An artist doesn’t really need a paint brush and canvas to create magic. A tube of icing and a cake will do just fine. Reema Siraj, 38, is one such artisan, who is reasonably well-known in the UAE for her realistic and Instagram-worthy cakes.
Is an apple really an apple? Or is a flower really a flower? These are some of questions that could linger in your mind when you see it on her cakes. Known for her edible art, this Sri Lankan cake designer sculpts her cake in the same way a sculptor works on clay, wax marble or metal.
But before she rose to social media fame, cake designing was never on her memo, or life plan to be specific. “It just happened to me,” said Siraj.
After years of teaching, and then to becoming a student, and finally getting back to teaching, the subject of it all has changed.
How? The Food team at Gulf News met up with Reema Siraj, who shared her journey with us.
Inspiration is just around the corner
There are several cake designers climbing up the ladder today, so if you were to look for inspiration, you’ll have plenty of cake designers to choose from.
For Reema, it was her mum. Ever since a young age, she watched her mum cook, bake and decorate cakes with utmost love: “I grew up with the aroma of freshly baked cakes and watched her [my mum] decorate them with so much love. She is the reason for everything I am today.”
While her inspiration took its roots at home in Sri Lanka, the world of cake designers like Jasmine Rae, LiMa Cakes, Maggie Austin and Marina Machado inspired her to create a unique style.
Today, she continues to maintain a close friendship with Marina Machado and Sona (owner of LiMa cakes).
“I use everything around me as inspiration in my work. Subsequently, my work has unfolded into a journey of experimenting with multiple mediums specialized in edible floral art. I believe in expressing my love for everything around me through my creativity. The simplest joys of life – like sipping a hot cup of coffee in the morning, to watering the plants in my house – inspires me to do what I do,” she added.
Acting on inspiration
Of course to act on inspiration is the real deal, and that’s what Reema did when she got featured in World Bride Magazine in USA. Here she was rewarded with an opportunity to showcase her work at a gala and conference hosted by the magazine in collaboration with Wedding District, France, as part of the New York Bridal Fashion Week in 2019.
“It is still an unforgettable moment in my life,” said Siraj.
This was her turning point. She was nominated as a finalist at the prestigious Cake Masters Award in UK, or what she calls the “cake Oscars” in 2019, under the show-piece category for the lifesize wedding dress cake she created back then.
From learning to teaching to learning again
Specialized in Early Childhood Education, Siraj spent the first few years of her career as a pre-school teacher and trainer for teachers in Sri Lanka. Once she moved to Dubai, her life revolved around her husband and two children.
But her passion for cooking and baking stayed, which fuelled her to work full-time as a cake decorator. She started out small by baking for her family and friends, who also encouraged her to take this up as a profession.
As a child, Siraj mastered the paint brush, the needle and thread, and the baking spatula. Being born into a creative family helped, Siraj was exposed to the creative field one way or another. Her brother – an interior designer, by profession – was from whom she mastered her creative side. His understanding of art and design, especially after being professionally trained, was something she always looked up to.
But to stand out in the creative game, Siraj upped her game by travelling all the way to Singapore to take professional classes in edible art to perfect her form today.
Ingredients to masterpieces
She might be a cake designer, but interestingly only a few designers actually bake their own cakes. But, Siraj decided to bake and and design the cakes.
“To me, a cake should look beautiful and delicious - inside - as much as it is outside. I prefer to prepare everything from scratch. Not just the cakes, but the creams, the fillings, the jams, the sauces, and everything that goes into my cakes, are made from scratch with the required ingredients,” Siraj told the Food team of Gulf News.
Tools of the trade
Different designs are made using different tools: “Some need nozzles, some need palette knives and some need brushes. There are also so many different tools we use for flower making.”
When asked about her favourite tool, she mentions her love for brushes. “I have a great obsession for brushes. I keep collecting them from different art stores like jewels, and I have quite a large collection of brushes. The tough choice is picking from the best,” Siraj said.
In terms of preparation, some cakes need as little as half a day and some as much as 2 to 3 weeks. “Anything that comes with sugar flowers is a lot of labour. It takes a lot of time and patience,” she added.
Life work balance
Siraj receives quite a high number of cake commissions, which means that family time can often be compromised. Apart from her full-time business, Siraj is the mother of three, Fathima, Abdullah and Khadijah, aged 11, 10 and 4, respectively.
When things do get a little hectic, her husband, Ashfaque Muhammed helps make cake deliveries, manage the children and keep up with household chores, while working in a full-time financial role.
“My biggest challenge has been, managing my time and travel plans to suit my family's convenience. I travel a lot around the globe to conduct workshops and take part in cake shows as a judge (pre-pandemic).”
A studio of her own
Even though Siraj had a career change, she never let go of the teacher in her. Today, she holds workshops and classes where she teaches budding cake designers about decoration. In addition to this, she goes beyond the boundaries of Dubai and teaches in various parts of the world, depending on the demand. Of course, this was before the pandemic.
These days she takes classes in the UAE, and also collaborates with culinary schools and institutions such as Richemont Masterbaker Center for Excellence in Baking & Pastry DMCC, as well. She has found quite a large demand for classes.
For the future, Reema is hopeful. She said: “My aim is to guide aspiring cake artists find their niche – help them grow, share my passion for what I do, which will inspire them to be different and bring out their best version. I want to build a creative community in my field.”
All of this and, of course, a studio of her own, one day.