How Carolyn Tada Portuondo Went From Toxicologist to Cake Master
The Royal Hawaiian’s executive pastry chef went from assisting in autopsies to crafting some of the most sought-after cakes in America.
After years of earning a reputation for specialty cakes in Las Vegas, Carolyn Tada Portuondo returned to Hawai‘i to work as the executive pastry chef at The Royal Hawaiian in 2014.
Photo: Courtesy of The Royal Hawaiian
Decked in a crisp, new chef coat, Carolyn Tada Portuondo hands me a white cake box and says, “Here. This is for you.”
It’s the first time I’ve met the executive pastry chef at The Royal Hawaiian, A Luxury Collection Resort, and she’s made me a custom cake—made from the hotel’s signature banana bread—in the shape of a pink surfboard with hibiscus blossoms. It’s adorned with plumeria flowers and leaves—all edible—with a too-cute-to-eat dolphin poking his head from the ocean.
While I marvel at this creation, this cake is actually pretty standard for the uber-talented Portuondo, whose highly detailed, sculpted creations include Champagne bottles, NFL helmets, quilted Chanel purses, Tiffany & Co. boxes, sports cars, airplanes, slot machines and an eerily lifelike The Walking Dead cake created for the cast of the popular AMC series.
“I just like that shock factor,” says the 36-year-old Punahou alum and mother of two. “I like to make stuff that people have never seen before. And when they get it and they’re shocked and happy, that’s what I love.”
Some of Portuondo’s recent cake creations.
Photo: Courtesy of Carolyn Tada Portuondo
Portuondo will be one of the chefs participating in the eighth annual Mangoes at the Moana this Saturday at the Moana Surfrider, along with Michelle Karr-Ueoka (MW Restaurant), Ed Kenney (Town), Mark “Gooch” Noguchi (Pili Group/Mission House) and Lee Anne Wong (Koko Head Café).
She joined The Royal Hawaiian in 2014 after running a successful retail bakery, Caked, in Las Vegas for about five years. She was featured in consecutive seasons of TLC’s Fabulous Cakes, earned dozens of awards for her cakes, and even created an exact, to-scale replicate of McCarran International Airport’s Terminal 3. Her stunning creations got her a gig with Paramount Pictures, baking for star-studded movie openings and lavish holiday parties.
Baking, though, was never part of her 10-year plan.
Portoundo, who grew up in Mililani, majored in chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Northern Colorado, with plans to earn a doctorate in pharmaceutical toxicology. She worked as a lab assistant to pathologists doing autopsies until she realized she didn't want to do that for the next 20 years.
So Portuondo, who grew up watching Great Chefs on PBS and had fond memories of baking oatmeal cookies with her grandma, ditched her plans and moved to Napa Valley, Calif. to attend the Culinary Institute of America. After graduation, she returned home to work in the pastry shop at Alan Wong’s Honolulu under executive pastry chef Mark Okumura. She met her husband there, got married, then moved to Vegas, working as a pastry lead for The Venetian Las Vegas. After the birth of her second child, she quit her job to be a full-time mom, baking custom, specialty cakes from home for family and friends. Word spread, and soon she was buying commercial baking equipment on Craigslist and eBay and storing them in her two-car garage.
“I would always say yes,” Portuondu says. “If they gave me a picture, I could make it exactly the way they wanted it. It’s the science side of my brain … In my brain, I can do anything—but it’ll cost you. And in Vegas, money is endless. It was the perfect place.”
In 2010, at the urging of her then-husband, Portuondu signed a lease on a recently closed bagel shop on Maryland Parkway and her fame skyrocketed. She was working at least 15 hours a day while raising two kids. She even built a play area in the 1,500-square-foot bakery for them, complete with a couch and TV. Then, one day, she was done.
“There are pros and cons to owning your own business,” she says. “You have that flexibility, but there’s the headaches, too, if anything goes wrong. You never really sleep well at night. You’re always worrying about if the fridge is working or if the A/C shut down. The bakery was at the top of its game and I decided it was time to sell. Within two weeks, I was out.”
Divorced and a single mom, she wanted to raise her children—now 9 and 10—back home. So she took the job at The Royal Hawaiian and never looked back.
As the executive pastry chef, she’s responsible for the pastry programs at all of the hotel’s restaurants and bars. Her bake shop, a fraction of the size she worked in at The Venetian, churns out everything from cheese brioche to custom specialty cakes that start at around $150.
Right now, the team is focused on the opening of a retail bakery in the hotel’s Coconut Grove in October. It will feature house-made pastries, croissants, bread pudding muffins, banana bread and a slew of nostalgic desserts that evoke the feeling of the historic hotel.
“It feels really calm to me,” says Portuondu about working at the hotel, compared to life in Vegas. “It’s not that high-stress, constantly going environment. And I’m at the point where I feel like I can do anything.”
See Portuondo’s creations at the eighth annual Mangoes at the Moana, Saturday, July 16 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Moana Surfrider, 2365 Kalākaua Ave. Free to attend with costs to purchase items, 922-3111 or visit the website.