Michelle Boulos July 2022
strawberry cake with strawberry jam and buttercream and“rainbow sparkle”
Where are you from and what did you grow up eating?
I am from a little town in Massachusetts called Duxbury that has really tasty oysters. But I didn't grow up eating oysters. I grew up eating a lot of American food like mac and cheese and peanut butter on ritz crackers. Also my mom is Korean so we’d eat things that were Korean tinged or Korean in form but Americanized in content.
What’s an example?
We’d make Ssam with all the bits but with hot dogs and scrambled eggs. So actually kind of like a deconstructed Kimbap that was delicious, just not traditional. My dad’s family was around a lot and they identify as Italian-American. We almost always had Sunday dinner with my Grandpa who made his mom’s meatball and sauce recipe. There was always pasta, meatballs, salad, and sometimes cutlets. The pasta shape would change and the cutlet meat would change but everything else was pretty much the same.
Did you ever cook?
I’ve always been really interested in consuming food in all sorts of ways – eating, watching it be made, watching it on tv, reading recipes, listening to people talk about food…
So you’ve always been into food?
Yeah like a little obsessed. I used to spend hours on Epicurious looking at recipes. I kept a folder of printed recipes and my grandma was probably like “What is she doing?” I probably wasted so much paper on ink just printing recipes and then I made like none of them! I did make these blondie bars from All Recipes that my family was really into. I made them probably once a month. My family kept all the dry goods in once cabinet and we used a lot of garlic salt so everything always had a slight savory taste to it. I really try to keep that from happening now (but I don’t hate it.)
Because it’s nostalgic?
A little home-taste!
That’s your signature thing. What’s the secret ingredient??
I keep everything around garlic salt.
So how did you start No Good Cakes? I also loved your original name.
Nommel Gobble? Aww thanks! So I started it as a food insta.
Like a mood board type thing?
I like thinking about it that way. It was early in quarantine and I had been making oatmeal. I forget how I got into that but I heard about 28 days of oatmeal from Ben Mims. (*The chef Lukas Volger started this project on Instagram). I don't even eat breakfast but I got really into the oatmeal thing.
Oatmeal with pistachios: steel cut oats with coconut manna, rosemary infused wildflower honey, black tahini, pistachios and flaky salt
Oatmeal with blueberries: steel cut oats with
coconut manna, wildflower honey, blueberries, and violet syrup (violets blended
with suncoco oil and honey)
So how did you move from oatmeal to cakes?
Some friends had birthdays and I was like, “Oh, I'll make a cake.”
Is that something you had done in the past? Making cakes just for fun?
No and yes. I’d make simple cakes for fun. There was a one layer pear almond cake from food52 that I was really into for a while. But I didn’t make involved, frosted layer cakes before quarantine. Then I made some frosted layer cakes for friend’s birthdays because it seemed fun to do and I had the time. I decorated them the same way I had done oatmeal – piling things in the center and then pouring things on top. I liked the way the different consistencies mixed together. So I kept making cakes that way and sharing was a fun way to be a part of community online.
Yeah, and also just not be bored and totally sad during quarantine.
Yeah definitely. I think for a long time I felt uneasy about it though, people liking my cakes. I was like, “Oh, this is the phenomenon of making something and people liking it. Wow, okay, attention!” And then I’d try not to think about that because it made me nervous. But I was continuously surprised. I was like, “I don't know what I'm doing but you all like my cakes!” I still don't know what I'm doing, but I know a little bit more.
Just like the rest of us. We all just have impostor syndrome except for maybe the chef fuckboys but they’re imposters too!
It's true. None of us totally know what we're doing. And that's okay; that's part of it. And being able to have the support and space to be able to be comfortable with that is so freeing. Comfortable despite the discomfort. And I guess that's the tragedy of chef fuckboys right? And toxic masculinity. They’re trapped in their isolated and isolating ways, in their pedestal cages.
Yeah too bad for them. But also whatever, go do your Michelin stars stuff. We'll do cakes and oatmeal. Right? It's just more fun that way. It doesn't need to be fancy to be good.
I think that's really important, that it doesn’t need to be fancy to be good. Fancy can be interesting, and also it’s exclusionary and determined through the reproduction of systemic power. Eating is for everyone and so is creativity. I like to think of it as everyone's inherent right to be able to connect with and be in their creativity and to celebrate the goods of that with each other. And I think access to that depends on peoples’ experiences of safety and belonging. I sometimes get sad about how ideas of legitimacy can create barriers that impact how much participation in humanity and joy we afford other people.
I don't know if I've ever said it that way, but I feel the same way. Which brings me to, what is your process? And where do you draw inspiration from? How do you start a cake idea?
My process is pretty conversational. So when I’m coming up with the idea I ask the client “What are you interested in? What is it for, what are you feeling or wanting” and then “what is a no-go?” I build it out from there and pull on a big catalog of flavors and experiences. And then for the making process sometimes I sketch things out but not in great detail. I just kind of go with it as I do it; each thing informs the next. It's pretty spontaneous in that way. Another thing I'm always thinking about it water and tidal things.
Water as inspiration?
Yeah, I love watching water. Being in water, feeling water. The surface tension of water is a big somatic resource that I go to.
honeydew flavored cake with honeydew flavored pastry cream, brilliant melon jam and honeydew flavored buttercream, inspired by melona popsicles
Do you swim?
No I'm really bad at swimming, actually!
I like floating! But I'm not a very active participant in water.
I thought you were gonna say “swimming is where I feel the most peaceful.” Haha!
No definitely not. I'm actually really scared of big deep water, like even a pool.
That's okay, it's kind of exciting and freaky. Yeah, maybe not the ocean so much when it's really deep. But like, I love going to the beach. I like seeing where it's shallow where you can see the bottom and the sand sparkles.
To get the inspiration.
Yeah. Where the water is small and warm. But when it gets big and cold I’m like whaaaaa! Nature! Scary!
Oh, that's interesting. Do you go to the beach often?
Not super often, a few times a year. But I look at pictures I’ve taken of water all the time. And when I go, it really lasts. Also I usually am noticing water in a way that feels very fulfilling like, wherever it is, even if it just like sprinklers or something. Or when washing my hands or doing dishes. I like the way the water pools even if it's kind of gross. Sometimes it's beautiful! When I was a kid, I was around water a lot. My grandparents had a pool and a stagnant pond I loved a lot and my hometown has a beach. When I was really little, my parents and I would go to Duxbury beach almost every day during the summer.
So there's that nostalgic foundation. Do you like seashells?
I love seashells. I love rocks from the beach, seaweed, drift wood, seaglass!
What's special to you about using a cake as your palette?
I think something I really love about it is that it's going to get eaten.
gf thyme and lemon cake with cherry and grand mariner jam and thyme buttercream
vegan strawberry cake + vanilla bean soak + strawberry jam + vanilla bean italian buttercream + vanilla bean jelly
Yeah, I love that about it. And I love that even if it doesn't come out the way I want it to, you’ll always be able to eat it.
What’s difficult about cakes and pastries is you can't try them before serving them; you can't take a slice out to try. So do you do recipe testing?
I don’t… it's so expensive! But if there's something that I liked and or someone liked, and I do it a few times, it develops through revisions.
Yeah you figure it out by testing it out on people which I've been doing too. Like with cooking, I can always taste things.
But when you trim things as you assemble a cake you can taste those bits to make sure it works. Also I only make minor ingredient changes in reliable recipes and I'm pulling from an index of flavors that I know work. And if I'm not sure, I'll consult the internet about a flavor combination.
Do you have a favorite cake that you've made?
There are a few. I make a lot of cakes with fruits and herbs because our produce is so wonderful here. I’ve really become a fruit-forward cake person, but my favorite is still chocolate.
When did you move to LA?
About seven years ago.
Yeah, coming from the East Coast to LA is magical for year round produce. You can eat strawberries in December.
It’s so awesome.
Anyways, what was your favorite cake?
Oh, right. Favorite cake. Um there's a few.
And how long have you been doing this now?
A couple years now.
Is it your main thing?
It was during quarantine but now I'm working full time. I’m a facilitator at a self-directed learning center and I’m direct care staff at a mental health treatment facility. I have a longstanding interest in becoming a therapist and I’m interested in how trauma theory and abolition feminism can inform each other and how that can improve mental health practices, especially within communities. Everyone needs more support. I'm sorry I get off topic really easily!
Oh you have so many layers amazing. Beautiful layers just like a cake!
I’m a cake, you can cut into me! Ok favorite cake, strawberry cake with rosemary buttercream.
What is your frosting base for vegan cakes?
Still meringue but made with plant protein. So the ones I've made for you are with soy protein. But I got potato protein for these wedding cakes I made for a wedding recently. You have to order it from the UK. It doesn't have any beanie flavor and it works so beautifully.
So you love the strawberry cake, what other cakes?
I love this baker Stella Parks and she has a white cake recipe that is really soft and tender. I soak it with a little rosewater simple syrup and then make a raspberry rose petal jam and rosewater buttercream; it’s really yummy and it’s my boyfriend’s favorite. Last summer I made a few chocolate cakes with orange curd, peach jam and brown sugar buttercream variations. I could eat a slice of any of those every day. Clients have come up with some of NG’s tastiest cakes. One client, D, came up with almond, hojicha, honey, blackberry and black sesame. Another client, E, came up with chocolate, mint and miso cake.
Chocolate cake with fresh mint leaves, mint soak, adzuki bean miso ganache, adzuki bean miso and chocolate Swiss buttercream, mint jelly
Wow that sounds delicious. Is the miso in the frosting or the cake?
It's in the frosting and the ganache.
What color is that cake?
For the chocolate buttercream it comes out like a cappuccino color but if the client wants a different color, I just do a layer of vanilla and do the color they want. I did that this morning and made a tennis ball yellow/neon green frosting.
How do you make the colors?
A lot of different ways, lately though, I’ve been relying on airbrushing. Sometimes I’ll put the food coloring straight into the frosting and sometimes I’ll dye the buttercream and airbrush it. Doing both works really nicely for bright and neon colors.
Do you have any things you’re excited to put in your cakes this summer?
I’m so excited about stone fruits and also figs. There’s this peach called gold line peach that looks like it has a bunny tail. It’s very cute and they’re only available for two weeks!