CAPITOLA, Calif. – Marina Sousa’s star-studded career – this Food Network champion has designed cakes for Oprah, Raquel Welch, Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston – may have been foreshadowed by her fifth-grade science project.
“We had to make a volcano; I made mine out of cake, complete with buttercream eruptions,” she says with a laugh, ganache-brown eyes dancing.
That story wouldn’t surprise foodies across America who have watched Sousa’s stunning, gravity-defying creations win a dozen Food Network cake competitions – including the first one televised, in 2004, and the Miley Cyrus “Sweet 16” birthday challenge.
“The Food Network’s a kind of phenomenon, that concept of putting competition standards on something as visually interesting as cake. I think ‘Cake TV,’ as I call it, was the advent of the whole cake revolution.”
Sousa, owner of Just Cake in Capitola, Calif., competed against two other cake designers on Oprah Winfrey’s television show in 2009. Marina’s elaborate, 10-foot-high cake took second but resoundingly won Oprah’s online competition.
“The whole process, beginning to end, was magical,” Sousa remembers.
Her varied background in design, theater and baking includes degrees from San Francisco’s Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising and two CIAs – the California Institute of the Arts and Napa’s Culinary Institute of America.
Following a three-year “dream job” at Universal Studios producing celebrity events such as movie premieres, a chance visit to innovative Rosebud Cakes in Beverly Hills led to a part-time job. And a life change.
“Within two months I was decorating cakes full time; it was an ideal place to learn the craft and work with celebrity clients.”
After moving back to Santa Cruz, Calif., in 2003, Sousa considered making cakes professionally but needed a commercial kitchen. She found one at her former elementary school, Salesian Sisters in Corralitos, Calif.
Marina laughs. “The nuns put my business cards under St. Joseph’s statue: Mom said that’s why I did so well. I took eight display cakes to my first bridal show on a Sunday – Monday I had 38 phone calls.”
Soon she was sharing a storefront with Fiona Flowers in Capitola and kitchen space with Feast for a King caterers. The business name, Just Cake, came from her Beverly Hills experience: “I used to think, ‘It’s just cake, people.’”
Despite the fact Sousa is one of the area’s top wedding cake designers, has worked with celebrities and is in fact a celebrity herself, she says, “I’m just someone in Santa Cruz, trying to run a business.”
Born: June 3, 1971, in Fremont, Calif; moved to Santa Cruz in third grade.
As a child: ‘I was always the teacher when we played classroom or the director when we did little plays. My grandfather used to introduce my sister Ronda as the intelligent one, and I was the artistic one.’
Early jobs: ‘I worked at Gizdich Ranch and at Beverly Fabrics in the crafts department.’
Education: Visual merchandising degree, Fashion Institute of Design and Management; theatrical production management degree, California Institute of the Arts; baking and pastry arts degree with honors, Culinary Institute of America, Napa
Her mother: Marge Chiesa, who passed away in 2008, is honored on Marina’s website as ‘my biggest cheerleader’.
Mentors: ‘In life, my Aunt Carolyn and of course my mother; in cakes, Mike McCary and Collette Peters, both Food Network challenge judges.’
Local bakery bests: ‘My favorite cake in the world is the carrot cake at the Buttery. And I’m at Gayle’s, just down the street from me, at least twice a day: I love their pastries.’
Favorite dessert: ‘I could live without cake; I’d rather have olallieberry or Dutch apple pie.’
Teaching: Marina has taught cake design classes from Australia to Toronto, at culinary schools, on cruise ships, at cake-decorating stores and online.
Her Just Cakes partner: Dawn Nemec, who specializes in gum paste decorations.
Cake futures: Marina is planning a line of shippable cakes with fellow Food Network star James Rosselle.
Her online class: www.craftsy.com/class/advanced-fondant-techniques/99
More details: 345-9838, www.justcake.com
©2012 Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.)
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PHOTO (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): CAKEARTIST