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Live Chat with Shelby Bower of Shelby Elizabeth Cakes

Hi, Shelby! It's great to have you here today to talk about cookie and other competitions! You are quickly becoming an expert on competing, judging from your competition success over the last few years!
Welcome to everyone joining us as well! Before we get into Shelby's competition history, some quick housekeeping notes about these chats!

First, questions are answered in the order received, but they will not post to the public/viewable area of the chat until Shelby reads and answers them. We'll work through questions that were logged in advance first; then start working on questions asked live during the chat.

That said, please be patient and do not re-post the same question. It may take some time to answer your question, depending on where it sits in the queue. But I will personally make sure every question gets answered before we're through.
Second, please ask just one question at a time (per post); it's easier for our guests to keep up and others to read the chat transcript if they're not hit with too many questions at once. Thanks!
Okay, we're ready to REALLY begin! While you're formulating your questions for Shelby, I'm going to post a list of cookie competitions she's entered - and won - along with some photos of those competition pieces. I suspect this info will generate lots of questions.

Please also note that Shelby's bio can be found under the "i" icon at the top of this chat room.
Since starting to compete in 2017, Shelby has won many awards and honors, including these favorites of hers:
  • LA CookieCon, 2017, judged by world-renowned baker and reality star Duff Goldman (World Grand Dessert Table Champion)
  • Julia M. Usher's Cookie Competition, Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show (OSSAS), 2017 (Second Place)
  • That Takes the Cake, 2018, judged by Nicholas Lodge and Mike McCarey (Best of Show, First Place in Individual Sculpted Cakes, Cake Innovator Award, People's Choice Award, and Second Place in Gravity-Defying Cakes)
  • Julia M. Usher's Cookie Competition, Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show (OSSAS), 2018 (Second Place)
  • Food Network Contestant, Halloween Wars, Zesty Zombies, 2018 (Second Place Finalist)
  • Frosting Creators of San Antonio, 2018 (First Place in Masters Sculpted Cakes)
  • Big Top Cake Competition, Southern Food & Beverage Museum, 2018 (First Place and Best of Show)
  • SoFlo Cake and Candy Expo, 2018 (Second Place in Sculpted Cakes)
  • Sugar Geek Show Booth, SoFlo Cake and Candy Expo, 2018 (Demonstration of sugar showpiece)
  • Cover cake for American Cake Decorating Magazine, December 2018
  • Food Network Contestant, Wedding Cake Championship, 2019
The above list is looong, so I'll give you some time to read it!
Impressive, right??! Now, here's a photo of her second-place entry at my competition at OSSAS in 2017 . . .
And a close-up view of that bathing beauty . . .
She also won second place at my competition at OSSAS in 2018 with this entry . . .
I'll post more of Shelby's cookie photos in a bit, but, first, I'd like to kick things off with a question . . .
SHELBY: You were traveling and unfortunately unable to enter my competition at Show Me Sweets a few weeks ago. But, if you had entered, can you give us an idea of how you would have tackled its "Dream Adventure" theme? How would you have gone about formulating a concept to fit this theme, and what do you think that concept might have been?
JULIA M. USHER: I was so sad that I could not enter this year! I am looking forward to the next competition. I have a definite formula I follow for creating competition pieces.

First, I read all the rules carefully and decide the size limitations of the competition; this makes it easier for me to brainstorm designs. Then I make a list of different ideas. For "Dream Adventure", my list might look something like . . . exploring a hidden castle, hot air balloon ride, deep sea voyage, or magical cave adventure.

Then I would research each idea and think of the main things that would stand out for each one. So, a deep sea voyage might include a 3-D pirate ship cookie and 3-D sea monster. Then I would sketch out each idea. Whichever idea excites me the most to sketch would be the one I go with. I usually have one or two that I can think of endless details to add.

When I sketch a design, I like to be over the top; then I tone it down to what is more manageable as an edible art piece. (Especially considering transportation if it's out of state.)

This was such an awesome theme, I am so jealous I could not compete! I think a cute spelunker girl with a map and headlamp in a cookie cave full of crystals, mushrooms, and hidden monsters would have been a blast to create.
Hi, Donna! We're working through advance questions now!
If you have any to add, just type them at the bottom of the chat page, and . . .
we'll get to them in a bit!
Hi, Sandra! Welcome!
SHELBY: You also run a bakery in addition to spending a considerable time competing. How do you go about juggling these two time-intensive activities?
Long answer coming; will give you all some time to read . . .
JULIA M. USHER: I am all over the place. I usually have a lot of different things going on at once. I like to pretend that I am going to start extra early on a competition piece, but usually the reality is that I only start a few weeks prior. One day I am going to start a few months ahead! Then I will really be able to create something extraordinary.

I typically have my year planned out in advance, and I decide which competitions I am going to enter for the year; then I schedule my cake orders around the competitions. I am lucky that I do not get a lot of last-minute cake orders; usually my orders are a few months in advance, which gives me an advantage when it comes to time management.
That's why I love the specialty and wedding cake businesses; people really do plan ahead, which makes for easier work scheduling!
Long question coming up next . . .
SHELBY: You are incredibly gifted in sugar art of all kinds. I swooned over your portfolio and was so glad you were able to find your super powers at a young age.

When you enter a competition do you ever consider who's judging when designing your piece? You incorporated so many high-level techniques into your bathing lady; it’s a piece that appeals to every taste because it is so beautifully executed. Where do you find your design inspiration? Do you create a list of "must be includeds” in your sketches?

I’m sorry I won’t be here for the chat but was compelled to stop by and give you a huge congratulations for your successes and wish you many more.

I’ll look forward to reading the transcript. Thank you for being here, and to Julia for what I’m sure will be a wonderful chat.
TINA AT SUGAR WISHES: Thank you so much, Tina! I do take into consideration the judges. When I research the competition, I make sure that I read all the rules very carefully and find out who is judging. If the information is available, I look up the judges to see what their work looks like. This just helps me to see what they value in a piece.

I also make a list of the techniques that I want to incorporate. I don't let who is judging decide what I am creating, but knowing who the judges are helps me come up with what techniques I use to create my design. If that makes sense . . . I have a very vivid imagination, so usually I spark some ideas right away; then I write them down and go from there. I could sit and daydream all day! I have notebooks full of edible art designs that I haven't created yet!
SHELBY: It's so interesting to hear you say that you research the judges, and, particularly, that you consider their work an expression of what they might value in a competition piece. That strategy has clearly worked for you, but, as a judge, I am more often drawn to pieces in which I can't see my influence or not much of it. I like to see entrants take established techniques and translate them into something that is uniquely theirs, or to attempt entirely "new" techniques or ideas that I haven't seen before. These folks are the ones who score highest on originality and creativity when I judge.

BTW, "new" is in quotes, because what's "new" to one may not be "new" to another, and, if you look hard enough, most "new" ideas are not really "new". But, I think you catch my drift . . . top winners always push the boundaries of what's expected.
JULIA M. USHER I agree, let me give an example to explain myself better. When I was competing at That Take The Cake in 2018 I found out that Mike Mcarey was a judge. This gave me an idea of what caliber of sculpting he would be impressed by. So I knew I wanted to include a gravity defying element extreme enough that he would appreciate. This helped me figure out what techniques to use but the end product didn't looked like something he would create, more something he would enjoy looking at, if that make sense? I definitely agree that experimenting and coming up with new exciting techniques or styles is important. Having a sense of who is judging helps me push myself a little further, especially if they are very talented like yourself!
Got it! Makes a lot of sense. And thanks for the kind words about my work.
Ok, all! We have exhausted the advance questions and are onto live ones now.
Ready, Shelby?
What’s your most favorite cookie challenge you have ever done?
Yes I am! So happy to be here.
SandraW - I see your two questions/comments. We'll wait for Shelby to answer the question from Robin above, and then will move onto yours! Hang tight - typing live can take more time.
ROBIN CATES probably the bathing lady piece, and figuring out how to create a cookie bathtub! Also creating the cookie room that she was in and laying the tiles was a learning experience. During the whole creation of that piece I was experimenting and tying new techniques. Throwing away cookies that didn't work out and starting again. Definitely a challenge!
I'll post more of Shelby's work in any downtime. Here's a closeup of lingerie in her bathing beauty piece, shown in full above.
Hello Shelby. Love your cookies & cakes. And that you work with your Mom. 💗
Yes, please tell us a bit about your working arrangement with your Mom. How, if at all, do you divide responsibilities?
SANDRAW Thank you! It's definitely a blessing to be able to own my own business and work with family.
More photos coming as Shelby answers my question . . .
I love this one . . . so elegant . . .
SandraW - About your upcoming question? What type of advice do you want? cookie decorating in general? or about competing? or something else? Can you help us focus that question a bit? Thanks!
Hi, 208bakes! Any questions?
My mom does a lot of the baking and helping me plan structures for pieces. She is great at structure because she is also a silver smith and also great at working with wood. She will usually help me get the basics done faster then I decorate it.
What advice would you give a beginner?
I'm not sure what Sandra intended with this question? Maybe start by answering it relative to getting started in competitions.
Ok will do!
Adding more photos as Shelby types!
I recommend looking at competitions that excite you and making sure you enter at your level of experience. I think its important to get your feedback after the competitions and talk to the judges if they are available for advice and constructive criticism on your piece. Definitely do not be afraid to enter a competitions. My very first competition I didn't even place, but I learned a lot and I become a better decorator every-time I compete.
Yes ...
Okay, good, Sandra - glad we answered the right question!
Backing up the the bathing beauty piece, which you mentioned as one of your faves . . .
Also Sandra, take into consideration traveling with your piece! make sure it fits in the car!
You said the bathtub and mosaic floor were especially good learning experiences. Can you describe how they were made and what the challenges were with them?
More pics of Shelby's work . . .
Another . . .
Any questions from anyone on the sidelines? I can ask plenty, but I want to make sure your questions get asked and answered too, so fire away!
Julia, with the bathtub I had never create a 3D cookie before, the first time I made it, it melted and didn't stay on the former I had created. Then I used a different dough and it worked a little better, but I had a lot of lumpy spots I had to carve off. Which I later realized gingerbread would have been a better dough. I was using sugar cookie dough. Then I layered royal icing after layer of royal icing and let it dry and sanded it to get it smooth. This took so long I was worried about decorating it and messing it up!
Well, it came out great!
Let me turn back to the question of transporting to competitions . . .
Do you put everything together and then travel with it, or do you typically bring pieces in parts and then assemble at the competition? Why do you take your chosen approach?
With the mosaic floor, I initially was going to sculpt it from fondant, but I decided everything had to be made from cookies! So I made a few hundred little tiny cookies and started painting a design on them before I attached them to the floor. Then I realized painting the design after made more sense, so I had to wipe it off. I loved the way it came out though.
Gosh - never would have known you wiped it all off!
See my next travel question above! Thanks!
Julia, I prefer to decorate the entire piece at home and bring it assembled. This is mostly because competing is expensive and I don't like renting hotel rooms for a few days ahead to assemble pieces. I have cake friends who make all the basics at home, travel with it in parts then rent a hotel for a one to two weeks before the competition to assemble and finish their piece. Everything I have entered I have driven to the competition completed. I do bring my " on-site" kit with me so if anything breaks I can fix it. With my piece for That Takes The Cake 2018 the basket in the hot air balloon fell off 5 minutes before we had to back away from our table! I glued it back on and hoped for the best. Fortunately, it stayed in place!
And on that note, what about planning for the often unpredictable conditions that exist at shows (i.e., high humidity if held in the summer, people touching or knocking pieces, breakage when getting on the table, etc.). Do you design (upfront) in any way to minimize such troubles?
As Shelby types, any questions from anyone else? 208bakes, how about you?
I definitely try to make sure my piece is strong enough to withstand these types of things. If I am using isomalt I coat it with sugar spray a few times to seal it. I also spray any kind of food coloring painting with a sugar glaze so if someone does touch it, it doesn't smear. You can't plan for everything, but you do get better and more aware every time you compete. At Soflo 2018 it was raining on the way to deliver my piece! and I had gelatin jellyfish, the humidity was terrible and their little tentacles drooped, but all the layers of sugar spray helped it not to melt! I also put "damaged in transit" if something like this happens before I set up my piece, that way the judges will be more understanding.
What’s in your “on-site” repair kit, if I may ask? What other tips would you give to new competitors to help handle other issues/unpredictables at shows?
Julia, for my "on-site" kit I look at the sketch I made of my piece and include a small amount of everything I used to create it. So for example a cookie piece would probably have, food coloring, paint brushes, royal icing in different colors, small mixing bowls, utensils, dust colors, wires, edible glue, sugar glaze spray, fondant, fondant roller and mat, extra cookies that I could carve incase something important breaks (like if my bathing lady lost and arm). I pretty much bring a tiny kitchen with me!
Makes a ton of sense. You are so courageous to travel with all together!
I do the same kit when I deliver wedding cakes as well.
I am more comfortable decorating at home and I don't feel as rushed as I would in a hotel room.
Many people who competed at my competition came with their pieces in parts - maybe 5-10 key parts. And then assembled directly on the competition table in a few hours. I think that can also be a decent setup model, depending on the complexity of the piece and the drying time required.
But, I agree. I am better with setup when others aren't around.
Now, you’ve competed both on TV and at in-person competitions. How, if at all, do you have to prepare differently for these different types of competitions?
I agree, I definitely see the merit in setting up at the competition. I just get flustered!
Just in case you missed my last question: Now, you’ve competed both on TV and at in-person competitions. How, if at all, do you have to prepare differently for these different types of competitions?
Competing on tv is totally different. You do not have time to prepare and whatever you are creating, mistakes and all, is on view for everyone to see. I don't think it's possible to do your best work on TV. They do everything they can to trip you up. Although, It's definitely fun and extremely challenging. I love in-person competitions because you have the time to create your best work.
Related to the last question, when competing on TV, does the TV production crew give you any advance idea of what you will be expected to do, so you have time to design and prep (i.e., at home) before actually getting on TV? Or are you flying completely by the seat of your pants on live TV?
On Wedding Cake Championship we were working outside in 100 degree weather!
You may have answered the above one already, but . . .
Every show is different, most of the time they don't even know what they want from you until the last second. They have to get the themes for each episode approved and sometimes you have no clue until a day or so before.
Sometimes they would tell us one thing, but then change it last second. Its very stressful and you have to think really fast!
And, why on earth did they put you outside in the wedding cake competition??
Thinking on your feet is a great skill to have, but I have to wonder why so many TV shows put unreasonable time constraints on people. I think they could still build suspense and make great TV without creating such unnatural hurdles that prevent people from really doing their best.
I have no clue! I think it is to make the competition almost impossible. They had absolutely no air conditioning in the tent because it was too loud for the cameras. So not only was it very hot, but we were working next to 4 commercial ovens that were on! so it was very hard to get anything to work correctly. My fondant was turning into goo and the frosting was just melting.
That's why I really liked the fact that my competition was turned into a documentary - the TV crew was able to build stories and suspense around each person they followed, but those people worked in actual time and brought their best to the competition.
I say this all the time! If they would make shows where we had enough time and the right conditions for creating our art we would be able to create beautiful work for everyone to watch! It would be so much better.
Ugh - I don't envy you. Working in a tent! Yikes! Well, I'm sure you learned composure! Though you have so much already!
Yes I love that!
Again, you may have answered this one already, but . . . what’s your favorite mode of competing (online, in-person shows, on TV, etc.), and why?
I like online and in-person the best.
One parting question, as we're about to wrap up . . .
I like the idea of online because you can compete against more people. I love in-person because I love seeing everyone else's work and talking with judges.
What is the biggest tip/piece of advice that you would give someone entering his/her first competition? The answer can relate to anything along the process from design to dealing with the outcome.
By "outcome", I mean the judges' decision and feedback.
I would say taking the time to design a piece that has really thought out composition and makes you excited to create it. It's hard to force yourself to come up with multiple concepts and designs, but in the end it help you create your best work.
Great tip!
Another question . . .
What are your plans for the future?
Great question! I'd like to know this too. Do you plan to compete more or less in the future, or will other things be taking on a greater priority for you? Why?
I plan to slow down on my wedding cake orders, compete more and teach. I am working on some online class as well as in person classes that will be a lot of fun. I love teaching, and I knew I wanted to transition to teaching eventually, even when I started my business. I would also love to be a judge on a TV show! Being on the other end of the judging table would be nice!
Yes, it's fun to be a judge! But there's pressure on that process too - we work really hard to make sure we judge fairly and precisely as people invest so much time in their pieces. It's a big responsibility to bear.
and in-person*
Well, that chat went fast! Thank you so much, Shelby, for sharing your competition and decorating expertise with us today. I could have asked you questions all day!
Thank you so much for inviting me Julia! This has been so much fun!
And thanks so much to those who participated. I hope you all have gathered enough courage to go out and compete (if not to win, then for the sheer value of all that can be learned). Shelby, I can’t wait to see your next competition piece and what you bring to my cookie competition next year! Thanks again for your time today! I'll close the chat now, since I don't see any more questions.
Have a great weekend, everyone! And live sweetly!
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