Valhalla's Sam Slade on Baking at Altitude, Cakes for Same-Sex Couples and Donald Trump's Head
Unlike certain high-profile bakers in Colorado and Oregon, Sam Slade, owner of the recently opened Valhalla Cakes, is clear about one thing: She wouldn’t shy away from making a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. In fact, she doesn’t shy away from much: A veteran of Le Bakery Sensual, Slade is no stranger to designing outrageous cakes. Now serving a selection of ready-to-go baked goods and custom cakes out of her Berkeley storefront, she’s continuing to push boundaries. Find out whose severed head she recently put on a cake — and why she considers herself more of an artist than a baker — in the conversation that follows.
Westword: Valhalla Cakes opened this spring. But you were running it out of Temple Bakery before then, right? How did that trial run help you?
Sam Slade: I was running Valhalla Cakes out of Temple Bakery for about two months. Being surrounded by other entrepreneurs was a wonderful experience. My favorite part was helping here and there with the buildout of the space and witnessing firsthand the hard work that goes into opening a brick-and-mortar. When the spot on Tennyson opened up, I had to go with my instinct and leave. Not only was there a lack of a cake shop on the street, but I also live a few blocks away. It had been my plan from day one to have my shop in the Berkeley neighborhood, and I’m so glad to be here.
Valhalla owner Sam Slade is no chicken when it comes to designing cakes.
Why the Scandinavian name and Valkyrie mascot?
Honestly, I just really love Viking lore and mythology. Since Valhalla is where Valkyries go after fighting in battle, I like to think the bakery follows a heavenly theme. In a sense, Valhalla could be filled with strong women, dessert and an all-around happy vibe, which is how I like to think about my shop.
Do you do the baking on site? Why or why not?
I have an off-site baker, Lori Arosteguy, in Five Points. She’s...absolutely amazing. She has way more experience than me with baking, which guarantees that my cakes are delicious. It also gives me more time to concentrate on turning the cakes into works of art.
Your family owned bakeries in Chicago. Did you work in them growing up? And how much did that early exposure influence your career choice?
My dad owned a few bakeries in Chicago in the ’90s. I basically grew up in them. I remember spending Saturday nights with him, staying up all night and helping make doughnuts, bread and other goodies. I guess it really stuck with me. Whenever I go back home, we make it a point to bake together. I have always been an artist, and I feel I found the perfect balance. I definitely owe some credit to my bakery roots.
Slade uses airbrush to design the cake's finish.
You graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. What’s your degree in?
At SAIC I dabbled in a ton of different mediums. Sculpture and illustration were really what I concentrated on during my years there. I hit a wall and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life, so after I left, I worked in an office for a while. That was the only year that art was not really present in my life, and, boy, was it miserable! I then thought of going to pastry school, when a family friend who also owns bakeries in Chicago suggested that I intern for a cake shop. I had no idea that people were making works of art out of cake, and I instantly fell in love with the concept.... I had a scientific-illustration teacher who told me that I had to learn to be patient with my art, which I could never really do. Fortunately, I found a career where there’s not much time to be patient. You have to be fast and good at it!
If you hadn’t become a baker, what would you be? Did you consider other careers, such as graphic design?
I actually wanted to be a graphic designer for the first year I was at SAIC. I quickly figured out that I don’t have the patience. I still do love illustration, and I like to think that I would have tried to go in the tattoo-artist direction. I love working with people one on one, but I know it’s one of the toughest career worlds to try and be a part of. Also, tattoos are forever. Cakes last a few hours. I think I’ll stay where I’m at.
Do you consider yourself a baker or an artist?
I definitely consider myself an artist. Cake is just my medium.
You spent four years at a very quirky bakery, Le Bakery Sensual. How much did that experience influence Valhalla?
I did work at Le Bakery Sensual, and working there greatly influenced me to open up Valhalla. John [Spotz], the owner, and my co-workers quickly became my Denver family. John and I actually went on vacation to Mexico after my first year there. He really let me do my thing. I got to introduce new techniques and learned some more skills from him. Also, I witnessed firsthand what it would be like to run a cake shop. Being there definitely drove me to want something of my own someday.
What was the most outrageous cake you’ve ever decorated?
The most recent cake that comes to mind would have to be a life-sized severed Donald Trump head that was ordered for a birthday party when I first opened. I truly enjoy creating the more gory cakes and testing my ability to make people or characters look like the real thing. It was a little extreme, but definitely a lot of fun to create.
Cupcakes on display.
Given the brouhaha over bakeries in Colorado and elsewhere refusing to make wedding cakes for same-sex couples, is there any kind of line you’d draw, if you legally could?
I would never refuse to make a cake for same-sex couples. The only line I would draw would be if a cake idea came from a truly hateful place.
What are some tricks of the trade when decorating? What materials do you use? Probably not the powdered sugar, food coloring and sprinkles we all grew up with.
My best trick when it comes to cake decorating would be to remember it’s cake. I have a time limit when it comes to creating these, and if I ever find myself dwelling on one tiny detail, I remind myself, “It’s cake. They’re going to eat it, and it’s gone forever.” It takes a lot of pressure off and has made me better at what I do. I’ve recently been using modeling chocolate for figurines. It tastes great and really allows me to create detailed, realistic sculptures.
What’s a career highlight?
Mostly, that I get to create every day. Also, that my customers are trusting. They mostly have been telling me to add my own personal touch to their ideas. It feels great.
Hardest moment in your career, and what it taught you:
Probably having to make the big jump and leave Le Bakery Sensual, and not having an income for a while.
If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Lou Malnati’s Chicago-style pizza. It’s great hot or cold, and I miss it every day.
What’s your idea of happiness?
To one day be living on a beach in Mexico.
Best tip for a home baker:
If you’re new to Denver, definitely go low and slow with the oven. The altitude is a real thing, and I had to learn the hard way.
Any question you wish I’d asked you?
My favorite dessert? Ice cream all day!
Valhalla Cakes is located at 4426 Tennyson Street. For more information call 303-619-5952 or go to facebook.com/valhallacakeshop.
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