Michelle Sohan is no newcomer to the baking industry. The international cake expert is known for her creative designs and chirpy personality. At any time of day, one can stop off at her Chaguanas business, Bakery Treatz, and meet with the master baker who now has several international titles under her belt. But who exactly is Michelle Sohan and when did she discover her great talent?
The self-taught cake designer previously worked as an Operations Manager at The Original Dairy Bar and as a Quality Assurance Technician at Sunshine Snacks. She told We Mag, “Unfortunately, or as I actually say, “fortunately” I had an accident at Sunshine Snacks.” Sohan was at the time doing her Masters in Food Technology at The University of The West Indies. “A series of events ultimately led me to discover what my true passion was, baking and decorating cakes, and after catering from home for two years for individuals and some popular restaurants, I opened Bakery Treatz in 2003.”
That was just the start of a long, challenging but beautiful journey for the entrepreneur. In 2014, she appeared on a cake challenge sponsored by the Food Network and tied for first place. In 2015, she won the first prize in Experts Division at the South Florida Cake and Candy Expo in Miami, Florida. The design which won her this title was her unique Mehndi and Indian inspired cake designs.
Always determined to grow and push herself, in 2016, Sohan began the application process for The Cake Designers World Championships held in Milan, Italy, hosted (every two years) by the Federation of International Pastry, Gelato and Chocolate (FIPGC). This was a huge milestone for Sohan and it was also a huge competition which saw cake experts from around the globe. From the onset, Sohan experienced setbacks but she pushed on knowing that a setback could afford her a step up. “I was required to have an internationally recognised coach in several categories,” she explained, “and since I was the only one in Trinidad with such qualifications, I made the request to have a coach from another country.” Not thinking much about her application and her request, in 2017 Sohan was elated when she gained the approval of the Federation.
The theme for the prestigious competition was Discovering Chocolate and Coffee and Sohan admitted that initially, it was difficult to conceptualise a cake. However, with the guidance of her coach, being a Trini to the bone, Sohan opted to go local and focus on T&T’s history of cocoa and coffee.
The journey to the competition was no easy trip for Sohan. It was filled with challenges. There was a maximum base size for the cake and Sohan took her cake (made up of two parts) exactly to that size but not before she contacted the supervisor of the airlines about travel restrictions. The supervisor assured her that the cake would be fine. Said Sohan, “On the day of travel, I arrived with my two custom cases, and was told “No way!” They were 5″ higher than the scanners so we had to formulate another plan, as there was no time to change design, flights or anything. A call was made to the AA Cargo office, and I was told I could get the cakes to Miami by the next morning. With just 30 minutes to boarding, I rushed across to the old airport in a pick-up, took over the cargo, checked in the boxes, and rushed back to the other airport to catch my flight. All I could do was just pray for safe delivery.”
Most of the next day in Miami was spent getting customs documents and just driving from one building to the next until finally, Sohan received her cake intact. Her next step was to catch a flight to Italy. “Since you literally have to carry an entire kitchen to prepare, decorate etcetera to these competitions, I had six suitcases with ingredients, tools, brochures and electronics.”
Getting all items to Italy was yet another challenge. The entrepreneur related, “My dearest neighbour, offered to fly in with two from Trinidad to Miami, and this was so well timed, as my brochures for the competition were not ready when I was leaving because they were held back in translation to Italian. In Miami, I got my coach and two other women I met for the first time from Italy, Barbara and Manuela, to each carry over a suitcase. As soon as I reached Miami, I contacted my shippers to ask how we could get the cakes across in such a short space of time. I think I had everyone working overtime, until the only possible solution was to use FedEx. For the two cases, it would cost US$5000. So, once again, I had everyone working on alternatives, until eventually we ended up using FedEx for the larger box, and travelling with the smaller one in pieces to be checked in.” Finally, Sohan got to Italy and had no real issues at the airport there.
On Sunday, the day before the actual competition, all teams had to go in to be introduced, and to select which day they would compete. “I really hoped to be the second day, as I was behind in my finishing, and I still had to bake my cakes” Sohan related. “Well guess what, the 19 teams were put into a huge glass bowl, and Trinidad got drawn first. The panic I felt at that moment was just unbelievable. I had to rush back to the studio, get my chocolate pieces completed, and bake my cakes, as well as pack up my things to take across.”
She described the competition day as the most intense day of her life. “I still feel like it was an out-of-body experience” she laughed. “Whatever could have gone wrong, did, and at one point of my frustration, I thought, “I just need to finish, I’ve done my best, I’m done!”
When her name was called the next day, as the winner of the Best Tasting Cake, she was totally surprised. “I can tell you, when you travel so far, and you come head to head with the big guns from around the world, it’s a very intimidating experience but it’s so important to be confident in yourself, and your skills, even at the hardest moments” she stated.
“I flew back home, and sadly, was belittled by obscene comments and absolutely no respect for my accomplishment. I knew I had just experienced a once in a lifetime opportunity, and was totally grateful, even though I now faced a huge set of expenses from my training and trip, as I had to fund myself. I received so many well wishes from companies and cake artists abroad, and was encouraged by the prospect of doing international collaborations.”
In March of 2018, Sohan was nominated for the Caribbean Wedding Awards to be held in Montego Bay, Jamaica, in September and at the same time, she was also nominated in the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the year Small and Medium Business category. She approached both events with the same mentality, thinking, “If it’s for me, I’ll gladly accept it. If it’s not, I will try harder.” She then won both awards.
Asked how she feels about her accomplishments thus far, the International cake expert said, “I’m very proud of where I’ve reached on this journey, it’s been a lot of hard, hard work and sacrifices beyond comprehension. After Italy, I’ve had requests for cakes in several parts of the world, and I’ve been fortunate to be able to deliver much to the expectations of the clients. I am overwhelmed by these accomplishments.”
Sohan is currently working on a big project that would soon be revealed. Her advice to others is “Despite the obstacles, the negativity and the tears, never let go of your dreams.”
By Bavina Sookdeo