Story by Kern Wadkins
Images by Cirrus Gold Creative Company
Looking for a delicious treat to satisfy your sweet tooth this summer? Opened in summer 2021 by former art educator turned baker Jenna Poole and chocolatier Ashley Legieza, Custom Cake Studio in Old Town has been turning food into art for parties, events, and everyday treats.
With their yummy Saturday cinnamon rolls, and rotating cake flavors of the month, there’s always something tasty to try.
We sat down to talk to Jenna about the intersection between art and food, and why she loves baking for Columbus.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you first become interested in baking?
My mom always had me in the kitchen, showing me the process behind whatever she was making or baking. She was a stay-at-home mom, so she was always making home-cooked meals and homemade desserts, and it was important to her to include her kids in that activity. It was super fun for me. Not only did I get to see the process, and learn about ingredients, recipes, and measurements, but I also got to taste things as we went along, which I loved.
I have memories of me being in the kitchen with her as far back as they go. I was probably three or four when we started cooking together. I have memories of washing produce in the sink with my little stool. My mom let me decorate my own birthday cake at five years old. It came naturally to me because I was around cooking and baking so much — it was just a part of our everyday.
Do you feel like decorating cakes was a gateway into thinking about becoming an artist?
I didn’t truly decorate cakes when I was little. My mom just gave me the freedom to play around and see what would come from it. She was also very creative. She would let us paint all the time. I was encouraged to be creative a lot when I was younger. It wasn’t until I got to college that I started to recognize the connections that can be made between food and visual art. When I started to get serious about baking, I really started looking at a cake like a blank canvas. For a great cake, it has to taste good, but you also need to think about the design and the color scheme, and it has to be put together in a way that looks aesthetically pleasing. If it’s not nice to look at, well then that kind of ruins the taste, too.
My best cakes are when people say, “Here’s my color scheme, here’s my theme. Now you roll with it.” It’s hard to go along with pictures of another cake that someone else has created. It sometimes feels like a faux pas as an artist, like “I don’t want to copy their work.”
Is there a certain kind of cake that you really like to make?
Yes! I love an abstract cake. I love it when someone gives me a color scheme and says, “Make it however you’d like.” So I try to get a feel for the event. Of course, if it’s an elegant bridal party, I’m not going to something that’s bursting with color. My goal is to match the aesthetic of the event. Or if I can get a good idea of the customer’s personality, then that will help me make artistic decisions to give them a great cake. It’s kind of like branded food.
Was there a period of time when you stepped away from baking?
I wasn’t baking much on my own during most of my childhood. I was just in the kitchen, helping and learning.
In high school, I began making cakes for other people on my own. We were in a culinary club my senior year. I was actually in it with Ashley (Legieza), who is my baking partner at Custom Cake Studio. That’s where we started doing cakes for other people. We had someone ask us to do a wedding cake, and it really took off from there. I loved doing it, and it became a primary hobby for me.
I took twelve years and really honed my skills. I was constantly watching YouTube videos, following other cake artists, and trying new things. I didn’t have the proper tools for a long time. For years, I decorated with a butter knife, and finally, I thought, “I really want to do something with this, and I need to invest in myself.” Slowly, little by little, I got the equipment that the professionals had. And when I got a turn table that’s when things turned around for me. (Laughs) So to speak.
What kind of things did the turn table allow you to do?
With that, I was able to finish professional-looking cakes. It’s so hard to get a smooth edge with a butter knife.
I look back on some of my old cakes, and I am so embarrassed. But the good thing about that is, I feel every year that passes I gain more skills, and ideas, and learn more about recipes. It’s really professional development like you do in the teaching world. Of course, now I’m on my own for professional development, but I really love it, so I constantly want to learn new things. The more I do it, I feel like the better it gets.
So even looking back on my cakes from two years ago, I’ve grown so much since then. And I hope I’ll be saying that two years from now.
You have been selling cakes as a side business since high school?
Yes, just to friends and family, and then through word of mouth. In 2018, I made the decision in my head that I wanted to be more available to make cakes and hone my skills. And that’s when I started to taper off some of my other extra responsibilities. That’s when I decided I wasn’t going to coach, I wasn’t going to spend my afternoons at school. I knew I wanted to be at home more with my family.
I started to realize that baking gave me more joy. I decided then that I was going to put myself out there on social media, take better quality photos, and experiment more in the kitchen. I needed to make things for others, but I also needed to make things for myself to get to know what I could do.
I still kind of feel this way, but I felt like I didn’t make enough time for myself. I was always at the mercy of what everybody else wanted me to do. Because it’s all about the money, right? This is my career, but I started focusing more on skills and techniques that I didn’t have or know about, and I would set a goal to try them out on the weekend.
From there, I started to be able to make suggestions to customers. If they said, “Well, I don’t know what I really want,” I then had the confidence to say, “Why don’t you try this?” I made time to practice the things I would see online from other bakers.
And a year and a half after that is when the pandemic hit, and we were at home, with some time, so I used that time to focus on it even more. It just became very clear to me that baking is what I loved most. It was during the pandemic that I started to think, “I could do this full time.”
Do you feel like much has changed about how you work since you opened your brick-and-mortar store?
The creativity aspect of my job hasn’t changed much. I’ve always taken so much of what I learned at art school into what I do. I got an art education degree from Columbus State University, but I got to go through all of the visual art classes in addition to the education classes. So you get that basis of all the art techniques, which has been huge for me as a baker. People will come to me with a color palette in mind, but I only have twenty shades of food coloring, so if I’m going to get that perfect shade, I’m mixing colors just like a painter would. I also love painting on rice paper or fondant, edible paper. I’ve done a few of those, and it’s literally like putting a painting, a work of art, onto a cake. It’s a lot of fun.
One of the things I love about cake so much is that you can have a base recipe, and you know that base recipe is going to come out the same every time you make it. But within that structure, you can add whatever you want to add to make different flavors, so a lot of our different flavors, like key lime, coconut, strawberry, whatever it may be, you’ve got that base recipe for vanilla and then you add to it and play.
We taste it along the way because we want to make sure our products are delicious going out the door, but it’s so flexible. You don’t have to have an exacting recipe for the cake to turn out well. You get to play around and measure from your heart a little bit, which I love.
I’m not a rule follower, so anytime I can step outside the box, that’s the best thing. Ashley and I play off of each other’s ideas all the time when it comes to new flavors. We’re always saying, “Hey, what about this? But what if we added THIS to it?” And then, we’ll do it, we’ll try it, and it’s so exciting when we can look at each other and say, “Yes! That’s amazing!”
How did you bring Ashley on board with your vision of a full-time bakery?
Ashley and I have been friends since the third grade. We were Beavis and Butthead, inseparable. So of course we were in the same culinary club after school senior year. We both had that passion for food and cooking, but we didn’t know what we wanted to do with it. She moved away for a while. She went to Florida to go to culinary school.
She ended up becoming a cake decorator at Winn Dixie. She left culinary school and got her degree in business, which is fantastic for what we do now. It really feels like, for both of us, every step we took led to us being ready for this moment.