and salted caramel filling) … what’s your creative process like? How do your cakes go from request to reality?
Great question. With carved and sculpted cakes like a giant whiskey bottle, the first step is determining how many servings are needed. A classic 3-tier cake would normally be used to serve 75, but the challenge is to redistribute that same amount of cake into a very irregular shape. Once we determine how much cake to bake, we start designing the interior structure and support. PVC pipes are used to as a “backbone” to stabilize the tall, narrow bottle shape and wooden dowels help to carry the weight as more and more cake is stacked upwards. Once the cake layers are stacked and carved into shape, the whole thing is iced smoothly with two coats of chocolate ganache, which seals in all the crumbs and provides a sturdy surface for decorating. Next is the fun part! A thin layer of fondant is used to blanket the cake, then food coloring is airbrushed on to add dimension and shading. I use royal icing to carefully hand pipe all the wording and logos and edible gold dust to make all the details sparkle. Practice makes perfect!
It’s a tricky line to balance creativity with commerce. Do you guide your clients toward a certain cake based on what works or what’s popular, or does their story inspire your design?
At Grace & Gusto, I really try to attract clients that want something fresh and interesting in their wedding cakes. I’m more than happy to make our signature Brushed Gold design again and again, but most couple come to us because they know we are willing to create something completely unique for them. I get really inspired by learning about my clients – their love story, their background, their style- and the result is often a wedding cake design that I’ve never created before.
You were recently accepted into the Female Founder Collective. What does it mean to you—and Grace & Gusto—to be among such awesome female business leaders?
I am so thrilled to be part of this powerhouse community of female business owners! I had no idea how challenging it would be to run a business when I began Grace & Gusto. I’ve always been confident with my cake skills, but tackling the practical aspects like financing, permits, marketing, and correspondence has been an eye-opening learning curve for me. The FFC has been as inspiring as it is supportive so far – not only are there are SO MANY badass female entrepreneurs to admire, they are all genuinely interested in empowering and befriending each other! Running a business is equally exciting and terrifying sometimes and having a network of women who can relate is truly invaluable.
What’s the most memorable pastry or cake you’ve ever created?
During my training in Austin I helped create a six-foot-tall Tyrannosaurus rex made entirely out of chocolate cake and Rice Krispies Treats. It took three days to create, filled up the entire walk-in refrigerator, and required six of us to carry!
To a would-be pastry entrepreneur reading this, what’s one slice of advice you’d serve them?
Know your worth! Each custom cake or pastry project you take on is essentially a commissioned piece of art, made even more valuable because it’s delicious. People may be surprised at the cost of your product because the ingredients may not be worth much on their own. This happens a lot. Be prepared to justify the labor, thought, and years of practice that a picture perfect cake requires. Never ever undersell your time or creativity!
This article is the first in our new #FoundHerFridays series, which will feature a different and inspiring female founder each week! Learn more about Kathryn and her incredible cakes at www.graceandgustosf.com.