Local working mom and cancer survivor Jamie Li thrives in her second career making dazzling, high-concept desserts.
By Sophia Markoulakis
As a custom cake artist, Jamie Li is accustomed to racing against the clock, but not one set by YouTube baking sensation Rosanna Pansino. As a rising “caker” and working mother of three under five in San Mateo, Li is in the habit of budgeting her time and energy; but competing on HBO Max Original’s episodic baking competition, Baketopia, was a whole different level of frenetic pace.
In the half-hour episode, which taped in December 2020 and premiered this past March, Li competed against two other bakers and won $1,000 in the first cake-tier challenge. The judges were impressed with her remote control-operated chocolate mousse space ship cake with an isomalt dome. Pansino commented that, “Jamie is using techniques that I’ve never seen before.”
That’s not bad for a former beauty and cosmetic executive who only began baking on a whim 10 years ago when a friend asked Li to make her a cake.
“I’d only ever made cupcakes once before, and I ended up making a three-tier cake with made-from-scratch fondant. Like everything else I do, I figured, go big or go home,” she says of her inaugural cake.
The professional and emotional growth Li experienced over the last decade — from baking as a pastime in her tiny San Francisco kitchen to her success as a sought-after cake artist — is a testament to her ability to pivot and thrive in the face of adversity.
Origins, Inspiration & Clorox-themed cakes
Initially, baking became an escape for Li, first from her stressful job, then when she was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer while 12 weeks pregnant with her first child. Li credits the creative outlet of “caking” for helping her get through that time. (Today, Li is five years cancer-free and offers this advice: “Feel your boobs every month, because you never know.”)
Soon after she completed treatment, she enrolled in a Cakes and Composition course at the San Francisco Baking Institute, which convinced her that this could really turn in to something.
“I felt like I was in my element, being surrounded by professional bakers,” Li realized at the time.
For the next few years, Li continued to hone her skills, baking during the weekends and evenings while still working full time and growing her family.
In late 2019, a colleague mentioned to Li that she should post pictures of her cakes on Instagram. Within days, she was fielding a flurry of requests, and by January 2020 she had left her full-time job and was starting a new chapter as a cake designer.
Then, the pandemic hit.
“Things were going great during the first three months, but then everything stopped with the shelter in place. All my orders were cancelled. But, after about three weeks, tiny quarantine cake orders began to trickle in,” says Li. “I made a bunch of toilet paper roll and Clorox wipes [themed] cakes, which helped people get through the pandemic.”
Making smaller cakes during her first year in business ended up being a gift, as it allowed Li to broaden and refine her craft. Soon, Li’s Instagram account attracted the producers at HBO, and they reached out via the platform to see if she was interested in auditioning for a spot as a contestant on Baketopia. Li was also solicited by a few other networks like the Food Network, but she decided to work with HBO due to their flexibility.
“Having three kids, that opportunity was great because I would only have to be gone for one week. I also appreciated the fact that it was a friendly competition, which is what I wanted. The world is too crazy right now,” she says. “I didn’t respond right away since I’m more of a ‘behind the camera’ person, but the creative freedom they allowed was too good to pass up.”
The Rise of a “Cake Stalker”
Li’s colorful, geometric cakes take many hours to create, and that doesn’t include time spent conceptualizing the design before the baking begins. “I call myself a cake stalker, because I will think of nothing else but your cake, whether it is three weeks away or three months away,” Li admits. “I’m constantly iterating in my head.”
The process of commissioning a cake starts with a phone consultation and a few subsequent email exchanges for Li to get a sense of the type of cake the client is envisioning.
“I need inspiration to jump-start the design process. I love hearing stories behind the cake the client wants,” she says. “I want the recipient to ‘see’ memories described to me that might not be visible to everyone else.”
Each cake is similar to a commissioned art piece, and she’s game for pretty much any request, even a savory cake using unusual materials. “I recently had a client ask for a pork floss (dried, shredded pork) cake. I had no idea what it was, but when I tried it, I saw the possibilities. I ended up making a brown butter sponge, layered with pork floss and a light vanilla Chantilly cream,” says Li. Commissions start at $500 and can exceed $3,000, depending on the design’s complexity, ingredients and size. The average wait time for a cake is eight weeks. Li is currently booked through October.
At times, it still surprises her — doing the cake thing — and she readily admits she never owned an Easy-Bake Oven (though she did love to work with Play-Doh).
“When I first started, I was having dinner with some former co-workers, and I said, ‘I never thought I’d be doing this.’ They said, ‘This is no surprise to us. Every time we would have lunch meetings, the conversation would always jump to food.’ And here I am now,” Li reflects. “My past, as a make-up artist and sales executive, helped propel this new chapter, and I think it also helped shape my whimsical, yet modern, aesthetic. I am obsessed with clean lines like the perfect cat eye and the perfect red lip.”
Li feels strongly about community, whether it’s San Mateo’s Bay Meadows where she lives and works or her newfound baking community. As a fourth-generation Asian American, she reached out to said baking community when the stress of #AAPI hate became too much.
“Being Asian American myself, especially being the daughter of a United States Marine captain, I didn’t know where to put my anger until I watched news coverage of a 75-year-old woman who was a hate-crime victim. My mother is 75, and that segment hit me so hard that the next morning, I woke up and blindly started my fundraiser,” Li says. (To date, JamieCakesSF has raised over $27,000 for Stop AAPI Hate organizations.)
Whether she is driving a new fundraiser or dazzling judges on a cooking show, Li tries to use her baking as a way to spread positivity. While Li was racing around the set of Baketopia, searching for an object to build her cake around, she found a globe-shaped light that reminded her of her children and their family traditions. Her multi-tier cake was topped with her rendition of Chang’e, the Chinese moon goddess, holding the moon.
“My daughters love moon cakes and the Autumn Moon Festival. Whenever there’s a full moon, we love looking out the window, and we talk about what we see,” says Li. “I’d like to see a world without hate because our future depends on it.”
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