gowanus

victoria zagami

 

Great things were inevitable for this young baker from Staten Island. Taking over the family cake business, Made in Heaven Cakes, in her early 20's, she has turned it into everyone's go-to cake spot, even a little somebody called Oprah... Need we say more?

 
 

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Where did you grow up?
Staten Island. It’s pretty quiet and residential. My parents are from Brooklyn, and back then Staten Island was more like “the country”, they wanted us to grow up with a backyard.

At 18 I went to the Culinary School of America in upstate New York.

Was that super intense?
Yes, it’s a very strict 2-year program with a condensed curriculum. Every class is 3 weeks long, and it’s very difficult. You need to study a lot. We would start at 7am every morning in uniform. There are these things called “neck-ties”, they had to be tied super tight and everyone had to wear toques. It all had to be perfectly white, with no stains.

At the end of each 3-week class we had a 2-part final, written and baking. It was a great experience.

What did you have to make for your final exam?
One of my finals were cookies. You didn’t know what you had to make until that day. I got the hardest one, which were black and white cookies. They are checkered on top like a chessboard. It took me so much time!

The examiner checks the garbage for food waste, and I was running out of time so I just started eating cookie dough. The whole process is judged, even your cleanliness and your uniform. That’s why chefs wear white, it shows how experienced you are if you stay pristine and white.

 
 
I was having a drink and she came over and was like ‘what are we drinking?’ and I was like ‘watermelon margaritas’ and then she said ‘watermelon margaritas!’ I died.
 
 

Do you have to pass a test to get in?
You do. You have to have a year of work experience, and they also came to my high school and gave me a crazy hard test.

How did you already have a year of work experience at 18?
My parents actually started Made in Heaven Cakes, and I grew up working with them. I was in the kitchen all the time, so my work experience was here.

So you have 18 years of work experience! [Laughs]
Pretty much. When I graduated I went to Per Se and was a bread baker. I was trying to see where I fit in within the industry. After that I worked as a pastry chef, and then worked at Bouchon Bakery making macaroons. Then I decided that cakes were where it’s at, so I came back here.

How did you parents get into this business?
My grandfather actually had an Italian bakery in Little Italy; it’s in our veins! The area transitioned to Chinatown, and so he adapted and learned how to write Chinese on cakes. Mostly he did classic Italian pastries and cannolis. So my mom was always around the industry as she was growing up.

For my communion my mom made her very first cake. I helped her make it. Making the flowers for the top of cakes was like my play-dough growing up.

My mom saw this cake in a magazine that was gorgeous and was done by cake designer Colette Peters. It was from seeing this one cake that made my mom want to make beautiful cakes.

When I was in school I actually did my internship with Colette Peters, and we became friendly. We still have a really good relationship. I worked with her for a year; she’s been an idol for my entire family. Now she comes to our family BBQs, it’s really cool!

 
 

And what about your dad?
He was a baker too, before he even met my mom. He ran a very famous bakery in Brooklyn called Ebinger’s. Then he became a cop for 30 years.

What?
Yeah, I know. He was the “cream puff cop”, and would always go into work with cakes.

So you’ve taken over the family business?
Yep, I’ve taken over. We have a very small team of 2-3 people now.

Wow, you must work crazy hours.
Yes, it’s tough sometimes. Most recently though, I accomplished a huge goal, we were in Oprah’s magazine! It was so amazing. The creative director found the business, and wanted our cakes for his parents’ wedding anniversary. He loved them so much he started gifting them to people and got such great feedback. He asked us if we shipped our cakes, which we didn’t at the time, but after he asked a second time I taught myself the process and learned how to ship.

How do you even ship a cake?
It’s all custom packaging. It was challenging to figure out, but in the end it worked. We’ve shipped over 300 cakes so far.

It just caught on. Now Gayle King always orders our cakes.

Oprah’s best friend!
Then last week I went to heaven. I was asked to make the cake for the 15th anniversary party for Oprah’s magazine. When I went to drop off the cake, they asked me if I wanted to stay at the party.

I met her!

You met Oprah!
Yes I did. I almost died. I was having a drink and she came over and was like “what are we drinking?” and I was like “watermelon margaritas” and then she said “watermelon margaritas!” I died.

I’ll set these insane goals for myself and they happen. I said, “I’m going to be in Oprah’s magazine”, and I was.

What’s the next goal?
I want to be on TV. Not even me, just the cake. Maybe on a morning TV show. I really want to be on Ellen.

I LOVE Ellen.
I sent a cake to the producer last week, so we’ll see.

This particular flowerpot cake, was that your creation? How did it come about?
It was my creation. I was thinking about a unique gift item, people always get cupcakes and flowers. Let’s put the two together! Now if you’re sending a gift to someone you can send them flowers and a dessert.

 
 

How long did it take to get right?
Honestly I did it the first time.

Of course!
I made one for Eva Chen; the editor of Lucky Magazine and it was a success. News spread from there.

The base of the cake is slightly smaller, so at the start I was hand cutting them all. When I realized the demand was there I created a custom pan, which helps a lot. Overall the process took 1-2 months to get perfect.

How long does it take to make one flowerpot cake?
It’s a 2-3 day process. The flowers take about a day to make, another day to paint them and let them dry. The cakes have to be baked and then left to chill overnight so there is a nice crumb structure. Then I fill them with mousse or different fillings, ice them with butter cream. It chills again and is covered in fondant so it has a nice shape. The chocolate crumbs make the dirt, so that is made in advance as well.

I generally do a few at the time depending on orders.

Your parents must be so proud of what you’ve done with the business.
I think they think I’m crazy sometimes, but then stuff really happens, like Oprah!

Was it hard for them to let go of the business and trust you with it?
In the beginning definitely. You’re their child so of course they think you need help. Showing them that I could do it though impressed them, especially starting the online store and starting shipping.

This is amazing. Do you think you’ll be in New York for a while?
I’m not sure, I love to travel but it’s so hard to leave this. I’ve figured out a bit of a solution. I’m going to close for January and take the month to travel. A good friend of mine is in Japan running Sarabeth’s so I’ll go and visit her and get in their kitchen.

I do love being in this city though, where you can do anything, even trapeze as a hobby.

What? You trapeze?
Yes! I like to scare myself, it’s so much fun. I can do flips, I love it. I want to become experienced enough to do it without safety lines, but I’m not there yet. I can catch someone else, flip around and catch the bar again.

I feel slightly ill just hearing about it.

It’s amazing. The way you do it is put your 10 toes over the edge of the board, and the first time it’s scary when you have to reach out for the bar. You’re basically hanging off and you just have to let go.

 
 

You are doing amazing things! How do you like working in this area of Gowanus?
It’s gaining a good reputation, but it’s definitely up and coming. There are a lot of great restaurants opening.

I love Bergen Hill on Court St. It has a lot of raw seafood, which is yummy.

I love Frankie’s as well, and Clover Club. Really good cocktails!

What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
Set your goals. You have to know what you’re working for, and it will happen. Work hard and anything you want can happen.

Where is your favorite place to take visitors to New York?
Most recently it’s Brooklyn Bridge Park, and the bar Fornino.

Do you have a favorite New York moment?
Yes! When I was in the elevator taking the cake up to Oprah’s party. There was a security man helping me, and by the time we’d reached the floor I’d told them everything because I was so nervous. My favorite moment was being on the 36th floor, with Central Park views and a bar and Miss Winfrey walking in. It was insane!

What does New York mean to you?
Dreams. You can go so many places, do so many things, and help so many people. It’s unlimited. There are so many people around to give back to.

I created a lot of cakes for the photo-shoot for the website, I had 40 cakes so I called City Harvest after the shoot and they took them to different shelters around the city. Where else can you do that? If you were anywhere else the cakes might have gone to one place, but for a service to come and pick up the cakes and distribute them to so many people who would benefit from it is amazing. You need somewhere like New York to really do that.

madeinheavencakes.com

 

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