August 29, 2012 10:00:24 AM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
As a 16-year-old moving from South Africa to Tupelo 12 years ago, Linkie Marais admits she was in for a huge culture shock. ("Everything in America seemed bigger: Big cars, big houses, big portions, and everybody asking, 'Where are y'all from?'" she recalled.) But Marais embraced her new home and, within little more than a decade, went on to make the Magnolia State -- and Mississippi University for Women, in particular -- proud, as a finalist on the most recent season of the reality cooking show "Food Network Star."
Marais, blessed with good looks, warm personality and a huge talent for cake decorating and desserts, won national fans and found favor with celebrity chefs Bobby Flay, Alton Brown and Giada de Laurentiis while filming the show's eighth season, which aired this summer.
The 2006 MUW culinary arts graduate returned to her alma mater Aug. 22 to say thanks and share cake decorating tips with current culinary students. The public also had a chance to meet the chef at a reception on campus later that same day
In an interview via phone while en route to Mississippi, Marais, who currently lives in Attleborough, Mass., recalled her early impressions of MUW.
"When I toured the campus and saw the culinary arts department, I completely fell in love," said the chef, who first discovered her cake decorating gene while working for a Tupelo bakery and caterer during high school. "I'm so excited to go back to the place where it all started for me -- so humbled by all the support I've received from Columbus and the W, and I'd love to thank everybody."
Passing it on
"You create a wave in your icing and keep it out in front of your spatula to avoid crumbs," she told students in MUW's Culinary Arts Institute's kitchen Aug. 22. With swift, efficient strokes, Chef Linkie demonstrated how to apply a flawless coat of icing to a cake. Her audience paid rapt attention to tips for decorating with both buttercream and fondant icing.
"Viva paper towels can become your best friend," Marais smiled, showing how to smooth buttercream icing by laying a paper towel across the cake surface and lightly and evenly rubbing with a flat hand in circular motions. For fondant she used a fondant smoother.
Students took pictures and even recorded with their phones as their tutor demonstrated techniques for creating decorative elements with Royal icing, such as scrollwork, basket weave, an embroidery look, tiny polka dots, nautical ropes, bows, lace and tassels.
During the two-hour workshop, students gleaned tips on using egg whites as a pastry "glue," how useful a pizza cutter can be with fondant, and how some painters' tools can be used in cake decorating. They heard that overly-thick fondant on a cake is usually a sign of a less experienced decorator, and why it's critical to be armed with extra icing (as well as those Vivia paper towels) when delivering a wedding or special occasion cake.
"The cake is your canvas and you 'paint' it with colors and textures," she summed up, encouragng students to study and experiment.
Following Marais' national television debut, the bilingual chef is busy with plans for the future. She's launched a series of cooking classes and is working on a cookbook she hopes to have out next summer. Some day, she expects to open a shop or two.
"And I'd love to come down South eventually, to have a farm," she added.
Her time on "Food Network Star" was well-spent, an important building block in a culinary career.
"I really surprised myself on the show with what I accomplished," Chef Linkie stated. To be challenged to push herself in a short amount of time, to be placed in stressful situations and overcome them, was also life-building.
"I think the biggest thing I'm taking from the show is that I am who I am, and as long as I believe I can do something, others around me will believe it as well. I don't back down from a challenge," she smiled, "and now that I'm off the show I'm already looking for the next challenge."
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Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.