Monday, November 19, 2018
Amber Vander Vliet always knew she was going to own a bakery. At 16, she was clocking in at 5 a.m. for an East Bay pastry internship at Lafayette Park Hotel; in college, she was icing cakes at the Utopia Bakery between business courses at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. Even when Vander Vliet’s career path veered into the world of corporate design, the allure of spun sugar and butter was too heady to ignore.
“I hadn’t baked for years, and one article made the desire come flooding back,” she recalled, describing her decision 10 years ago to fill a vintage trailer with test kitchen cupcakes and haul it over to a neighborhood winery in Los Olivos. That afternoon, Enjoy Cupcakes was born.
A decade later, Vander Vliet is the Central Coast’s go-to artisan for all things baked and beguiling, known for impeccably designed cakes swirled and studded with naturally dyed frostings and filled with fresh fruit curds and velvety mousses. Her petite versions hold court in her Los Olivos and Santa Barbara cupcakeries, while she navigates upwards of 200 wedding cake orders a year — not to mention another staggering 800 special-occasion cake orders for everything from anniversaries to retirements — in an offsite commercial kitchen.
“People always ask me how I stay fit being around cake all day,” she laughed. “But when you bake at the level we do, it’s a serious workout.”
The life of a professional baker is an unrelenting exercise in premeditation and discipline, with grueling hours that begin just as the most dedicated clubgoers are tucking themselves in for the night. Armed with meticulous organizational skills and a formidable work ethic, Vander Vliet adheres to a demanding daily routine that belies her easygoing demeanor. “Amber is a machine,” emphasized husband Kevin Vander Vliet, before adding, “What she does, creating hundreds of personalized experiences that she can never duplicate, is pure artistry.”
Here, we peek inside of Amber’s sleek, industrial kitchen and plunge into her butter-fueled world to experience a day in the life of an artisan baker.
4:00 a.m.: With no one but the Great Horned owls to greet her, Amber strides out of her Los Olivos home with a triple latte in one hand and a detailed spreadsheet of the day’s batch sizes in the other. Her commercial kitchen is a breezy 10-minute drive away, and with five hours of sleep behind her, she ties on her apron and dives in. “We don’t own a freezer, so everything is prepared, baked, and stored on a specific schedule,” she explains. Today is Thursday — cake order day — and she has 15 specialty cakes that need decorating.
6 a.m.: Amber’s two assistant bakers arrive, rolling up their sleeves to bake off the day’s cupcake and cookie inventory for both store locations. Working fast, they fill, frost, and organize six weekly flavors that reflect the season’s Farmers Market bounty. The aroma of churning butter and brûlée’d fruit floats through the kitchen, and after four intense hours, rows of berry-topped and caramel-drizzled confections line every corner of a metal production table.
10 a.m.: Packaged and wrapped, stacks of cookie sandwiches, cupcakes, and cookie dough balls are ready to be shipped off. Half will line the cases of Enjoy Cupcakes’ Los Olivos outpost in the Saarloos and Sons Winery & Tasting Room, while the remainder will head down to the Santa Barbara Public Market with Kevin, where he manages the counter most days, overseeing the company’s retail division.
Noon: Bookended by giant bowls of pillowy frosting and vibrant fruit chutneys, Amber is in the throes of a cake-decorating marathon, piping and crumb-coating a series of flawlessly shaped layer cakes. With choreographic ease, she glides back and forth from refrigerator to work table, adding pastel rosettes and fanciful chocolate waves to cakes of varying heights and themes. “It’s more fun when we get emotional cues about an occasion rather than specifics about flavor and design,” she confides. “It pushes us to try new things.”
5 p.m.: The clang of pots and pans making their way into the dishwasher signals the end of the day. Counters get scrubbed, bowls are tightly sealed and stored, and trays get tucked back into cupboards. Amber might stay on a little longer to develop a few new seasonal flavors (she has over 500 in her recipe catalog at the moment) or try to get a run in before heading home.
“I really don’t mind the long hours,” she says thoughtfully. “Sure, there might be a few tears, lack of sleep some days, and maybe I’ll have a headache by Sunday. But the smiles on people’s faces when they see our cakes…,” she trails off.
I take a bite of her Chocolate Blackberry Syrah cupcake and smile in agreement.
Enjoy Cupcakes can be found inside the S.B. Public Market (38 W. Victoria St.) and inside Saarloos & Sons at 2971 Grand Ave. in Los Olivos. Call 455-4115 or see enjoycupcakes.com.