All Photos by Patty Michels
I first found out about cake artist Michele McAtee through a friend, appropriate, because that’s also how McAtee began her business: word of mouth from friend to enthusiastic friend. As the owner of Maddiebird Bakery, McAtee works out of Metropolis Coffee Company, designing cakes and cupcakes for all manner of occasion. Not only did she speak with Our Town about her company’s origin and possible future, but she also gave me four cupcakes. I will never be the same.
Our Town Actor to baker--logical trajectory?
Michele McAtee Well, no. But what both careers did and do for me was to provide me with an artistic outlet. I wanted to be a visual artist when I was a little girl, but right around high school, around that time when I really started to grapple with tough emotional growing-up stuff--identity stuff--I was drawn into the theatre world. I loved pretending to be someone else. It was a great escape. It was never a question that I would major in Theatre and after graduating from Northwestern, go into theatre as a profession. For fifteen years after graduation, I was fortunate [to] work professionally here in Chicago and regionally. However, my priorities and perspective changed steadily and significantly, and by the time I became pregnant with my daughter, I pretty much knew I was done. I finally decided after all the years of trying to pursue roles and portray characters and tell stories written, directed, and cast by other people for other people, I wanted to tell my own story and just be myself, whoever that was. It was during that first year of new motherhood that I went through this total identity crisis and eventually reconnected to the visual artist inside.
OT What makes baking a creative outlet?
MM I find baking very scientific, and mathematical. It's basically chemistry--tasty chemistry. The designing and decorating is where my creativity thrives. I remember when I first started seriously doing this I told my husband, “I just don’t really feel like a baker, though, you know?” And he said, “You’re not a baker. You’re a “cake artist.” You bake your canvases. And they just happen to taste real good.”
OT The first cake you baked was for your daughter. Can you talk about that experience?
MM As Maddie's first birthday approached in May of 2010, I decided I was going to make Maddie’s cake myself. I’d never decorated a cake in my life. I didn't even own a mixer; I borrowed my friend’s KitchenAid by dragging it in a big red wagon down the block to my house. I started looking online for recipes, and then decorating ideas, and that’s how I discovered what fondant was, where to get it, and how to work with it. It became a real project, and I loved it. The best part was that it really ended up being as lovely, adorable and spirited as Maddie herself. And it tasted pretty good, too. Our friends who were at the party were impressed, if not totally perplexed, that I’d made the cake myself, and started asking me to do their cakes. Word got around and soon enough, total strangers were contacting me, asking if I could do a cake for them. I was just as surprised as anyone else that I had any kind of talent or skill at baking or decorating cakes.
OT So you learned on the fly. What was that like for you?
MM When I started making cakes for friends, they’d tell me what they wanted, and I just said “yes.” Then, I’d totally freak out because I had no idea how I was going to pull it off! Eventually, after some experimentation, I’d figure it out and make it happen for them. There’s a small sense of pride I feel in that learning process, but I wish I’d had a mentor or been someone’s apprentice because it would have saved me a lot of anxiety, grief and self-doubt. The only baker in my family was my grandmother Virginia, for whom Madeline is named. I never got to know Virginia, she died when I was six months old. I like to think that whatever talent I have for baking is a gift from her.
OT Do you design your cakes? Work with clients to fulfill their designs? Can you talk about that a little?
MM I personally design my cakes and welcome as much or as little input as my clients would like to give me. Sometimes, people send me pictures of cakes they’ve found online that they’d like me to duplicate, and I won’t do that. I don’t like being influenced by other people’s work when I’m designing a cake. When people get excited about a cake and share their ideas and images, it really helps me design and glean as much as I can about the person I’m making it for--that’s important to me, too. And sometimes, clients have a flavor in mind but no clue as to design, and they’ll put complete trust in me.
OT What’s been your most triumphant baking moment to date?
MM My “Where The Wild Things Are” cake for a little boy’s first birthday. It was three tiers, covered in homemade fondant, and told the story of Max and the Wild Things. A lot of things came together for me technically and artistically with that cake, and I was very proud of it. I teared up when I left it at the venue!
OT What are your future hopes for your company?
MM I’d love to have a small storefront someday. That’s my dream. I can see it in my mind, the café tables and chairs, the fixtures, the display cases. I envision a place where the folks can gather for a sweet and my daughter can come straight from school with her friends, have a glass of milk and a cupcake and tell me about her day.
To learnmore about Maddiebird Bakery visit www.maddiebird.com or follow Michele on Twitter.
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," (Soft Skull press) is available for pre-order here. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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