Grace Stevens…Most know her as the exquisite, beautiful, classy and successful award-winning talent with a wicked sense of humour who is a regular face on television (and online), author of her outstanding collection of baking books, and food personality of note – living the dream life that many envy!
But what most people do not know is that this wife and proud mother of four, now 41, had to endure some of the most painful daggers that life can possibly throw at you. And that if it was not for baking and cake decorating, Grace would possibly have been stuck in the darkest pit of depression for a very, very long time.
Grace shares openly: “I’ve always loved baking – experimenting and trying out different baking techniques. I’ve been tweaking recipes since I was around 13 years old. In the year after I had my eldest daughter, I fell pregnant with another little girl. I was so delighted! However, at 13 weeks, she was diagnosed with anencephaly. She wasn’t expected to survive delivery and we were advised to terminate my pregnancy.”
As a person with strong faith, Grace (together with her husband) felt that it was not their decision to make and chose to take the baby to term. “It was during this pregnancy that I began cake decorating in order to keep me distracted during what was an extremely difficult time for me,” she states.
Sarah-Jane Stevens was born two days after Grace’s birthday. “We took her home where she passed the following day in my arms. I was overwhelmed with grief. It consumed me. My best friend was very worried about me and suggested I start advertising my cakes to sell at our kids school. She hoped that me focusing on something else would pull me out of my dark depression. It worked. I was surprised how busy I became and it helped me heal and to work though my grief. I pushed myself to get better and better, and to try different things,” she reveals.
Grace’s first big break…and second, and third, and more
Despite being qualified and previously working as a teacher, Grace just continued to become more and more successful in this new field. She fondly remembers the day when Gavin Rajah called her to order cupcakes for his friend’s baby shower: “When he introduced himself, I thought someone was pranking me! I tried to sound cool while my kids buzzed around me demanding my attention. The exposure I got was just amazing.”
She was also encouraged to enter a baking competition. “The prize was a pre-recorded segment on the television breakfast show, Expresso. I entered and was given an awesome opportunity to work with Expresso’s presenter, Ewan Strydom. That led to a live segment…and wow, that was already five years ago. From there more things added up and I kept my head down and worked hard, which I still do,” she says.
One would surely believe that Grace’s best-selling books must be her biggest achievement to date for her personally, professionally speaking. She states: “They are high up there, but I’ve had the privilege of teaching some remarkable students who have gone on to do amazing work and teach others, some becoming award-winning artists. Not because of me, mind you. They were always amazing. They just chose me to walk with them on their journey for a while. I am so privileged to teach others about this wonderful art form, known as cake decorating.”
Grace regularly presents a variety of workshops all across the country. Details are available on her website and social media. She continues: “I’m always so touched when someone asks me to sign a really beat up copy of one of my books, where the pages are stained with cake batter and the pages are dog eared. I’m humbled that they let me teach them something new.”
Apart from being the owner and founder of Cupcakes by Design, Stevens is also a tutor at Pretty Witty Cakes, the world’s largest online cake school, which boasts students from 58 countries.
So does she ever get tired of baking and decorating? In authentic Grace style, she addresses this: “At times I’ve struggled to juggle being a mom and running a business, but I’m inspired each day by my students and my family. I have surrounded myself with great people and when I lose my mojo, they’ve helped me clear the cobwebs in order to carry on.”
Tracing Grace’s roots
Grace currently lives in Bergvliet (Cape Town) with her husband of almost 19 years, Wayne (who owns an IT business), and their children Kellan (16), Julia-Anne (12), Simon (9) and Zach (almost 4).
But long before this, Grace was born (20 April 1977) in Cape Town – the fourth of six children, including three brothers and two sisters. It was at age 14 that the family, with her father being a Presbyterian minister, moved to Grahamstown for two years, followed by Vryheid in Kwazulu-Natal, where she matriculated. As soon as she left school, Grace packed her bags and made her way back to the Mother City, where she studied Phase Foundation Education for four years at what was then known as The Cape Town College of Education.
As she was living in “res”, where she made some lifelong friendships, Grace had to earn some money as a first year, resulting in what she refers to as probably her worst job ever – but which taught her a valuable lesson. She regales: “I got a job at KFC in the kitchen. I marinated chicken pieces and packed them for cooking. I also cleaned lettuce and actually did everything and anything that needed doing. At the end of the day my shoes would be covered in chicken guts and my hands stung from the tiny cuts from the chicken bits. But I learnt a valuable lesson then about loving what you do for a living.”
After graduating, Grace started teaching grade two children at SACS Jnr. But it would not be long before she made her way back to baking, as it was almost always destined for her. She shares: “When I was 9 I made cheese scones for my teacher. The pleasure it gave her ignited my passion to bring that same pleasure to others. My eldest sister taught me to bake – I owe all the basics to her. My home economics teachers in turn helped me understand and explore the science of baking and inspired me to master the basics, which of course gave me a firm foundation.”
Grace had the privilege to study under Eunice Borchers (her mentor and role model) for seven years, as she recalls: “She taught me the basics of cake decorating and so much more. I’d bounce new ideas off her and she’d give me honest feedback. I’ve also spent time with other incredibly generous decorators and chefs who have guided me and walked with me along my path. I love doing baking and decorating courses; I’m always signing myself up for something.”
Apart from Eunice Borchers (who sadly passed away in 2017), Grace also recently met another of her cake idols, Di Edgecomb. “She blew my mind with her generosity. I’m now fortunate to call her a friend,” she says.
Getting to know even more about the real Grace
Grace describes herself as fun and friendly with a philosophy in life to always try and be brave. “Think big and go big. I also believe that we need to take care of each other, show compassion, and worship the Creator – not the created,” she adds.
“I love people and I love talking to people, but I prefer to unwind at home with my family,” she continues. “That’s how I recharge. So I guess I’m a little bit of both an extrovert and an introvert. I feel things deeply and I overthink everything. So, I guess I’m a bit soppy rather than sensitive.”
In her free time she loves to crochet, grow orchids, take a walk and she adores reading novels. She says that something that will surprise her fans is that she would rather take a nap that eat a slice of cake.
And speaking of fans, Grace says: “I’m always so flattered when people take the time to read my books and try my recipes. I love to hear how creating something of mine has created happiness in their lives. I get a kick out of swiping through their photo pics on their phones to see the cakes they’re proud of.”
The loss of a child was also not the only big obstacle that Grace had to overcome in her life. Once again, she opens up: “My feelings of self worth was a big issue for me. I’ve always struggled with my relationship with my mother. I was never good enough for her and I thought that if I did things the way she wanted me to, she’d like me, or if I’d dress a certain way or said certain things that I’d win her over. It didn’t matter what I did, she found fault with it. My twenties were full of self doubt as a result. I had to end the self-destroying cycle. Since then I’ve learnt that my worth doesn’t lie in what others think of me, but in what my Creator thinks of me. This misplaced focus almost did me in. I’m grateful for the people in my life who helped to shift my perspective.”
The legacy that Grace would like to leave behind one day is to be remembered for how she loved her family and friends, adding: “The people who witnessed my life, I want them to know I loved them.”
Despite so much experience under her belt, Grace still gets nervous, which she says is a good thing as it makes her focus and keeps her sharp.
And does Grace have any other hidden talents that most people do not not know about? She laughs it off and states: “I am the world’s best lunchbox packer.”
Grace concludes by sharing her next big dream, which will no doubt happen: “I would love to have my own baking show, showcasing savoury and sweet home bakes that families can bake together.”
Share in Grace’s experiences
For more on Grace, visit her website www.gracestevens.co.za.