Living the Sweet Life, Literally! — Yolanda Gampp
Yolanda Gampp took the road less travelled to stardom, going from TV show SugarStars to the incredibly successful YouTube channel How to Cake It, which gained 1.5 million+ subscribers in its first year alone. And now, she’s done what she wanted to do from the start: publish a cookbook, How to Cake It: A Cakebook with more than 3 million subscribers behind her to date.
Interview By Rebecca Alberico
Photos by Robin Gartner
You know it well: that moment of bliss when you take fork to cake. The anticipation of what’s to come is so exhilarating, nothing else matters. And if novelty cake artist Yolanda Gampp is baking that cake, then one thing’s for sure: she will take simple ingredients and parlay them into masterpieces that will make your jaw drop. Not just because of their amazing taste, but because the cake might look like anything from a massive PB&J sandwich, a scary shark or a Star Wars figure to a fidget spinner, a lovely teapot or a watermelon made of pink velvet cake — or anything else you can dream of. And when you bite into a piece, it’s like a tasting a little bit of heaven.
IT STARTED WITH EGG CARTONS AND HER IDOL
As a child, Gampp wasn’t the kind of girl who liked going outside. Instead, she preferred arts and crafts. “My mother would save every empty paper towel roll and egg carton for me,” she says. “Then I couldn’t wait for Mr. Dressup to come on TV because he’d often make a craft and I would want to make it with him.” For her Barbies, she would transform empty spools of thread and cupcake liners into mini lamps, which she would perch on coffee tables made out of the little plastic thingies they put in the middle of a pizza boxes to stop the cheese from sticking to the top.
As for school, nothing ever really resonated with Gampp. In high school the culinary arts didn’t seem like an option — this was long before the Food Network, of course. But she knew she wanted to go into the arts, specifically OCAD in Toronto, where she lives. And then the universe intervened and directed her to chef school. “At the last minute, I decided to go to George Brown College and take the chef course — they had no cake decorating at that time, so I took culinary management, and it was probably the first time in school that I absolutely adored everything I learned,” says Gampp. At the time, there was a limited amount of baking in the course — some breads and pie — but that was enough for her. “It led me to realize that baking was my true passion.” She did a co-op in a bakery and they hired her right out of school.
Gampp is grateful for her father, her first idol. “He was always creative in his own right, but he did the right thing. He had a family business so that he could take care of the family and be the main breadwinner, but on the side, he always worked on his passion, which was woodworking,” she says. “He was self-taught, and one of the first things he ever made me was a wooden turntable that I could ice cakes on.” Just to see him pouring his heart into his passion, even though it didn’t make him any money, was very inspiring for her.
When it came time for Gampp to go to post-secondary school, her mother really wanted her to go to university. “She’s from a small island originally, Grenada, where she would never have had that opportunity, but she saved for me. But at the end of the day, I wanted to go to college and become a chef,” says Gampp. “It was my father who said to her, ‘Let Yolanda do what she wants to do.’ Inevitably, that’s what led me here.”
“I feel like a cookbook is permanent and helpful because I loved books when I was teaching myself: I’m really proud of it – it feels like another baby to me”
HER FIRST CAKE? MMMMM, LEMON WITH BUTTERCREAM
Gampp has baked thousands of cakes. Even before going to college, she knew she liked baking. She baked her first one for a family friend turning 90 — it was a lovely lemon cake with buttercream icing and the top edge lined with fresh raspberries. She asked her father to pick her a rose from the garden, which she sugared as a spectacular final decoration. “I was so proud of what I had created.”
In fact, like her father, Gampp is basically self-taught. Even though she worked at two bakeries and became very good at icing cakes quickly, she never worked. “The truth is that when I got very good at icing cakes, I felt bored and wanted to be challenged,” she says. Starved for information, she started buying books at the now-defunct Cookbook Store in Yorkville. When she read about cake decorating, some involving fondant, she was fascinated. She started practising at home and baking cakes on the side for friends and family, which grew into a small business. She continued to build her portfolio (“If you say to somebody, I can make a cake that looks like a car, how do they have proof unless they see a picture of that cake?”) and then, about 12 years ago, she made a cake for a birthday party. “I’ll never forget it: it was a box of chocolates and somebody saw it and asked if I made bar mitzvah cakes, I said, ‘Absolutely!’” So she started taking on bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs, wedding cakes and monumental birthday cakes, and eventually making it her full-time job and quitting the bakery.
FROM TV TO YOUTUBE
Gampp got a big break when she was approached by the creators of TV show SugarStars to create her cakes on camera. When the show wasn’t renewed, however, she went back to baking cakes, but then she became pregnant. “I had to stop making cakes because I had a severely swollen ankle, and I stand so much when I work — so I had to refer all my clients to people I met,” she says. “It was a rough time for me; I realized how much I missed my passion, and I think I had taken for granted the fact that a lot of people don’t get to do that.”
In the meantime, the show’s creators kept pitching the show, but weren’t getting any bites. But when Gampp’s son was about eight months old, Jocelyn Mercer and Connie Contardi called her with a YouTube idea. “They said, ‘Let’s do it ourselves and we’ll build this whole thing together.’ At the time I remember thinking, ‘Oh, what a great way to start again with a little video here and there,’ she says. It became much bigger than that and it happened much faster than any of them could have imagined — now they have more than three million subscribers to their channel, How to Cake It, with a new cake video coming out every Tuesday.
It’s a punishing schedule. “People have no idea — unless they have some experience — how long it takes to make a cake, and we take about 16 hours to shoot a video and then edit it down to a 12-minute one, so that gives you no perspective on how long it actually takes,” she says. But people have always had that misconception, she adds. “Even when I took cake orders, people would call the day before for a birthday cake that looked like a Porsche and couldn’t understand why I couldn’t whip that up in six hours!” she laughs.
In fact, Gampp takes many hours, and sometimes days, to create one of her cakes. The Lloyd cake from The Lego Ninjago Movie took her four days to make. “That cake stressed me out,” she says. “I’m not over it. I can’t lie. I can’t watch that video because my son is obsessed with Ninjago. All I could think was what if the cake doesn’t look like Lloyd?”
Does she ever just go home and bake? “No! I never have time now, and when I do, I want to spend it with my son,” she says. “I love baking pies and cookies, I love making homemade ice cream — that’s my favourite thing — but there’s a lot to keep up with.” In addition to the YouTube channel, there are all the social media platforms like Facebook, as well as the website (www.howtocakeit.com), that have to be managed.
Speaking of her four-year-old son, he thinks his mom has the coolest job in the world. “One of the biggest side effects is that he thinks everything is cake. So when he sees a real watermelon, he says, ‘Oh, a cake!’” she says. “I always show him the cakes, and he watches the episodes with my mother on her iPad, which I had to buy her just so she could watch YouTube (she has no idea how to use it otherwise).” He’s a chip off the block, and he loves to play with fondant, so Gampp brings home any extra for him, along with cutters and old rolling pins.
“I know I can’t do everything and I’m OK with that. I always feel like if something doesn’t work out, another door opens”
AND NOW, A BOOK!
One thing she’s really proud of is her cookbook, How to Cake It: A Cakebook, which is coming out this October. “It’s always been my biggest dream and now it’s happening,” she says. “I feel like a cookbook is permanent and helpful, because I loved books when I was teaching myself. I’m really proud of it — it feels like another baby to me.”
Her mission for the book was to make a lot of her bucket – list cakes. “I really just wanted to make beautiful cakes, and I want the photos to inspire people,” she says. “Because there are a lot of instructions for cakes at this level, and I didn’t want the words to intimidate people; I want them to be inspired when they see the pictures and think, I need to make that,” she says.
For Gampp, the best part of the book is that they have included some of her fans’ work. Every week, the show has a competition called Replicake, in which fans submit pictures of cakes they’ve made from one of Yolanda’s videos. “We were blown away; it was so flattering,” she says. “So we included some of these in the book.” And that is why Gampp can’t wait until her fans see it. “I can’t wait for the fans who made it into the book to see their work and feel proud and encouraged by that,” she adds.
THE SECRET TO HER SUCCESS
There are so many secrets to Gampp’s success, including a lot of hard work that she makes look easy in producing a new cake video every week. She’s comfortable in front of a camera, and it shows. She’s fun and bright and a little bit goofy sometimes. When she creates Lloyd from The Lego Ninjago Movie, for instance, she has no problem donning a ninja mask and openly admitting to mistakes (“I meant to cut it into three parts, but I cut it in half — but I didn’t let that throw me off. I just pieced it back together and cut it into three.”) She’s relaxed and funny, too, but most of all, she’s inspiring. She breaks down an incredibly difficult cake into achievable steps, doling out tips and encouragement along the way to make you think you can do it, too. And YouTubers respond with comments, sometimes in the thousands, like “The cake looks real!!!” “You should make a giant chipotle bowl,” “Can you make a peace sign cake?” or “Honey Yolanda, I would have eaten it halfway done.”
Now Gampp is simply grateful for her life. “I never thought such a big business would happen to me when I was a mother,” she says. “I was always the type of person who had it all planned out: I’m going to do this, then this, then that, then I’ll have a kid when I’m ready.”
But, she says, being a mom now gives her a great perspective: “The craziest thing about the Internet and YouTube is that you can always get bigger, you can always grow, you can always put out more content,” she adds. “But at the end of the day, I know I can’t do everything and I’m OK with that. I always feel like if something doesn’t work out, another door opens.”
What’s your favourite cake?
I used to make chocolate banana, which was alternating layers of my Ultimate Chocolate Cake and my Banana Cake (both recipes available at www.HowtoCakeIt.com), but I would alternate the layers and fill it with vanilla Italian buttercream. There’s something about it; it’s so perfect to me. It’s like having the perfect banana bread — but then, with some chocolate but the chocolate doesn’t overpower it. It’s amazing!
What’s your favourite drink?
Coffee! I really love a good cup of coffee, especially with a slice of chocolate banana cake. And I think when you drink coffee with something sweet, it’s very complementary.
How much cake have you consumed in your life?
I honestly can’t even answer that. Somewhere in the tons. I actually love eating the hump of the cake when I level my cakes, and that was always what I ate when I levelled my cakes for clients because, otherwise, that would just get discarded. Or I would make tiny little cakes out of the hump for my mom, my sister and my friends.
What is your favourite cake of those you’ve created onHow to Cake It?
It’s my roast Thanksgiving turkey one. However, there are a few cakes in the book that I really love and am really proud of!
What was your most memorable vacation?
This past summer I turned 40 and my husband surprised me with a trip to Iceland. That was our family trip; all three of us went. To see a gorgeous part of the world like that, with my son, was so amazing.
Jumbo Candy Apple
Whenever I walk by a display of candy apples, I always stop to look —there’s just something about the colours and textures that catches my attention. So I thought it would be fun to show you how to cake a jumbo one. What I love most about this cake is that there’s so much room to get creative with it. You can dress it up for a theme or a season by adding a different coloured ribbon or bows to the stick, just like real candy apples. Or, if you’re giving it as a gift, you can decorate it with the recipient’s favourite colours and candies.
Most of my novelty cakes are covered in fondant, but I love how with this cake, in addition to fondant that makes it look like a real apple, we use chocolate and candy to enhance the outside to make it look like the real thing — and to add a ton of yummy flavour. And the other thing that makes it the apple of my eye? It’s still a pretty easy design to cake — so it will help you improve your carving skills. In fact, the hardest part about making this cake is trying not to eat all the toppings before you’re done.
Recipes and photo from How to Cake It by Yolanda Gampp ©2017. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.
location: Chateau Le Parc
wardrobe styling by Zara
Hair and Makeup by Mark Jordy Gonzales / Judy Inc.
Handmade coloured glass mosaic tiles customized by Flora Di Menna Designs and Supplied by Cercan Tiles