When we last spoke in a Close-up with our February site artist, Evelin Milanesi, it was August 2014 and she had only been decorating cookies for two years, yet she was on the cusp of heading to Genoa, Italy for Cookie’sCool, the first international cookie decorating convention. Those event organizers had clearly recognized Evelin’s unusual cookie talents, just as we had on Cookie Connection. Evelin was our second site member to reach “Cookie Queen” status for having amassed 100,000 activity points due, in large part, to the many, many views her cookie posts attracted. She was also a finalist in Cookie Connection’s Cookiers’ Choice Awards in 2014, and is a two-time winner of our Cookier of the Year award, both in 2015 and 2016. Her work has, of course, been lauded by other organizations as well. You can read more about those awards in her bio in her February site artist forum post.
Evelin lives in Milan, Italy, and she is 48 years old. After 25 years of painting on canvas and working on huge mural decorations, she started her cookie journey in 2012. In the beginning, cookies were just a whim and a hobby for her, but, in a few months, they became a new way of life and source of work. (Evelin's early cookies were much like her recent landscape cookie below, insofar as they demonstrated her insane painting skills!) Most of Evelin's time back in 2014, and even today, is spent teaching cookie decorating classes.
I haven’t seen Evelin since we first met at Cookie’sCool, and we’ve only touched base here and there online since, so I am super eager to catch up with her in this interview. We’ll talk about how both her cookie and teaching work have evolved, especially since COVID, and what new plans she has to wow the cookie world!
JMU: Hi, Evelin! It’s so great to reconnect with you here today, and I sure hope we get the opportunity to cookie together again in person one day soon. I’m going to jump right into this interview by asking about your teaching. Back in 2014, you were traveling mostly to Italian decorating schools to teach four-hour hands-on classes to groups of up to eight students. Did you continue to teach all the way through COVID, and how, if at all, did you modify your teaching approach to deal with the pandemic?
EM: Hi, Julia! I am so happy to reconnect with you after a long time. I am sure we’ll meet up once again one day or another. It would be great! Yes, before COVID, I was teaching group classes, mostly in my city, Milan, almost every weekend. Nowadays, my hands-on classes are still frozen, as long as the pandemic is not completely resolved.
JMU: Gosh, I am so sorry to hear that your in-person classes have stalled, though that's completely understandable. Have you explored moving into online classes at all? If so, how are they structured (platform, length, number of students, price, etc.) and how have they worked for you? If you haven't explored online classes, why not?
EM: In May 2020, I started offering online cookie lessons via Zoom. Price and time change every time depending on the techniques, theme, and difficulty of the class. I feel very comfortable using this platform, and I realize day by day that these online lessons are better than group classes for many reasons, both for me and for students.
JMU: I agree – I have found online classes to be wonderful in so many ways. I feel they’re almost more personal than in-person classes (students do a lot of sharing of their work progress in my classes). What’s more, anyone anywhere can join, and I don’t have to pack up tons of tools in suitcases and schlep them on planes. Yay!
It seems that, here in the US, more and more cookiers are trying to get into teaching these days – perhaps because they see it as more lucrative than selling cookies. In addition, they are often teaching fairly elaborate cookies and not charging much ($25 to $35 USD for a few-hour online class). Have you witnessed this same trend in Italy? And, if so, how has the added competition affected your cookie teaching business, if at all?
EM: In Italy, it is different, I think. We don’t have cookiers that only sell cookies. Italian customers ask for cakes and complete sweets tables, not only cookies. These businesses probably had a stop during the first months of the pandemic, but now their businesses are, if conceivable, bigger than before COVID. People want to come back to celebrating all events and living their lives! I have also noticed that here there are a lot of cheap online classes about cookie and cake decorating, but they are mostly entertaining demos rather than real informative lessons.
JMU: Teaching has been your livelihood for eight years now. Even without COVID, I imagine your teaching style or approach has evolved. Would you say this is true, and, if so, how has your teaching style or approach changed, and why did you decide to make those changes?
EM: I have completely changed my way of teaching, and now offer a different kind of service to the cookie market. My online lessons are only for individuals and are fit to each student like a glove. Because students are so heterogeneous, I prefer to teach each person step by step according to his/her own particular needs.
JMU: Interesting. I'm doing exactly the opposite (taking more people in my online classes), because there still seems to be a large demand for virtual learning, and then many sign up but don't attend live. It seems many prefer to watch the class recordings later.
On another note: What is the most challenging or difficult part of teaching for you, and how do you work to overcome those challenges?
EM: The most challenging part of teaching online for me is to understand all of the different shades of English. In some countries, English pronunciation sounds weird to me, and it's generally hard for Europeans to understand. It usually takes me at least one hour before I get into the rhythm of understanding what is being said. This part is so challenging, but also pleasantly instructive.
JMU: What is the most gratifying part of teaching for you, and how do you work to assure that those gratifying moments outweigh the challenging parts?
EM: My students have always been very supportive and lovely over the years, but now one-on-one teaching is even better. The human part of my job is the most gratifying ever. Every day, I receive beautiful greetings and private messages from many of my students. It is absolutely heartwarming. Last Christmas, my living room was overflowing with nice gifts from many of them - so cute!
JMU: Wow, that is nice! Thank goodness you're getting the affirmation you deserve! As COVID travel and other restrictions ease across the world, are you planning to venture beyond Italy to teach classes? Why or why not?
EM: I almost lost my husband in April 2020 and had many losses because of COVID, so I pay a lot of attention to rules and restrictions. I have decided that, until the pandemic is completely gone, I’ll go on teaching online only.
JMU: Oh no, I am so sorry to hear about your husband, and I hope he is not suffering from any long-term consequences of having had COVID. Staying close to home is probably wise. I have just ventured back into traveling to teach, and I must say that it's a bit more nerve-racking than before. Travel is complicated by needing to get COVID tests before (and sometimes after) entering each country. To leave Australia in a week, I need to travel to the airport for a COVID test right after I finish packing up from my last class; then I return to the hotel for a few hours to sleep (maybe?) before I have to be back at the airport to check in for my flight to the US at 4 am. It was always rough to travel with a kithen-load of tools, but the added testing requirements make travel even rougher. But I digress . . .
As you’re a veteran teacher, I'm sure you’ve got plenty of helpful tips for those hoping to become cookie decorating teachers. What three things would you tell aspiring teachers they should do if they want to be successful in the teaching business?
EM: My suggestions are very simple: (1) be generous; (2) be kind; and (3) be patient. After many years of teaching, I understand that the teacher’s behavior is much more important than her skills. I always try to "gift" an experience - not just a cookie class, but a little journey that allows people to discover a different view of themselves. Most of them are talented artists and didn’t know that about themselves!
JMU: Great advice! You are SO right. The teacher's mood and attitude can so completely make or break a class and the overall learning experience.
And, now, the corollary to my previous question: What three things would you tell aspiring teachers they absolutely should not do?
EM: I am sure there are no wrong things to do when approaching teaching for the first time. Something that can be good for someone could be bad for another, so simply being yourself will be positive and well-accepted. That said, I was scared during my very first classes that I wouldn't finish on time, so it is very important to frequently check the clock, and possibly to offer simpler designs when just starting out.
JMU: Now, let’s talk about your own cookie art and style for a bit. Do you find it challenging, year after year, to keep coming up with ideas to feed the interests of your many followers? Do you actively challenge yourself to come up with new and different work, and how do you come up with those ideas?
EM: We all are so bombarded all day long by images and videos that sometimes it is definitely too much. This abundance of information can block our creativity and inspiration. I’ve learned that it is better not to force my art, but to patiently wait for new ideas to come at the right moment. I find inspiration literally everywhere, and I have tried to do my best over the years not to be repetitive or boring by working to come up with new designs.
JMU: When you first started in 2014, you were probably best known for your intricately painted and piped cookies, often presented in small sets of three to four cookies like the set above (presumably because those sets were taught in your classes). Are painting and piping still your go-to decorating methods, and do you still decorate largely to create sets for classes? Or have you found that your style, favorite techniques, and/or approach have evolved over time? If so, how have these things evolved and why? That is, did you make a conscious choice to change things up? For instance, I’ve observed a noticeable trend in your posts toward more involved cookie presentations involving LOTS of cookies. How did this styling approach come about?
EM: Yes, of course, my three-cookie sets were intended to be taught. I still love doing small cookie sets, but sometimes I like to try new designs and displays. In the beginning of each month or for seasonal themes, I now love to experiment with layouts involving 70 to 80 mini cookies per picture. This styling came about as I was thinking about how to "greet" each new month with cookies in a fun way. Royal icing miniatures are a super-fun new approach to cookie art that I absolutely adore. I am not a baker; I am an artist, so the playful part of my job is very important to me.
JMU: I can see that! And you play well! As you look back on the ten years you’ve been in the cookie business, what would you say have been the biggest changes you’ve seen in the business as whole, both in Italy and worldwide? And would you say these changes have been good or not so good for cookiers and the business, and why?
EM: Ten years ago, I remember that this beautiful cookie world was like a white canvas to paint on. There were only a few admirable strokes on it. Everybody admired and respected cookiers who had created new techniques and shared their skills with everyone. Nowadays, the feeling is more like being in the middle of a jungle where everyone seems to have their own rules. Styles are not as defined anymore; it is almost impossible to distinguish new cookiers from other cookiers.
JMU: I hear you. It can be overwhelming now - with all the cookie posts out there, and so many jumping into the game. Yet, the tremendous growth in cookie decorating also means that our first teachers - such as you - have succeeded in what they initially set out to do. I hope you derive some gratification from knowing that you have influenced so many.
What things do you like most about how the cookie business has evolved in the ten years you’ve been in it, and why?
EM: I like everything about the cookie world, especially the huge number of techniques and trends that seem to be endless - it's never boring! Thanks to social media, we all are more connected than ever. Many cookie friendships were born during these past ten years, and they are now priceless to me.
JMU: And the corollary to my previous question: What things do you like least about how the cookie business has evolved, and why?
EM: Probably it is because I am 48 years old, but I feel a lot of pressure coming from social media. Everything changes so fast and so radically that it is bothersome to constantly learn new things. Taking care of our social media accounts is so critical to selling cookies or teaching cookie art that it has become huge work - almost a second full-time job!
JMU: I hear you once again. In recent weeks, I have averaged over 12 hours of screen time per day. I was shocked when my phone regurgitated that data to me. Granted, I am building a new website, but . . . I need to get back to living in the here and now.
Now, my last question, which is the same one with which I ended your 2014 Close-up: Looking forward three years from now, what’s next for you? What one thing would you most like to accomplish in the cookie world? And beyond the cookie world?
EM: This question is not easy at all. I always love to say, "Let’s wait and see; the best is yet to come!"
JMU: And I am sure it will! I look forward to seeing how your cookie life continues to develop. Thanks so much for putting so much of yourself into this interview! I really enjoyed catching up!
Cookie and photo credits: Evelin Milanesi
Cookier Close-ups is the place on Cookie Connection where we celebrate the change-makers of the cookie decorating world. Whether forging new enterprises, inventing novel decorating techniques, or consistently charming us with their cookie decorating prowess, each of our featured thought leaders has redefined in his/her distinctive way how we interact, create, or otherwise do business here in cookie space!
If there are other cookiers you'd really like to get to know, please post requests in this forum. We'll do our best to round them up for an upcoming Cookier Close-up! Thanks!