Vianey Zuniga-Guerrero never thought of herself as an artist, or much of a cook.
But the down economy has helped the young Watsonville mother to create a niche market for herself as the region's top gelatin chef. She creates floral work and designer cakes—all made out of gelatin.
Zuniga-Guerrero spends hours in the kitchen mixing her unique flavors of gelatin from fresh fruit (peach is her favorite) and painting cakes.
It's a far cry from where she was two years ago. Zuniga-Guerrero had a corporate job on Santana Row in San Jose. But when the commercial property management company slashed its payroll and laid her off, Zuniga-Guerrero's mother encouraged her to focus on these Mexican delicacies.
A Skill That's in the Family DNA
Zuniga-Guerrero grew up with her mother, who immigrated to the U.S. 45 years ago, making traditional cinnamon- and vanilla-flavored gelatin cakes out of a milk base. What Zuniga-Guerrero whips up now still has that milk base but is flavored with pecan, then whatever fruit the customer requests. Strawberry, pineapple and guava are popular, she said.
"I've never been a person who likes to paint or draw, but I like doing this. It's art."
The cakes are made with molds and can run up to $75 each. The intricate flowers that Zuniga-Guerrero sells for $3 each are designed by hand.
She says it only takes her a minute to use color-filled syringes to transform a clear mound of gelatin into a delicate, realistic-looking rose, sunflower or other blossom. The edible art is popular as a gift for wedding or quinceañera guests.
"I've never been a person who likes to paint or draw, but I like doing this," Zuniga-Guerrero said. "It's art."
Adopting for Customers of All Kinds
The flowers may be the most beautiful gelatin creation that comes out of Zuniga-Guerrero's kitchen on Palm Avenue, but the chef has lots of other tricks up her sleeves.
Her gelatin can be molded into just about anything: custom-designed gummy candy, marshmallows, or treats dropped into champagne glasses. Cartoon cakes are big for children's birthday parties and the local AAA branch ordered a cake with their logo popping off the top for an office party.
Zuniga-Guerrero is coy about the oddest item she's made, saying only that it was "something for a bridal shower, so you can just imagine what it was."
Introducing Others to the Family Passion
In addition to the commercial business, Zuniga-Guerrero teaches others how to work with gelatin. Her four-session program—done on the weekends so her husband can care for their 10-month-old—runs $75 a class and includes all materials.
By the end of it, students are building 3D cakes, mixing their own gelatin and creating those gorgeous flowers Zuniga-Guerrero makes.
"This is something that's becoming pretty popular," she said.
To place an order or register for a class, call Zuniga-Guerrero 539-6260.