Some people focus for years and learn to do one thing very, very well. Such a person is Krystina Castella, a RISD graduate and industrial designer who parlayed her talent and training into a successful product design and manufacturing business and a professorship at Art Center. Others have so many interests that they jump from project to project—the proverbial jack of all trades and master of none. That’s also Krysina Castella… except somehow she’s managed to succeed at almost everything. Entrepreneur, writer, baker, teacher, business consultant, food historian, art director, children’s book author and author of dessert-focused books, including her acclaimed new cookbook, A World of Cake.
All this and, as you can tell from her photo, she’s still young. Obviously, this is one busy person, although with hobbies/passions that include baking and backpacking, she knows how to slow down, too. Plus she lives (with her husband, Brian) in Glendale, where life is peaceful. We caught up with Krystina to ask her a few questions about her new book and her busy and ultra-creative life.
How does one morph from industrial designer to children’s book author and expert cake baker?
It’s all about playing and creating in everything I do. It’s a way of seeing the world—looking beyond what is right in front of me. Investigating a box of materials to design great products, adventures in nature with photography to create a children’s book and exploring the kitchen to create unique foods. I have actually been baking for as long as I can remember, and food is just one of the materials I use to design. For this book, flavors, forms, patterns and rituals from around the globe inspired me to experiment to create new recipes.
Our colleague Jenn Garbee, who knows her baking and her cookbooks, gave your book a big thumbs up for its expertise on cakes of every type from around the world. How did you build this expertise?
It took me about three years to research, develop the recipes and write the book. I wanted to learn as much as I could about cakes, so I could decide which were the best to include from a global perspective. First I narrowed it down to 1,200. Then 500, then the final 150.
I researched the history by interviewing food historians around the country, folklorists at universities and librarians at cooking schools—including the Cordon Bleu school in Pasadena. The librarians helped me find research papers and academic journals. It was tough because there isn’t a single overview resource published on cakes, and mine includes both Western and Eastern cakes.
My students from around the country and the world all helped up by telling me about their favorite cakes. Everyone wanted to help—Eun Kim, a recent grad from Korea, and I met for tea at a rice cake shop in Koreatown; Kisun, also a recent grad, brought in snack cakes from Little Tokyo, and so on. I also visited as many international bakeries as I could find around town. Panaderias, sweet shops in Little India, mochi in Little Tokyo, rice cake shops in Koreatown, baklava shops in Glendale, mooncakes in Chinatown, empanada shops, Filipino bakeries in Eagle Rock and more. All the owners gave me advice on baking, culture and ingredients. You can see some of this in my book trailer.
I also did research through people on the web. Baking fans e-mail me every day from around the world on my cupcake site, crazyaboutcupcakes.com, so I e-mail them back and ask about their favorite cakes from their regions of the world. That’s how I found out about unknown gems from Africa, the Philippines, Australia and India. At one point I had seven people from Brazil sending me their favorite recipes! I also interviewed owners of bakeries and food web sites in other parts of the world. Through all this I discovered some cakes unknown here, and some international trends that hadn’t been important enough to historians make it into a cookbook. So the book mixes the classics with these deliciously obscure cakes.
Who ate all those cakes you baked?
Well, there were actually two phases of baking—the recipe testing and the photo shoot. While I was developing the recipes, I tasted them all myself and then brought some of the best into school and had the students choose their favorites. I’d leave them by the coffee cart and see which ones disappeared first. They always went quickly, because you can imagine how much the students liked free food—especially cake. I also gave them to my neighbors to test.
When we prepared the final cakes for the photo shoot, we cut them up afterward and gave a little of each to the crew to take home to their families to try—and, of course, I brought some to Brian, my husband.
Do you have a single favorite cake in the whole book?
It is hard to pick a favorite, because I like them for different reasons.
For taste, I am a big chocolate fan, so I have to say the simple devil’s food cupcakes from America, the sacher torte from Austria (where I lived for a while) and my reinvention of the German chocolate (with coconut milk) and black forest (with molded chocolate leaves).
For culture, I love all the cakes from the Far East—Korea, China and Japan—because they are so different from what we think of as cake. The Japanese cakes are especially fun. I like the green tea Castella sponge cake, because it’s so simple, and I think it’s so amazing that there’s a cake that has been popular in Japan for hundreds of years that bears my name! I love the tradition of mochi rice cakes and how it they are tied to the tea ceremony, and the hamburger and fries cakes from Tokyo have a funny story—many guys in Japan think it’s too feminine to eat cake in public, so they disguise it as other food, like hamburgers and fries.
You’ve been teaching at Art Center for 18 years. Are the students today any different from the students then?
Yes. Since I’ve been there it has been an international school. We had a European focus and a campus in Europe, but now we have many more students from Korea, Japan, China and India. I love it—the students bring tons of information about manufacturing, politics, business structures and education, all of which keeps me on top of the worldview of design.
The career interests of the students are also different. Eighteen years ago people came to Art Center to get a job with a big corporation or consulting company. Today they want to do their own thing, which is perfect for me, because I teach entrepreneurship. They are also really socially conscious. Instead of designing just beautiful objects, they want to put their creativity toward thing like getting food and water to the poor, creating medical products for the Red Cross, and designing business strategies to help implement some of the UN’s global objectives for 2015.
Apparently you don’t sleep, because among your countless other projects is a short documentary called Made in L.A., in which you look at the strengths of our local manufacturing industry. Do you see hope for manufacturing here in this outsourced age?
Actually, I do sleep—a lot. What I don’t do is watch TV—I haven’t for 20 years, only here or there when visiting my parents, so that frees up tons of time.
I teach a class where every week we visit a factory and talk about manufacturing with different materials and processes, and the politics around outsourcing versus staying local. For many years I owned a manufacturing company where everything was made in L.A. But I also worked with licensees who made my designs overseas—so I learned a lot about both. I think in the areas where we compete on price, that will continue to go away—even start to leave China, which is getting more expensive, and move further into Africa, Southeast Asia and India. But high-tech industries will continue to grow here. Products that need new materials and processes will be prototyped and developed here in short runs and then move overseas for volume. And we will always continue to make products where time to market is an issue, and just-in-time inventory is important.
You’ve written books on cakes, cupcakes and popsicles, so we know where your culinary heart lies. Where do you go in the greater Pasadena area when you’re craving something sweet?
I go to Little Flower Candy Company on Colorado—Christine Moore is really great, and I love her candy and the coziness of her shop. I have enough cakes and cupcakes around here, so I don’t go out for baked treats much—but I can’t resist Dots in One Colorado. I pick up some of their cupcakes every time I walk by. And I love the homemade pies at Pie ‘n’ Burger.