A ‘SWEET’ CAREER
Local patissier shares his journey into the baking world, offers tips for getting started
One of the most iconic and well-known authors of the century, Stephen King, started his writing career with dismissal. His first novel, “Carrie,” was rejected 30 times.
In his sophomore year, Michael Jordan was cut from his high school’s basketball team.
Oprah Winfrey was fired from her first TV job as an anchor in Baltimore.
In the case of Joe Heck, a local Marquette celebrity and distinguished patissier, the beginning wasn’t always cupcakes and rainbows. Heck shared his first experience making a wedding cake for two of his friends.
“After working at the grocery store, I thought I was ready to make a wedding cake,” Heck says. “They are very hard to make and I didn’t realize that. I made it and it looked pretty. I put it in the back of his station wagon to drive it from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, to Philadelphia. Of course, back then — I’m really old — there was no YouTube, internet, I couldn’t look up anything that would tell me that you need to put stuff inside the cake to hold it up.
“So driving across the bridge to Philadelphia, I look in the rearview mirror and there goes the cake…. We had to pull over, and I was on my knees in the back of the car with my hands shoved in frosting and cake trying to hold it up until we got there.
“I had to run to the store to buy some frosting and try to make it look good. It still did not look good. That was my first wedding cake anyway.”
Disastrous, right? But that just goes to show how everyone starts somewhere. As the famous saying goes, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
Heck attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York. He graduated with an emphasis in baking. Heck moved to Marquette 19 years ago and started baking cakes about two years later at a little shop along North Third Street called Gophers. From there he grew his cake empire and he can now be found leading the Joe’s Cakes crew out of the Huron Mountain Bakery.
Every baker has a favorite cake to make. Heck described his and all the labor-intensive — and mouthwatering — details.
“My favorite cake to make is a Saint Honoré Torte. The reason it is called a Saint Honoré Torte is because back in Europe, Saint Honoré is the patron saint of bakers and pastry chefs and he wore this weird hat. It takes three days to make the cake. It’s a super tedious process so it’s kind of showing off when you make one, but it’s got a shortbread cookie and then it’s got rings of pâte à choux, which is an empty cream puff shell piped in a ring, and it’s with filled custard and whipped cream and chantilly cream and chocolate custard on top and then you dip baby cream puffs in caramel and you put those around to make it look like a little crown, and that’s my very favorite cake to make because you get to show off.”
After three days of working on one of those, Heck certainly deserves a bite of his very favorite cake to eat, which is a chocolate orange mousse cake.
Everybody loves cakes, especially kids. Some kids even dream of creating cakes like Joe’s when they grow up. The real problem for kids is learning how to make their own. Heck said kids can easily bake at home.
“I think the best way to get into baking is to be brave. Do it. In the end, even if it doesn’t look pretty, it’s still probably going to taste good. Go ahead and play around,” Heck suggested. “Experiment, that’s the best way to do it. And you know when you are first starting out, there is nothing wrong with going to the store and getting a box mix to help you learn how to work the oven and get it mixed right. And you can add a whole bunch of things into it and then you work your way to the fancier stuff, but the best way to get into it is just to do it and you find out if you love it. You have to love being a baker if you want to do it for a living.”
Heck said kids do not need any fancy equipment at home to make a delicious cake. The equipment needed most families already have on hand in their kitchen.
“You need measuring cups, measuring spoons, a mixer, cake pans, hot pads and spatulas,” he said. ” If you have those things you can make a cake at home.”
But do you need to learn how to use a piping bag to create beautiful cakes? Heck said you do not, and that beautiful cakes can be created just by using a simple spatula.
Like all jobs, there are the best and the worst parts. Heck tries to balance the positive and negative.
“The best part of my job is probably the people I get to make cake for,” he said. “You know, it’s just a cake, but it is for pretty special times in people’s lives: It’s for a baby shower, or a first birthday or an 18th b-day or a wedding. So the best part is sitting down and seeing people really excited.
“The most difficult part of my job is probably during the summertime. I will work two and a half to three months straight without a day off, and some days you work 10-16 hours a day. That’s why (you) gotta love what you do, because bakers don’t get holidays and weekends off, usually because that’s when everybody else wants their cake, so you have to work to make their cake when they want it, when they get to be off.”
Heck considers himself to be really lucky career-wise despite the long hours.
“I love what I do and that’s super important. If you can find something that you love to do and find a way to make a living doing it?” he said. “That makes me a pretty lucky person and I get to do a ton of cool stuff because I make cake, like stuff for charity, like the Culinary Journey benefit for the children’s museum.
“So I think my biggest advice is to do what you love and find a way to make a living at that.”
That’s some pretty sweet advice worth following.