Nastassja Lusengo is the founder and creative director of The Indulgent Sugar Plum (TISP) a concept bakery and lifestyle store she established in 2013. The company makes luxurious, handcrafted cakes that are essentially works of art.
She featured on the Channel Four series Extreme Cake Maker between 2017 and 2019 and will appear in #TheBigBake show on Food Network Canada starting 31 March 2020.
Nastassja was born in Zimbabwe and emigrated to the UK with her family when she was one.
Nastassja, I’ve got to start off with asking about your family pedigree to understand how you became this extreme cake maker!
My grandfather is one of the board members of the legendary Dynamos Football Club in Harare. One thing with my grandfather is that he loves cake. He doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t drink but he loves cake. When any of us go back home we must take him some and I always take him a minimum of five or six, and he doesn’t share with anyone – he stashes them in his freezer. He tells his wife to put in her own order if she wants cake!
How did you learn to bake?
I learnt from my mum and grandma. Baking is something that our family just does. My nan makes a lot of bread. My mum is a food scientist, really into food and she loves cake. My brother loves cake and is a cake artist too…everyone in my family loves cake. If you don’t love cake, you’re not a true Lusengo! We must question your identity! (laughs).
How did you then journey from learning from your family to where you are now?
It really started when I was in university in Kingston where I did a BA in Fashion. I would bake in my free time and I continued doing so for family and even colleagues when I worked in corporate. I always got great feedback but for a long time it was just something
So why didn’t you become a fashion designer?
I just thought that the fashion industry didn’t need me because everyone wanted to do it. In addition, my end of year project didn’t go as well as I’d wanted and I thought maybe this wasn’t for me. I did work in fashion retail though starting at LK Bennett and Diesel and in theatre too.
How did you deal with things not working out then way you’d planned?
It was tough and I didn’t even want to sew anymore – I even developed this fear of sitting at the sewing machine. But I had to accept that it was down to me and tell myself that this was not the end. I had a lot of conversations with myself! One thing I never stopped doing was baking which was my comfort. Even whilst I was working at LK and Diesel, I baked.
What eventually pushed you to bake full-time?
At Diesel, after people got wind of my baking, it became a custom for everyone to hang around reception on a Monday morning eating my cakes. Then people started asking me to bake cakes for them and I’d have no idea what to charge, but the orders pushed me to really take it seriously. I owe Diesel a lot.
You actually had different career aspirations, didn’t you?
Actually, my passion was always and still is art and medicine and I always rocked between art and science. I wanted to be a doctor because I like making people feel good. And of course, my mum, being an African parent wanted me to be a doctor. She set me up for medical school at A’ Levels and even applied for me, but I didn’t turn up for the courses. In the meantime, I’d applied to two art schools and was accepted. In a way, I’m still making people feel good…with cake!
The Indulgent Sugar Plum – how did you come up with the name?
Well I just gave it the name Sugar Plum randomly when someone asked me the name of my company. But an American company had the same name and so I had to change it. In fact, the owner suggested adding Indulgent and of course it sounded good, so I went with it
Now – about Extreme Cake Maker – how did that happen?!
I had just found a space for my business in 2016 and I got a call from Channel Four who found me through Instagram. Benjamina – @bakedbybenji – who was a contestant on Great British Bake Off Series 7 and who followed me recommended me when a producer asked her to recommend a baker for a new show; she passed on my details even though she didn’t even know me.
Boomerang, the production company for Channel Four, then called me and invited me to be part of the show. I couldn’t believe it of course and told them they’re lying and even asked my sister to google them to check them out! I had a Skype interview within days and that was it!
The funny thing is I’d applied for Great British Bake Off and they told me three times that I was too professional!
A challenge you faced in the early years of your career was…
People trying to mould me to be a certain type of baker. I was never going to be a typical baker and that’s what my tag line says…’I’m not your average…!’ Even though I started as a novelty baker what I really wanted to do was use my artistic skills and change
the narrative of cake making. I wanted to bring artistry to cakes.
So how would you describe yourself? Baker doesn’t sound like it quite fits…
I’d say a cake architect.
And your cakes are…
A marriage between fashion and baking where there’s a mutual agreement that fashion would be the essence, but baking will lead the show!
How do you want people to feel with your cakes?
To see my cakes as a piece of art. I don’t want them to just cut the cake. I want them to adore it and feel that it’s just as good as looking at a Monet or as good as going to the Tate Modern museum.
And how do your cakes make you feel?
They do the talking for me. (laughs). They start conversations for me and have given me so much confidence because of that. Often people think that I’m this little girl so because my creations can captivate, they get people talking and that gets me talking too.
How long does it take to make one of your cakes?
About five to six days.
Who works with you?
I bake myself but when I need help, I call on my family. I try not to just churn out lots of cake but create a few high quality pieces. When I work, I develop a relationship with my cakes, so I like to work on my own a lot.
Who or what inspires who you are?
My grandmother and my uncle. My uncle was really into art and encouraged that artistic side of me. My grandmother also taught me to knit and do applique and she was of the opinion that we choose what we want to be. But it was my uncle that really nurtured
my love for art and that’s when I realised, I didn’t want to be doctor anymore but an artist.
When I told my mum, she said artists don’t make money till they die! That sentence has stuck with me all my life, not in a negative way, but as a fuel to show her that being a creative is viable. She supports me totally now.
Your business growth strategy is…
Allowing organic growth. Being intentional but allowing the right people to come at the right time. I’d say that TISP is more a tortoise and not a hare!
What’s the goal? What’s the dream?
To be a pioneer in cake art and create haute couture cakes. So, I’m not so worried if wedding magazines won’t always look at us…but an art magazine…yes!
In a world with so many bakers, how do you stand out?
By being a pioneer. I want to indoctrinate people to a new way of seeing cake. Food gets Michelin stars and cakes need to elevate to the same echelons.
I’m kind of living a dream now – I’m blown away
when people stop me in the street and talk about
my cakes; that’s not to say it’s not without sacrifice
though. Dreams do not come without sacrifice and a
little pain – it’s a necessary part of the process.
Follow Nastassja and The Indulgent Sugar Plum here:
Facebook: The Indulgent Sugar Plum