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Live Chat with Thomas Blake Hogan of Thomas Blake's Cakes

Hi, Thomas! It's so great to have you here with us today. Congrats again on your recent first-place win in my 3-D Cookie Art Competition in St. Louis! Your piece was so well done!
Welcome to everyone joining us as well! SO SORRY for the brief delay in getting started this morn. We were experiencing some technical difficulties, but all is cool now.

Before we get into Thomas' background and 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 Thomas 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!
Thank you, Julia! Excited to be here!
Excited to have you here too!
Okay, we're now ready to really get started! As a reminder, Thomas' bio can be found under the "i" icon at the top of the chat room, so please review it to get a quick overview of his many accomplishments. We'll, of course, dive deeper from there.
In a nutshell, Thomas has received many accolades in recent years (40 of his entries have placed in competitions!), not the least of which were his first-place pieces in my 2017 cookie competition at the Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show (OSSAS) and his recent win in my 3-D Cookie Art Competition in St. Louis! Woo hoo!
To break the ice, I'll share some photos of Thomas' competition pieces, and, from there, we'll jump directly into questions. So please start teeing up your questions for Thomas!
Here's Thomas' first-place entry in my competition at OSSAS in 2017!
Here's his winning 3-D cookie entry from SoFlo earlier this year . . .
This piece not only won first place in cookies, it also won Best in Show. I'm sure you can see why!
And, here's his first-place entry in my 3-D Cookie Art Competition at Show Me Sweets in July! Spectacular, right?! Thomas was also one of the entrants selected to appear in the Food Network documentary filmed about my competition!
So, while you all are formulating questions, I've got a couple of my own for Thomas. Here goes . . . Thomas, please tell us how you've managed to develop your decorating skills to such a high level when sugar art isn't even a full-time occupation for you?! (Everyone, Thomas is a professional entertainer, most recently aboard cruise ships.) How do you find time to develop and/or practice new techniques?
Thomas is entering live right now, which takes a bit longer (typing live takes time). His answer is on the way!
My decorating skills have grown simply because I compete as much as I can. I don’t make orders for customers, so I am able to devote my free time into creating new and detailed works of art. My goal every time I compete is to create something better than my last. This has helped my skill level reach new levels. As the old saying goes, “If you don’t challenge yourself, you never grow.”
And can you explain your typical preparation process that goes into a competition like my recent one at Show Me Sweets? How far in advance of the competition do you begin? What's the first step in your design process, and how do you go from there to finished piece?
My schedule as a performer can be quite demanding. I'm currently on break from rehearsal right now. haha
Hi, All Mixed Up! How are you this morning?
I’m obsessed with sugar arts! Almost any free time I do have outside of my career I devote to planning for my next competition, and designing my next pieces. I considered myself an artist by any standard, its just cookies and sugar are my medium of choice now. However, I don’t have much time to practice new techniques when I commit to a competition. I usually just jump straight into trying different ideas until something works, or edit as necessary if something doesn’t go to plan.
I know, I so appreciate you being here with us in the middle of your rehearsal. Thank you!
I'm doing great this morning, thank you!
I usually begin preparing for competition by finding inspiration. I have a long list of things that I see that inspire me to create sugar art. I keep this list handy whenever designing for competitions because I can usually always have an idea that I can pull that will work with the specific show theme, yet still be something that speaks to me as an artist. Because my process goes extremely slow. I usually like to give myself at least a month to make a complicated entry. For Show Me Sweets, that piece had so many components. I ended up working on it for close to 8 weeks!
What you do, across the board is so impressive. Everyone, if you have a chance to see Thomas doing acrobatics, it's as incredible as his cookie work!
Welcome, Cookie Fantastique by Carol! I hope you are well this morning. If you have any questions for Thomas, bring 'em on!
Congratulations on your recent win. Wish I could be here live. Thomas, the bird you constructed is beautiful. How do you make your own molds for baking the cookies? I've been successful using tubes, spheres, etc., but that custom shape?!
Thank you for your time.
Hi, LISAANN! Here's a progress shot of Thomas' toucan. It doesn't answer your question about the molds he used, but it illuminates the assembly process.
First step in my design process is finding reference photos. Sometimes I will do a thumbnail sketch if the design has a complicated layout. When it comes to cookie pieces there has to be a little extra planning involved. Cutting out custom patterns, stencils, etc. is essential to make it all fit together. Cookie construction can be quite complex and drawing everything out to scale is essential because it is difficult to change the shapes of cookies once they are baked.
Thomas, ANAN asked a similar question, so I am posting it at the same time.
Thank you, LisaAnn! When it comes to custom baking molds for making contour 3D cookies, I will sometime make a mold by building up aluminum foil which can be difficult to get a smooth surface. For my toucan, I tried a new method. I sculpted aluminum wire mesh to the shapes I needed and baked on top of those. I filed down the edges of my cookies so they would fit together as I assembled them, and I used lots of royal icing to strengthen and reinforce the cookie structure.
Hello, may I ask how did you make the bird’s body so real from cookie? Did you used any special mold for it? Thanks!
Again, you already answered that one, so we're moving on . . .
I wish I could be here live. You have done amazing work and I've read an interview where you've mentioned that you've won mixers, cake and cookie supplies, gift cards, ribbons, etc. This is great fun, but contests give experience with other cookiers and ways to sharpen skills. How do you find these contests to enter? Then once you get better, how do you find the ones that are at the next level? Thanks for your time. I wish I could be on the chat. I love your work.
I'm up and ready to learn. I attended Show Me Sweets and thoroughly enjoyed learning and investing in new products. Most of all I enjoyed meeting all the wonderful people!
ALL MIXED UP, it was a great show, wasn't it? And so exciting to have the competition televised!
Fully agree All Mixed UP
One of the neat aspect of competition is getting to meet fellow sugar enthusiasts from all over the world. You can learn a lot about the cookie communities and competitions that exist all over the country. You eventually learn there is kind of a competition circuit throughout the year. I also do a lot of research online to find sugar art shows and cookie competitions.
EVERYONE ON THE CHAT, we're out of advance questions for Thomas, so please start entering your questions for him.
The big shows on the circuit are Austin (That Takes the Cake), CookieCon (though they didn't start doing a judged competition 'til this year) . . .
Show Me Sweets (though it won't be running nest year), SoFlo, a show in Atlanta (which I haven't done) . . .
This fall there is a new show the Jersey Shore Cake and Cookie Convention
THOMAS - What other shows do you have your eye on (compete in) and why?
Ultimate Sugar Show is the one in Atlanta in November
Yes, I'll be vending and judging at the NJ show too. Will you be there, Thomas? I've been impressed with how well organized it seems.
The NJ show is not on my schedule at the moment
My ultimate goal is to safe up to travel to England for Cake International
ALL MIXED UP - I've got your question and it's up next. Am going to let Thomas answer my question first (above) about the other competitions he competes in and why.
Cake International is the largest sugar arts competition in the world. It would be very prestigious to place there.
At this point I think 3-D cookies are out of my league but I don't want them to stay there so what's a good beginner 3-D cookie? I didn't do the class at Show Me because I was in the airbrush class.
ALL MIXED UP - I wasn't aware of any 3-D cookie class at Show Me Sweets. Who taught it??!
I don't remember but they made a bird house
Honestly one of the best beginner 3D cookie projects is a classic gingerbread house. Those how I started building with cookies for the first time.
I don't remember that class either, but I'll take a stab at your question about beginner 3-D cookies too, while Thomas does the same. I think basic, small house constructions are one good place, or anything that consists of all flat pieces. It's harder to start shaping cookies in unusual ways.
For small contoured cookies, another easy place to start, you might try my baby rattle project. The video is on my YouTube channel.
Julia, I just noticed you said Show Me Sweets will not be happening next year. I am so sorry to hear that. Will it continue after that...
I don't know what the show organizers plan to do. Unfortunately, the couldn't keep up the time commitment to it, which came as a surprise to me.
I agree starting with simple flat shapes to construct with really helps inform you how the medium works and how temperamental it can be sometimes
So I am in the process of moving my cookie art competition somewhere else - again. I would like to house it in an existing show, as I don't want to deal with the logistics of procuring the space and . . .
I feel having it within something larger also draws entrants from other sugar arts disciplines.
Thomas - Just curious, if you had your pick of where my show should go, where would you take it?
I did notice the cookie rules for show very similar to your competition rules, Julia, I assume you helped them set the criteria. Hopefully, they have a very successful show!
For the show in New Jersey*
Do you mean the rules at the NJ show? If so, I am head judge of that show too, and so, yes, I wrote those rules!
Back to cookie craft questions . . . Thomas, which part of your Show Me Sweets (Mayan archeology) entry was the most challenging part to do, and how did you get past that challenge?
I would say with Oklahoma show gone. SoFlo is probably the largest show in the country at the moment in terms of attendance.
I should say I am head COOKIE judge there. The NJ show has different people heading up the different judging categories, which makes a lot of sense to me. I think it's best to have those who live and breathe a certain discipline heading up their respective categories.
I'd vote for Kansas City for Show Me Sweets!!
ALL MIXED UP - Well, we'd have to find someone to start a show there!
In terms of number of competition entries and involvement, the show in Austin is probably the largest in that sense.
I would love to run my competition closer to home too, and was so thrilled to see one here in the Midwest (with Show Me Sweets), so it's sad that it's gone (at least for now).
ALL MIXED UP I would love for there to be a show in Kansas City. That's where I'm from!
Copying my earlier question again here, as it may have gotten lost in the mix . . .
Back to cookie craft questions . . . Thomas, which part of your Show Me Sweets (Mayan archeology) entry was the most challenging part to do, and how did you get past that challenge?
The toucan was definitely the most challenging part. Trying to figure out how I was going to shape the cookies. I also had trouble figuring out how I was going to make the bird perched on the end of a book.
Welcome, GingerbreadGrandma. Glad to have you here. Any questions for our esteemed guest? If so, just type them in the box at the bottom of the left side of the chat discussion and hit the blue "Post" button.
You ended up just gluing him to the edge of the books with royal icing and then propping him 'til he dried, right? Or did you do something else?
Luckily that got resolved by pure accident. The beak of the toucan caused it to tip forward, but when I added the heavy handmade fondant wings that counterbalanced it perfectly!
Thomas, I live in Joplin and we frequently go to Kansas City for the weekend. Do you ever have any cookie events there even on a small level for the locals or suggestions on cookie shops in KC I should visit.
I'm sure Julia loves the counterbalance part being the mechanical engineer that she is. I wish I had that talent to back up my cookie decorating!
Where there's a will, there's a way!
ALL MIXED UP, not yet. Because I travel so much for my performing career I hardly get to do much outside of competition. I would eventually like to start teaching classes one day.
Let's talk a bit about what it was like to be followed by Food Network producers at my competition . . . what were the best and worst parts about that experience? How did them following you impact your normal competition prep, if at all?
Being followed by the Food Network was an interesting experience. It added a little extra pressure to try and do the best work possible. The toughest part was trying to act natural. Often times in interviews they lead with very pointed questions to get me to say things that would be out of character. I really wanted to be true to myself
I felt that too, but I never did anything that I wouldn't have wanted to do or say. And they never put that sort of pressure on the judges.
I will say being on a documentary style show didn't really affect my normal competition prep, which is wonderful. I'm not really interested in doing the drama filled time crunch challenge that often exist on TV
Interestingly, I thought they would try to stage more drama (for purposes of "good" TV), but, if anything, they wanted the judges to be less critical on TV.
And I am very excited to bring competitions to a national level and hopefully get more interest in it!
Cookie Competitions*
When judging such high caliber entries, judges tend to naturally look for flaws to help distinguish the pieces, but they didn't want that to diminish/overshadow the positives we actually verbalized about each piece.
Did you hear about the new Cookie Wars coming to Food Network?
That is very nice to hear!
They are filming a pilot for it soon, and it is strictly about 3-D cookies!
I did. I was approached to be on it, but I don't know if it would be my style. Plus, I'm unavailable because of the current show I'm rehearsing
I think the network is enamored with 3-D (vs. 2-D) as it shows bigger (and possibly better) on TV. I tried to convince the producer of the documentary to cover the 2-D part as well, but they just wouldn't hear it.
Thank you for being here!! I have followed your work for a while now, Thomas 😊. You are incredibly creative and so talented. Not only is your work detailed to perfection, it is totally unique!! As you've said, you have a list of ideas that have come to mind for potential projects down the road. Do you begin your creative process with research, and then turn to sketching? Once you've started decorating, do you ever get stuck with a particular technique that isn't working like you thought it would? If so, do you change your direction midstream and do any decorating "on the fly". I don't always foresee potential construction problems. Do you have an art or engineering background? Your work is masterful!!!
2D cookies can be just as big and elaborate in my opinion! But I understand that 3D Cookies sound more unheard of and more interesting from a marketing standpoint
Thank you, COOKIES FANTASTIQUE BY CAROL! Yes when I pick an inspiration I like I do lots of research, and find as many reference photos as possible.
I just extended the chat time a few minutes to make sure there's time for Thomas to address Carol's question before the chat automatically times out at 11:15 am. I know Thomas is super busy with rehearsals right now so I don't want to keep him longer than planned.
What about these parts of Carol's questions: Once you've started decorating, do you ever get stuck with a particular technique that isn't working like you thought it would? If so, do you change your direction midstream and do any decorating "on the fly". I don't always foresee potential construction problems. Do you have an art or engineering background?
When I try a technique that isn't working. I usually start improvising with other methods that could still give me a similar effect
How often do you run into unplanned construction problems anyway? Do you find you can avoid most by pre-planning?
Do you use aluminum foil to create unusal shapes? Is there some other suggestion instead of aluminum foil?
CAROL - Thomas answered that one early one. He does use foil, but it can be hard to create smooth molds with it. So, for his toucan beak, for instance, he used wire mesh to form a mold.
one = on
Construction problems can sometimes be unavoidable no matter how much preplanning there is. Baked cookies can be fickle
I'll let Thomas answer my last question, and then I think we should wrap up so he can get back to rehearsal.
Done! On that note . ..
I want to thank Thomas for being here with us today to share his cookie wisdom and talent, and wish him well with his current production and his ongoing cookie journey!
Sorry to dash, but I really must get back to rehearsal. Thank you for having me Julia!
No worries, Thomas! Have a great day!
Thank you! I missed that! Can't wait to see what you come up with next 😊😊. Thanks again for your time!!
Thanks to all who participated today too! We won't have a chat in September due to my heavy class and travel schedule, but I do have a DOUBLE FEATURE planned for October 5. We'll be kicking off our 2020 CookieCon chat series with Georganne Bell at 10 am, and then be concluding this Cookie Competitor Series with Leslie Marchio, second place winner in my competition, at 12 noon.
Hope to see you there. Have a great weekend, everyone!
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