Many stereotypes exist in the world of cooking. For instance, the best chefs in the world are men, or only women and children bake cakes, and in pretty little aprons. But neither of these notions are true, nor are many other similar assumptions surrounding the great industry that exists for food.
We only have to take a moment to glance at it evolving right before us to see that this booming industry has become a place of excitement and trend, and individual creativity. In light of Women's month, we chat to one such woman who is inspiring us by defining her own terms as a baker.
The word 'baker' seems too plain for Alice Toich though, who applies her whimsical imagination, her love for lush, overflowing beauty and her art as a painter, all into a single cake.
After making a name for herself in The Great South African Bake Off, Alice embarked on a cake filled mission that has given new energy to the baking industry as we know it. Her touch is instantly recognisable, creating cakes that might make you giggle, drool or stare at in awe.
1. Where does your passion/love for baking and all things pretty and sweet come from?
I grew up in quite a unique situation. Both my parents have identical twins and each twin married each other. Imma give you a moment to just visualize that.
We grew up in a big household in Pretoria all together: my mom, dad, siblings, aunt uncle and cousins. We always had tons of events to celebrate and food was a massive component of celebration for us. I started helping my mom and aunt (mom #2) in the kitchen baking chiffon cakes and treats for the big functions we would have.
I think those formative years handling eggs and batter opened up a can of sprinkles! As a kid I was enamored by the way cakes baked in the oven. I thought it was pure magic! I have always been very connected to my senses as a vehicle to experience life at its most luscious. I think, as children we are all born this way; squishing mud ‘cause it feels good’ jumping in puddles, licking only the icing off the cupcakes! As we grow up we tend to loose how good it can feel to work with our hands so I use baking as reminder to how fully we can experience life if we want to!
2. What female in the cooking industry do you look up to?
First and foremost I look up to every mother and grandmother who cooks for their family. Of course I love Siba Mtongana! She is everything we need in a South African cooking star. Mostly I love how she expresses herself with such positive energy and really utilizes her platform as a celebrity to speak to greater causes. I would love to meet her.
Also, I have such admiration and respect for Abigail Donnelly and her detail-driven attention to food. Everything she touches is beautiful and considered, taking it to an international level of quality.
3. As we know, the chef industry is dominated by males, but how is it in the baking or patisserie industry? And do you face any challenges as a young woman new to the industry?
It seems absurd that cooking is considered male focused and baking reserved as a female endeavor. I know tons of men who love to bake. I would not consider myself to be a chef, rather a self-taught zealous amateur baker.
As a young woman in food, I think my biggest challenge will be for other people to acknowledge that I take it very seriously. I love having fun and being silly but underneath it all is a solid and serious dedication to learning and creating value.
I have a gripe with the tipped gender scales in the food industry. I have often heard when a female chef is demanding and strong-willed she is quickly labeled a “bi*^!h” when her male counterpart is demanding and strong-willed he is considered a “ real professional”. This obviously goes for many industries, not just food.
4. Have you got any special memories relating to food or cooking with a female family member? Things like fond memories in the kitchen or secret recipes...
My grandmother was the first woman to teach me to bake. I would be dropped off at her house and we would spend the afternoon making cupcakes, she even had a mini cupcake pan and mini tea set just for me and I remember being very proud of this!
I think of her every time I see 100&1000’s sprinkled atop white butter icing. She had such patience and I am so grateful to her for those afternoons. Baking with my twin moms for big Sunday family lunches was and still is one of my all time favourite things in the world!
A special memory that comes to mind is when my Aunt Ranka taught the women in my family to make apple strudel pastry. All the women where huddled around two big tables, stretching floury thin sheets of soft pastry across big table tops in opposite directions with the afternoon light streaming in. The strudel pastry is very fragile and you need to pull it gently and at the same time as the person opposite you so it requires you to communicate and be patient. It was such a beautiful moment and one of warmth and love.
5. Your cakes are incredibly pretty, are there any constant themes between your art and your baking? How would you describe these ties and to what extent?
There are certainly connections between baking and art making for me. Aesthetically, I am drawn to the ornate opulence of the Rococo and Baroque era when mantle pieces and fireplaces looked like elaborate gilded chocolate cakes and the walls resembled fondant-covered fancies. In that way, I have a penchant for the visually generous or eccentric and also for a sort of kitsch quirkiness.
I am very into pink at the moment in both painting and baking, gold will always make me squeal. But I bake in a small kitchen and my art studio is even smaller, so a lot of the process of baking and art-making is for reaching for an ideal that is unattainable. The tools I use for both are very similar; palette knives loaded with oil paint and icing resemble each. Sometimes it’s confusing. Glossy swirls of pigment and a lot of mixing make me very happy.
6. If you were cooking for a Women’s Day tea party, what would be your ultimate cake?
Something made of chocolate, with warm spiced chocolate covered in chocolate! Did I mention chocolate? (Women need chocolate).
7. Tell us about Baek zine and the inspiration surrounding it.
While preparing for being a contestant on The Great South African Bake Off last year I was challenged with having to delve into the wonderfully humbling world of “recipe development". I was a very by-the-book baker before and would always follow recipes to a tee. But I learnt so much from breaking the rules and testing and I had such fun doing it. So, I decided to create a project for myself that would keep me breaking the baking rules (while learning that some are truly unbreakable).
I had the idea to start a baking zine called BAEK (pronounced like ‘bae-k’ or ‘bake’). BAEK is about getting Bae’s baking. It is a personal creative project that has manifested into a paper zine as well as an online blog. Each issue has a handful of preciously developed recipes, a lick of pseudo-science, a sprinkle of poetry, fun visuals and a lot of sass.
Each zine will focus on a different aspect of baking; cookies, meringues, chocolate cakes, scones and all sorts of sprinkle covered things! It posted all around South Africa, like having a pen pal who sends you recipes to try over the weekend. The second issue will be released on 4 September at The Street Food Festival in Cape Town.
(Photo by Anke Loots)
8. What advice would you give women reading this who want to break into the food or cooking world?
I would just say: Keep at it! Whether you are trying to break into food styling, home-baking, blogging or starting your own product/opening your own spot. You have more tools at your disposal now than any other female in history to help you learn, share and build a network of like-minded people. Remember that nothing of value comes easily. Also I would say focus on consistency and lastly, you can’t make perfect pavlova without breaking a couple eggs ;).
9. Best cake spot in CT (and/or SA) besides your own kitchen?
The Mount Nelson Hotel for high tea is still my ultimate cakey indulgence! Every Thursday from 12:00 – 18:00 at St George’s Mall in Cape Town CBD there is a market, find the Greek couple, order any of their syrupy baklava. Thank me later.
Alternatively try Jason Bakery for a mean carrot cake cheesecake mid-week. In Joburg I love the cakes at Teta Marie’s in Illovo and of course the Patisserie is always on point. I would recommend picking up baked goods from weekend markets too!
10. Your favourite thing you have baked thus far?
I once gave a talk at primary school on creativity and used baking as an example to show the kids how to think creatively with everything they do. The moment I put the pic up of this zombie-inspired chocolate mud cake I made (complete with cookie fingers and almond nails clawing out) they all started squealing with delight. So I am gonna go with that one as one of my fav/fun bakes thus far.
(Photo by Anke Loots)
Follow Alice on Instagram and Twitter @alice_toich
Follow BAEK on Instagram and Twitter @baek_zine
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- Ceili McGeever