‘Some of the most outstanding cake makers in Nigeria today are men’
Popularly referred to as cake maestro, Tosan Jemide is a foremost cake maker from Africa. He got an early exposure to cake making from his mum. In 1996, he left the shores of Nigeria for the United Kingdom to perfect his sugar craft and cake making. In 1998, he attended international five-day school and a course in character modelling from Squires Kitchen School of cake decorating Farnham UK. While in the United Kingdom he worked at several bakeries, the last of which was Gloriette of Knightsbridge, where he was part of a team that created cakes for high street stores in the UK such as Harrods, Selfridges, Harvey Nichols and Waitrose.
He returned to Nigeria in the year 2000 to start Cakes by Tosan. In 2013, he built a 28 feet sugar craft edifice known to be the tallest cake in Africa till date. This is one among the many awards he has won as a cake designer.
Tosan also invests time in teaching budding cake artists and entrepreneurs across Nigeria on the rudiments of the craft and how to run a successful cake business. Till date, he has taught over 1000 people at open classes, specialised classes and exhibitions across Nigeria.
As he turns 50 this month, the celebrity cake maker reminisces on his journey so far and his plans for the future.
It’s been a milestone. How do you feel at 50?
First is gratitude to God for the journey so far and for the gift of life, sound health, family, love and the opportunity to have been able to contribute positively to the development of my chosen craft. On the other hand, I feel a sense of urgency to begin the next phase of life, which is to utilize my experience and expertise to build the next generation of cake artists and generally contribute towards enterprise development in Nigeria and on the African continent.
Tell us about your story in the sugar-craft world. How it all started.
I got an early exposure to the art of cake making from my late mum. As the last of her five boys, I helped her a lot around the kitchen then while she baked. Sometime in 1983, she passed on and coincidentally, just about three years later, my eldest brother was getting married. I decided to take my chance with his wedding cake and it turned out to be a good attempt. Then, at a very early stage in my life, I discovered my innate ability to be creative. So, after I left the university, I was left with two choices; first, was to tow the path of survival and join the “Career Rat Race”; the second was to harness my God-given talents and become “The Purpose Fulfilled Tosan”. I chose the latter. In expressing my creative prowess, I started off with the fashion industry and I actually did own a clothing line called Stress Clothing in the early 90’s. While I was running Stress Clothing, I was making cakes as a side hustle but at some point, it occurred to me that I could dare to be unique and different in that space. So, I decided to delve fully into it, please bear in mind that at that time, cake making was an “awkward” trade for a man. Following my decision, I moved to England in the mid 90’s to hone my skills. While in England, I attended courses and worked for some of the biggest cake shops for over four years. My learning experience in the United Kingdom was far from a bed of roses, but I was determined to up-skill my abilities. Armed with the combination of raw talent, passion, desire to blaze the trail and my newly acquired skills, I came back to Nigeria in 2000 to start up Cakes by Tosan.
Are any of your siblings in the industry too?
You were a cake maker with a difference, becoming a celebrity immediately you commenced business in Nigeria. Did you ever feel odd as a man in what was regarded a woman’s world in those days? Did you face any kind of stigmatization from your own gender? Or, did things work in your favour?
Cake making for me is like breath in itself, it is my way of exhaling every depth inside me. In my active cake making days, all I wanted to do was to express myself, to give form to substance and to make a client happy. I never sought to be a celebrity nor did I ever feel the need to compete with anybody. I am grateful that things worked in my favour, however, my deepest joy is that I was able to bring glam to that trade and I get overjoyed now when I see that the society respects the talents of cake makers. I love the fact that young bright individuals will leave their first-class degrees and very comfortable jobs in the corporate institutions to pursue their dream, I feel joy that they are able to demand the value that their skill is worth and I love the fact there are no longer gender barriers in that space, actually some of the most outstanding cake makers in Nigeria today are men.
What is the difference between cake baking and sugar craft?
Cake baking focuses on taste (i.e. recipe) while sugar craft focuses on decoration and aesthetics.
As an international baker who has won many awards, what are the things you feel we’re lacking in the sugar craft business in this country and how can we improve on it?
There has been a lot of improvement in that space in recent times, especially with respect to skill acquisition and transfer. However, there is still room for improvement in terms of the quality of training curriculum. Similarly, there is a lot that can be done with baking materials and bulk of the tools we use here in Nigeria which are inspired by foreign concepts and culture. We need to start creating more tools, moulds and materials that are rooted in our rich African heritage, and are proudly Nigerian. We need to start using sugarcraft to tell our own stories, by working on tools inspired by elements that are indigenous to us.
How long did it take you to bake that tallest cake in Africa and others that have won you accolades?
The planning took us about six weeks, baking the actual cake in itself took us about 50 hours but the actual process of building the tallest cake itself which includes setting up, finishing, and building lasted about 15 grueling hours which by the way was the longest night of our lives.
Everything that could have gone wrong happened that night….the cake was meant to be up for 7am and I kid you not, nothing had been up by about 2am. With almost 5hours left we had to make a decision to fail or succeed. We chose the latter.
On a lighter note, how do you feel seeing a beautiful cake you’ve designed so artistically being cut into pieces and gobbled down with wine?
It can be emotional but at the end of the day it is what it is; cakes are meant to be eaten. (Laughs)
Aside being an edible artwork, what’s in a cake? Does it tell any story?
Oh Yes, like any other aspect of the creative art, cakes in sugarcraft can be used to tell any story that you wish to project. We have done this over again in the course of business. And like I mentioned earlier there is still room for improvement in this regard.
But more specifically, the wedding cake is a tradition that began back in the Roman Empire. At the time, it was a loaf of bread that the groom broke over the bride’s head as a symbol of his dominance in the marriage and over her. The colour of the cake is typically white to symbolize purity. The action of the bride and groom cutting the cake is meant to symbolize their first joint task in married life. The gesture of feeding cake to one another is a symbol of the commitment the bride and groom are making.
What have been your most memorable moments in the business?
In the year 2000, after spending four years in England, I returned to Nigeria with only two suitcases, one had my clothes and personal effect, the other had my cake making items and two hundred pounds in my pocket, that was all I had when Cakes by Tosan started in my sister’s house. However, over the past years we have been able to spin off three associated businesses that currently employs about 250 people with capacity for more. So you see, while I may not be able to recount a singular experience, I guess the whole experience, learning, failing, falling and standing up has been worth it.
Any embarrassing or low moments?
For me, every low moment has been a learning curve, I just pick the lessons and I move on. However, I guess one really sticks out as a sore thumb especially because it happened very recently. One of the largest corporates and oldest banks in the country held their centenary gala night recently, the event attracted the crème de la crème of the society and we were the cake vendor. Somehow, I had to travel out of the country a few days to the event to attend to urgent family matters, I ensured all the T’s were crossed and gave specific instructions on how to finish the cake. But alas! I was most embarrassed when I heard the news that the cake collapsed before it got to the venue of the event.
Tell us a bit about family life.
My family is my most-prized possession. I am happily married with six adorable children; four girls and two boys. Home for me is a sanctuary and family time is a haven of peace where I get to relax and refuel.
Any competitiveness in the industry? How do you handle it?
First of all, I understand that life is not all about competition. So, I stay in my place and I daily build the brand Tosan Jemide.
Do you think the sugar craft industry can create more jobs and also help raise the country’s GDP?
Most definitely, sugarcraft has huge potentials for tourism, merchandize, human capital development, social enterprise, entertainment and a lot more.
How have you been able to manage fame?
First I don’t see fame, I only see myself as Tosan, the waffi cake boy (laughs). The good thing is that I am not a socialite per se; I spend a good part of my day either at work attending to necessary issues or at home with my family or catching up with close friends.
Who are the master bakers you look up to in the industry, your role models?
Matha Stewart, especially for her business model.
What’s next for Tosan in this business ? Are you planning to take it to the next level as you clock 50 this month?
Well, like I said earlier I feel a sense of urgency to add value to the society. In truth, over the last three years, I have taken a nominal role in active cake making to reflect on the future. So, in a few weeks I will be taking a bow out of active cake making to focus on the next phase of my life. In effect, Cakes by Tosan will evolve into a new entity known as CBTimapct, the new venture is essentially a legacy project rooted in social enterprise as a primary focus. We have a few initiatives in the pipeline, some of which include a training academy for African cake makers, a cake props store, an employment bureau for identified talents, a nutrition research centre focused on child nutrition and a series engaging media content designed to project the best of Africa’s arts and culture.
What’s your projection for the business in the next 10 Years?
To become one of the most viable vehicles for enterprise development across Africa.
Mention some of your A-list clients.
Well, at Cakes by Tosan, we value all our clients who by the way are A-listers in their own class.
Any challenges in the industry?
Positioning sugar craft as an integral part of the Nigerian arts and culture ecosystem
Who do you think are the best bakers or cake makers in the world, French, British, Italian?
Best I guess will be relative but I sure have lot of respect for people like Buddy Valastro, Ron Ben Isreal, Natalie Sideserf, Jennifer Riley and some others.
If you were to choose another profession again, what else would you love to be? Or would you like to do it all over again?
I will choose this same path again but will apply deeper wisdom based on the lessons I have learnt on this journey.
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