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Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
Baker Julius Johnson preps for his big day. (Photo: Sandra Larson)

Local baker constructs cake for Dudley groundbreaking

Julius Johnson no longer starts work at 4 a.m., as he did in the first years of his baking career. These days, the 30-year-old Dudley Square resident and executive pastry chef at Boston Common Coffee Company has a crew to do that.

But near February’s end, Johnson was anticipating 12-hour days and predawn work as he embarked on the biggest project since his culinary training began 14 years ago at Madison Park High School.

On March 3, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino will preside over the groundbreaking for the Dudley Municipal Center, the $115 million project meant to breathe new life into the Ferdinand Building site and jumpstart economic revitalization in Dudley Square. After the speeches and shovels will come the ceremonial cake cutting. And that’s when the spotlight will turn to Julius Johnson’s construction project—a tall, multi-tiered cake meticulously designed to be a 3-D model of the new municipal building.

With five days to go before the groundbreaking, clad in a flour-covered apron in the kitchen of Boston Common Coffee’s downtown shop, Johnson described the cake assembly schedule and challenges. The Dudley cake is his own project, but he has the full support of his boss, owner Peter Femino, to create it in the workplace kitchen, working at night after his normal shift.

On a shelf near the oven Johnson has hung an image of the architects’ design drawing, which shows a modern brick and glass structure rising above the old Ferdinand’s furniture store shell. The drawing reminds him what he’s aiming for — and just how complicated the building’s historic facade is.

“I’m pretty detail oriented, so it’s causing me some stress, trying to get it just right,” said Johnson. His living room floor is covered in Styrofoam bits and blueprints, he said, the leftover debris of an intense artistic process. He only received the assignment a week earlier, so it’s been a whirlwind.

“Tonight I’ll make my buttercreams, and color my fondant,” he said, referring to the glossy icing used as a finish on decorative cakes. Culinary terms slip easily off his tongue as he describes the craft and detail involved in such a project.

Johnson grew up in Dorchester and attended Madison Park High School. He considered directing his love of words and grammar toward a college English major, but his talent shone in Madison Park’s culinary program and he went on to earn a culinary arts certificate at Bunker Hill Community College. He landed baking jobs at Sebastian’s Catering and Flour Bakery + Cafe before taking his current job in 2010.

One of Johnson’s dreams is to open his own custom cake studio, but he remains a man of letters as well as manual arts. He writes poetry and reads in his spare time, and makes a hobby of studying his collection of 200 plus cookbooks.

Along the culinary training path he met and was mentored by Toni Elka, formerly of the Anthony Spinazzola Foundation and now executive director of Future Chefs, a school-to-career program she founded for urban youth interested in culinary arts.

It was Elka who recommended Johnson for the Dudley cake project.

 Elka explained in a telephone interview that Shawmut Design and Construction, the construction manager for the Dudley Municipal Center project, has also been helping Future Chefs move into a new Boston space. When the city’s planners began organizing the groundbreaking, they asked Shawmut to check with Future Chefs for a baker recommendation.

“They asked if we knew somebody that might want to make this cake,” she said, “So I called Julius. I knew he was professionally accomplished and would enjoy this. I knew it would be a fantastic opportunity for him.”

As Johnson recalls it, “I told Toni I’d be honored, and the ball was rolling from there.”

Back to this week’s countdown, Johnson said, “Tomorrow I’ll bring in my Styrofoam mold and shape it to the cake I’ll be baking.” On Wednesday he’ll decorate the inedible parts of the massive structure and create window details.

“The Ferdinand part has a bazillion windows,” he has discovered — and conveying the color of glass with frosting is not easy.

Thursday night, he can start baking. No fancy flavors, just vanilla and chocolate. The whole structure can be created using square pans, he said.

Friday he’ll bring the cake squares home and assemble the full structure there. The final three-tier creation will be about two and a half feet high. On the big day, he’ll transport the cake — just a few blocks, but with utmost caution — to the indoor location across from the Ferdinand site where the cake will be cut. It could snow, but he’s thankful it won’t be hot—that’s when cakes are more likely to melt or fall.

After the Mayor’s initial cut, Johnson will start slicing and serving. His mother, who also lives in Dudley Square, and his sister, coworkers and other fans will be on hand to help or just to cheer him on.

Elka is confident he will pull off the project. “I don’t think he would commit to doing something he couldn’t execute. I have total faith in him,” she said. “And what he’s doing is one of our tenets at Future Chefs — you have to work outside your comfort zone, and do more than you’ve done before.”

Johnson is humble, preferring to call himself “head baker” rather than executive pastry chef, a title he calls “frou-frou.” But he is clearly proud of the work he does. That is not to say he hasn’t had nightmares about how things could go wrong. But when he imagines them going right, it’s a simple, satisfying vision: “First, the people responsible for wanting this cake are as excited about seeing it as I was about getting the offer,” he said, gaze focused upward and hands gesturing expressively as he imagines the scene, “And second, everyone who eats it will enjoy it as much as I did making it.”

As he posted on his Facebook page recently, “I may be baking a cake that will change my life.”