Cover story for Sunday Magazine
A huge thanks to Siena Yates for this article in Sunday Magazine!
There's a feeling you get when you bake a cake. When you serve it up and see people come together and enjoy the sight and fragrance, not to mention the taste of it.
It's a feeling strong enough to get a couple through wartime in Paris, strong enough to work its way down generations. Jordan Rondel inherited this feeling and she's built her life around it.
"I've been baking... basically since I was tall enough to reach the bench," she recalls.
"I have some pretty early memories of baking at my grandmother's knee. I guess she was the first person who taught me anything about it."
Her grandparents live in France, as did their parents before them. Rondel's great-grandfather was a pastry chef in Paris during the war. Her French grandparents don't do a weekly grocery shop – they head to the market each morning and get the fresh ingredients they'll need for the day.
This is what led Rondel into the business – a love of cake, a little inherited French foodie philosophy and a push from Dad. "I was in my last year of uni doing a commerce degree and I would get home and all I would want to do was bake," she says.
Her dad suggested she take what was clearly not your average hobby and make something of it.
So in 2010, she started The Caker, a kind of blog featuring just one type of cake each week, which could be delivered to your door. But rather than controlling demand, this narrow offering created it, and people became hungry for more.
The blog expanded, Rondel acquired a proper professional kitchen and just this year hired full-time staff. Now, between herself and a team of five, The Caker puts out up to 75 of her beautiful, rustic-looking cakes a day – many of them delivered to offices or weddings or anyone wanting to boost their mood with a little communal indulgence. "It just kind of launched into being this full-time gig. I still don't really understand how it all worked out, but it did," she says.
Sounds like luck, but is in fact work ethic. Rondel calls it family tradition. Her grandparents were in the kitchen almost all day, preparing the next meal as soon as the last one had finished. "I'd quite happily spend my entire life in the kitchen and I do think it's to do with them, because I love those memories and I love the way they lived."
So much so that to relax after a hard day in the kitchen, she gets back into the kitchen. But she's not actually that keen on the eating part. In The Caker kitchen on Auckland's Karangahape Road, the smell of cake is inescapable and no longer holds much allure for Rondel. She and her younger sister, the equally elfin Anouk, who in March left her career as a finance lawyer to join the business, say they rarely eat cake. In fact, Anouk says, if either of them ever does feel like it, they down tools to indulge before the feeling passes, because it's a rare one.
"We've been around cakes for a very long time – you're just in the kitchen all day long," Anouk says.
While both sisters are not afraid of piling in the butter and sugar, these cakes have evolved with the times. Jordan recently brought out her second recipe book (extract opposite), and fans of her cooking will detect a move towards nut flours, coconut oils and generally healthier options. She says these distinctly non-traditional ingredients create heavier, tastier cakes that keep better, sometimes even improving overnight. And, of course, they're more nourishing, although self-improvement is not the goal of this business. In a world where guilt stares down at us from every corner, cake is cake. "It should be a treat. You get it for an occasion, so it should be this really special, delicious thing."
And for anyone expecting a cake that looks groomed to plastic perfection, The Caker's creative expressionism will come as a surprise. Forget "the food colouring or Barbie-bright buttercream," boasts the Caker site. "You will find no rainbow sprinkles here. We'd rather the beautiful little black flecks of vanilla bean, crushed pistachios and drips of berry coulis."
While the Rondel sisters share a sensual, romantic view of cake, make no mistake: they're expanding. The Caker's ready-made cake mixes have just hit the shelves of various upmarket food stores around the country, as well as via their website, and their kitchen has opened as a café, rather than just a pick-up point. The ultimate goal is to export their mixes and to open boutique cafés and kitchens around the world.
Not that they underestimate the value of staying friendly with their loyal, local fan base. Finance-savvy Anouk just implemented a plan which saw the pair ditch couriers and hand-deliver every order. "And that's actually the best part of our job, just handing over the cakes and seeing the reactions," says Jordan. It's an experience that reinforces why she started this demanding business. "Sometimes I worry about what I'm doing – I get stressed and it seems like a big deal, but then it's like, 'Oh, you're just making cakes,' " she says. "But actually, cakes are benefiting the world because they genuinely bring joy."