Artists Who Cook: The Baker
Sugar, flavor, color: his palette inspires his pallet...or is it the other way around?
Scrolling through Jonathan Russ’s Instagram feed is a pastel, decadent, sugarladen visual vacation. Cakes bloom with sugar flowers you’d never guess weren’t the real thing, sprinkles are thrown with abandon, macarons are gilded and glisten with rock candy jewels.
You half expect, when meeting the force and sugar genius behind Jonathan Caleb Cake, for him to break into song and dance, or at least immediately hand you a lollipop.
“Maybe I need to start that,” he laughs, acknowledging his celebrity and culinary renown. Here’s a guy who embodies his art, who loves what he does. He’s exhausted, but you’d never know this from his glowing smile and enthusiasm. He’s coming off his recent stint at Greenville’s Indie Craft Parade, selling out of 3,800 of the macrons that people can’t get enough of. That’s a literal mountain of confectionery.
Biting into a mediocre macaron may make you think, “This is good, I guess.” Biting into one of Russ’s creations? A marvel of taste, texture, and color. His Fruit Loop-flavored macaron tastes dead-on like the sweet fruit-flavored milk left in the empty bowl. Salted caramel is a lovely—and admittedly surprising—shade of teal.
“Well, I think sea salt and I think of the sea… that gorgeous blue color makes sense to me.” That’s an artist talking about color, that personal connection giving story and depth to a creation. His recent creations for local jeweler Lyn Strong look like sparkling geodes, glistening with deep-hued rock candy and edible gold.
How did sugar become his outlet? “My mom always cooked and baked, and family is so important to me. There’s joy in that togetherness.” When it comes to creating a wedding or birthday cake, he’s invited into those joyous moments with other families. “To be a part of that moment, to walk in with the cake I created and look at everyone gathered to celebrate—it’s a special, one-time event. It makes all of the work worth it. I just love it.”
After a cake decorating class on the weekends during his senior year at Clemson, Caleb worked with his mom to make his own graduation cake. That moment sparked his creativity, and soon he was ordering out-of-print British sugar flower books to teach himself sugar artistry, learning more about flavors in baking. He was in his… well, his sweet spot.
So when he’s not creating works of delicious art, what’s he cooking at home? What’s balancing all of the sweet? Here’s where the scales shift, to say the least.
“I’m so boring. Honestly? I do a lot of meal prepping, weighing my food: I eat fairly clean. Nutrition is really important to me,” he admits.
Wait—the king of delicious sugar treats is also a Crossfit trainer and weightlifter? Don’t let that fool you: he brings his confectionery creations to work often. Laughing, he quips, “I guess it’s like carb loading? I feel like my cooking for people is guinea-pigging them: I’m all like, ‘Tell me what you think. Is the flavor right?’” After the taste testing, they get to work dead lifting and doing burpees.
That balance continues in his professional life. As a social media director for a catalog by day, Russ’s confectionery side job has recently taken a larger role. Two months ago, he went parttime to make more room for his art, furthering his dream of opening a storefront in the next year. “I want a large kitchen with a great team, and a small gorgeous retail space. A place to come in, sit and enjoy coffee and a slice of cake.”
What will it look like? “An Instagrammer’s dream!” He envisions his art inspiring others—colorful and delicious.