One extremely talented local baker who applauds the arrival of more men on the baking scene is the lovely James Watson, who runs Belfast cake studio cakesby james, together with his sister and business partner Dawn.
The softly-spoken 32-year-old says he believes that “guys should be free to embrace their inner strawberry vanilla flavour” - and that an increased focus in baking amongst men is a good thing
“As a kid growing up, I only ever remember seeing bakers like Delia Smith or Jenny Bristow on the television,” says James, who learnt his trade in London, where his creations were displayed in the windows of Selfridges.
(He has also worked in Sydney and Melbourne, and his business in Northern Ireland, which he set up here in 2010, specialises in wedding and occasion cakes and desserts).
“I’m not entirely sure that men baking really is an entirely new thing, though – perhaps we are just finally having a more equal and objective portrayal of baking thanks to television shows and the elevated profile of men like Paul Hollywood and Michel Roux. Maybe guys are feeling a little more liberated these days to throw on that apron and get into the kitchen. Maybe they feel less likely to be judged and less inclined to have their masculinity questioned.
“Baking can, after all, have a very pink and fluffy reputation. But like many things in life, the reality is that it’s a lot of hard work and it takes practice and dedication.”
Whilst he never made the decision to deliberately ‘get into’ baking, James admits that as a child, he enjoyed rifling through the kitchen cupboards “with a mind to making something nice to eat out of eclectic bits and pieces, such as boxes of custard powder or an old tin of something or other.”
He continues: “I guess it has always been a satisfying feeling to create something good out of nothing. Baking in particular, as opposed to savoury cooking, has a quality that invokes excitement. Maybe I’ve always felt like an alchemist with a wooden spoon in my hand! Some recipes, like banana bread or spiced apple loaf, just seem much more than the sum of their parts. They also bring a smile just by looking at them.”
James initially moved to London to find work as an actor, and secured a job as a barista at Beas of Bloomsbury cake shop shortly after he arrived.
“While making coffee I could not help but be amazed at the wonderful cakes being created every day in the kitchen, so, one day I asked the owner Bea if I could work in the kitchen for some experience. I’m grateful that she offered me that opportunity as I found I had a natural ability for baking and cake decoration. Gradually I became more and more involved in all aspects of preparing and decorating cakes and after a year I was the chief cake decorator for the company. Discovering this new-found passion inspired me to make a career out of it.”
After a couple of years at Beas, James decided to set up his own business. He felt at the time that his home city lacked a similar high-end cake shop, and so he moved back to the Province to create cakesbyjames.
“I owe everything that I have achieved to Bea Vo,” he says.
“She saw something in me, took me under her wing and without her help I would not be where I am today.”
When pressed about iconic celebrity chefs and bakers whom he reveres he adds: “Aside from Bea, I do have to say I love Nigella Lawson. Her whole approach to cooking is admirable and I find her strength very inspiring.”
James says he is often inspired by other people when it comes to his cake creations and delectable desserts.
“Sometimes I come across a baking blog or I see an image on the internet of an incredible cake, and that is very inspiring. I often attempt to recreate those cakes or sometimes they influence me in my designs for customers and, of course, cookbooks. There is nothing quite like reading a recipe that just fascinates you from the moment you see the picture. Getting all the ingredients, following the recipe and producing something that tastes just absolutely gorgeous is a fantastic journey.”
And he confesses to being a massive fan of The Great British Bake Off.
“They really got the balance right with the humour of Sue Perkins, the empathy of Mary Berry and the stern uncle vibe of Paul Hollywood. It’s great to see a lot of guys on there, busting out the flour and butter, breaking some stereotypes while they are at it. I do admit to watching it for the disasters. Don’t we all? There’s a certain horrific thrill to witness someone add a cup of salt instead of sugar! Overall though, anything that encourages someone to go into their kitchen and have a go is great in my book. A homemade cake is a special thing, regardless of whether it looks like a show stopper or a show flopper.”
If you want to ensure your own sweet creations in the kitchen are also show stoppers, James suggests that you invest in a good recipe book from a shop or a baker with a noteworthy reputation.
“It’s no good doing a Google search for chocolate cake,” he says bluntly.
“Nothing online is assured or vetted, and generally it’s just random people posting untested recipes. The problem comes when your cake doesn’t turn out as people immediately believe they have done something wrong. Or that they are ‘just not a good baker’ It’s often not the case. The real secret of baking is that everyone can bake. You just need to follow a good recipe. Even the best bakers follow time-honoured recipes. There is no magic. Well, maybe a little magic.”
For more information on some of James’ marvellous cake creations, visit cakesbyjames.co.uk, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.