An interview with Fiona Cairns

Royally appointed

An interview with Fiona Cairns

Fiona Cairns Ltd makes cakes for the luxury market, using the best quality ingredients. Their cakes are as delicious as they are beautiful and we at Parsley Box are delighted to work with them.

We talk to the company’s founder about how she set up her incredibly successful business and how she has built clientele ranging from the Royal Family to stars of the red carpet such as Paul McCartney, Bono and more.

Royal approval

There aren’t many people who can say they’ve washed in a florist’s bucket before shaking hands with the Queen – but Fiona Cairns, royal baker, is one of them.

Having been commissioned to make the wedding cake for Prince William and Kate Middleton’s nuptials in 2011, she undertook the task with her usual perfection.

It was such a huge honour to be asked to undertake such an amazing task. I still get goosebumps thinking about the stress of getting it all right

Fiona Cairns

She received the call asking if her company would take on the very important task of providing the cake just as she had finished the photography for one of her many books.

‘I’ll never forget that moment. I was happy with everything we had just done for the book and then the call confirming the commission came through. At first, I didn’t want to take it on, it was such a huge task. It was my husband, Kishore, who persuaded me that we could do it.’

The royal wedding cake was a major undertaking for Fiona Cairns Ltd

None of Fiona’s team had ever made anything like it before and constructing the cake was a real architectural project. ‘It was over 1 metre tall and weighed close to 100kg,’ she said – adding that it took three months to complete the project, including making over 900 sugar flowers.

‘A team of seven took the cake to Buckingham Palace and we were given a room above the kitchens to put the different layers together. It took three days.’

‘A team of seven took the cake to Buckingham Palace and we were given a room above the kitchens to put the different layers together. It took three days.’

‘The timings were so tight and we were given this schedule that the Queen would be coming through the picture gallery at noon, just after the cake was due to be finished.’

When Her Majesty arrived, Fiona was still in the last stages of cake decorating.

‘I’d been practising my curtsy but realised my hands were covered in icing so quickly washed them in a florist’s bucket before I shook hands with the Queen,’ she said. ‘It was quite a surreal moment!’

The months of preparation and planning all the details paid off and the cake was a great success – not surprising given Fiona and her team’s exceptional track record baking for the rich and famous.

Baking perfection

Fiona has been baking for well over 30 years and, even now, every cake leaving her production unit has been hand-made – through mixing and cooking to icing and decorating.

Her background in graphic and creative design – she went to art college after school – has been the driver for ensuring her cakes go above and beyond anything, although this wasn’t always the case.

‘I cooked with my mother when I was a child and we always had home-made cakes in the house. But I was so envious of my friends who had frozen chocolate eclairs and Mr Kipling fancies – they just seemed more interesting when I was that age!’

But time and an insatiable need to be creative soon overtook that initial fascination and her real passion for baking developed from transforming commonplace ingredients into extraordinary creations.

While Fiona loved the practical side of baking it was her husband’s idea to set up a business – sparked by the success of a set of fruit cakes cooked in (highly sterilised) baked bean cans.

‘They were a gift for some friends when we went ski-ing and went down very well,’ she said. ‘But I didn’t really see it as a commercial opportunity, I was just interested in making things that looked and tasted nice.’

Royally appointed cakes have taken pride of place in the Parsley Box Afternoon Tea box

It was Kishore who prompted Fiona’s desire to learn more about food.

‘When I got married, I didn’t know how to cook so went on a course and became quite good at it, particularly Patisserie.  The decoration came naturally because of my background in design.’

As a result of this innate ability Fiona spent some years working for the Michelin-starred chef Nick Gill – AA Gill’s brother – which included making a cake for Delia Smith to celebrate a book launch.

‘It read “Delia’s Done It” on the top and I still cringe at the thought of that, although it tasted good! It was all a bit nerve-wracking and something of a baptism of fire but it helped set me up for what was to come.’

Humble beginnings

Fiona Cairns Ltd started on her kitchen table and as orders came in Fiona started to employ people to help with the increasing amount of work.

‘It was difficult to begin with because I would check everything everyone was doing. I was really worried about making sure the same care and attention went into every product that I put in,’ she said.

That’s not quite so easy now as the business has scaled up dramatically and the bakeries are very busy. However, all products are still produced by hand  with literally hundreds of items leaving the production units in Leicestershire every day.

‘I’m genuinely thrilled at the fact we have such as amazing team. It has moved on from when I started, having to cook, take orders, sort deliveries, buy ingredients and everything else all at the same time’

There were a number of pivotal moments for the business which started when the Conran Shop placed an order for 72 mini Christmas cakes and 72 iced gingerbread Christmas trees.

‘They were all made on my kitchen table. It was the start of a whirlwind.’

Big breaks

From then, the floodgates opened and soon she was supplying Harrods, the Ritz, Paul McCartney (whose family still order a Fiona Cairns Christmas cake each year), Bono, Simply Red and then Fortnum and Mason – the ‘Royal Grocer’.

Her connections grew and by the time it came to the royal wedding, Fiona Cairns Ltd had built a strong reputation for being the best in the business.

‘It all came together because we were in the right place as a business at the right time. We were known for our fruit cake which is what William and Kate wanted for their wedding – all keeping in with British tradition,’ said Fiona.

Scaling up was inevitable and it wasn’t long before Kishore left his fulltime job to take over the day to day running of the business. This enabled Fiona and the team to concentrate on working in the bakery and focus on the development of the products.

‘I am very lucky I have that outlet for my creativity,’ she said, adding that she still regularly trains staff on various aspects of decoration and baking.

‘The key to the scaling up process is keeping the quality, which can be challenging given the number of orders we fulfil and the time pressures.’

The future

The business now has its own momentum and Fiona is able to work differently from the early days when all the responsibilities fell on her shoulders.

‘I’m able to trust the team of around 125 staff, they are truly excellent and work to exceptionally high standards.’

Fiona doesn’t plan to take it easy just yet, however. She has decided to get back to her art, taking part in a few courses.

‘I’m very much involved in where the business is going. However, I have a different perspective and am able to take on challenges I haven’t had time for in the last 30 years. I have more work/life balance. I’m looking forward to having another opportunity to be creative.’

Grasping opportunities

Fiona said if she had known half of what was going to happen to her when she was 30 years old she might have embraced the journey a bit more – although she regrets absolutely nothing about her journey to date.

‘I think my advice to my younger self would be to enjoy the journey more rather than chase outcomes. There were lots of times I think I should have stepped back a bit more and seen myself from the outside and look at how good things were.’

In terms of advice to anyone following in her footsteps, the key is to grasp opportunities and not to be scared of failure.

‘Kishore was the one who saw the potential for a business, not me. I didn’t really want to take on some of the big stuff like the Royal Wedding or the massive orders from Harrods and Fortnum and Mason as I was worried we couldn’t live up to expectations. But we took the chance and it paid off.’

As for the future, Fiona has every intention of continuing to accept new opportunities and to be involved with the business, injecting it with her trademark style and ability to think creatively.

‘I really don’t like the idea of retiring. So it’s not going to happen. There’s too much to do,’ she said.

We are sure there is going to be much more to come from Fiona and her business – and we look forward to working with her in the years to come.