We had the good fortune of connecting with Karen Portaleo and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Karen, is there a quote or affirmation that’s meaningful to you?
My favorite quote is from Anais Nin; “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage”. I found this quote just as I was contemplating leaving my full time job to pursue freelance. Staying at my job meant a steady paycheck and (sort of) reliable schedule. Jumping out on my own meant an unreliable income (with an unlimited potential!), and world travel. This quote gave me the courage to take the risk and chose an expanded life! The rewards have been innumerable!
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I’ve had a twisted and random path to my current career as a cake and chocolate artist! I’ve had my own prop company, I’ve worked as a clay sculptor, I designed store window displays for Macy’s, I’ve designed jewelry for a large company, I’ve been a sign painter and mural artist…so many jobs! But they have all made my current career possible, each of them helped me develop the skills I use today to create my large sculptural cakes and chocolate work. I never set out to work in this field, it has all come together in a surprising way. I grew up in bakeries, my grandfather was a pastry chef, but that was never my dream. I started working at Highland Bakery just as the tv cake shows were becoming popular, and suddenly cake and chocolate were viable art forms. I quickly found all my past experience building props helped me make armatures for cakes, my clay work informed my sculpting, my mural work made me comfortable with large scale, my jewelry work had taught me about attention to detail, and my childhood spent with my grandfather in bakeries gave me a sense of comfort when I found myself working at Highland Bakery. I still have a sense of “wow, how did this happen” when I’m filling out a form that asks my career, and I fill in “cake and chocolate artist”.
And I never could have imagined that cake work could have led to teaching in 25 countries, television appearances, and now to developing my own line of Edible Artists’ Oil Paints (and more to come!). While I’ve worked a whole lot of long hours and taken a lot of risks to get here, it still surprises me almost daily.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
I’d probably start at Highland Bakery, show them where I build my cakes and film my videos, then fill them up with the peanut butter French toast. From there I’d show them the neighborhood around the bakery which is the Old 4th Ward, the birthplace of Martin Luther King, where he grew up, where he preached, and where he and Coretta Scott King are entombed. I’d take them for a drive around Inman Park to see the old Victorian houses that I love, then to Krog Street Market to eat at every single place there (especially Varuni Napoli, the pizza I could eat every day!). One day we’d go to the Fulton County Farmer’s market to buy fresh fruits and vegetables to cook at home, but mostly to go into the little shops there and find treasures like Mexican pottery, giant hand hammered paella pans, shawls with Our Lady of Guadalupe woven in, and we’d probably fill the car with plants from the garden area. We’d go to my house in the Ormewood section of Grant Park, cook a big meal and sit on my porch. I’d take them for a stroll around the Park, which is the oldest park in Atlanta, and if it’s Sunday, we’d go to the local Farmers Market there, eat Revolution donuts and coffee while we grabbed some locally grown produce, honey, big loaves of fresh bread, and sausages from The Spotted Trotter. At night we’d head to Mary’s in East Atlanta, my favorite gay bar, for too many cocktails and lots of dancing. We’d spend a whole day on Buford Highway, eating the best Korean food, and shopping at all the farmer’s markets (okay there’s definitely a trend to this visit!). We’d probably spend a day at Jeju Spa, getting our skin scrubbed off as we are tossed around on the tables and then taking the day to lie in the various little buildings lined with gems or charcoal, feeling like newborn babies with our freshly exfoliated skin.
I’d take them up to Blue Ridge to eat bags of hot boiled peanuts and jars of hot spicy peaches, buy hand pies and apple slushies at Merciers, and if its fall, we’d pick apples there.
I’d show them Junkman’s Daughter in Little 5 Points, where I had my first job in Atlanta 35 years ago (although it was in a different part of L5P then), then head to Patel Brothers in Decatur to buy spices and soaps and bags of cookies and treats from India, and nosh on those while we drive out to Stone Mountain. I’d tell them about the pre-KKK history of Stone Mountain, about the flowers that only grow there, about the shrimp that live in the small puddles up there, the ring of ritual stones found on top, which were pushed over when the Confederate memorial sculpture was built.
Other not to miss places we’d eat would be Redbird on Howell Mill, Golden Eagle on the Edge of Cabbagetown (great cocktails!) and Mediterranea here in Grant Park. So yeah, this visit is pretty much about food!
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
I’ve been fortunate to have had the support of a great number of people who have offered their wisdom (or a swift kick in the ass) when I most needed it, but the person who has supported my career the most has been Stacey Eames of Highland Bakery. Years ago, when I suddenly found myself to be a single mother in need of a job, Stacey let me come work at Highland Bakery. For the past 16 years, she has been there for me in whatever capacity I’ve needed, whether that meant a job for me to go to to keep things afloat at first, or remaining flexible as I floated in and out of the bakery. If I show up needing to make an absolutely horrific mess of the cake room to work on a personal project, she never bats an eye. She’s been there for me and my family always, in a thousand ways, and without her generosity and support, I don’t know if my career would be where it is today.
Instagram: @karenportaleo , @portaleopaints
Facebook: Karen Marie Portaleo, Cake and Sugar Artist, Portaleo Paints