Vet versus veteran ... not to mention all the others. Mark Schembri and Merle Parrish face up to their opposition in the banana cake category at the Show yesterday. Photo: Peter Rae
HE IS responsible for all 13,000 animals at the Sydney Royal Easter Show but the real pressure for Mark Schembri is in the cake judging pavilion.
The 33-year-old has been the chairman of the veterinary committee for three shows. In 2009 he travelled to Harvard University as a John Monash Scholar to learn how best to prevent infectious diseases among the Show's animals.
But when he can, Dr Schembri trades overalls for oven mitts.
His infatuation with baking started in 2004 when he and three friends entered a Sydney Royal cake contest for a bit of a laugh.
"We quickly realised that the competition is fierce and taken very seriously and we weren't to make a joke of it," he said. "Before we knew it, we were hooked and wanted to do well."
Early attempts brought three disqualifications - for breaching length restrictions, for putting almonds in a sultana cake and for using orange-flavoured icing instead of lemon.
His luck turned in 2006 when he met baking champion Merle Parrish, a life member of the Country Women's Association.
"I saw a lady smiling away and she seemed to be winning everything," said the Maroubra-born vet. "So I humbly approached her and asked for some guidance."
A fortnight later, he baked a cake, packaged it in a lunchbox and sent it 300 kilometres by express post to Cudal in the state's central west.
Ms Parrish, who rose to fame via MasterChef last year, judged the cake and offered feedback.
Dr Schembri posted 10 cakes that year and claimed second place in the sultana cake category at the following Show.
"He's a great student," said Ms Parrish, who currently has the top-selling cookbook in Australia. "He rings eight or nine times every night when he's cooking."
When it came time to learn how to ice his creations, Dr Schembri spent a few weekends in Ms Parrish's kitchen.
Yesterday at the Show he went head to head with his mentor in the banana cake category. He didn't win - the cake's bottom was too soft - and nor did Ms Parrish.
But that hasn't deterred him. "I'm not stopping until I get that blue ribbon," Dr Schembri said.
"He's never given up," said Ms Parrish, who has been baking for 72 years. "Since that very first day, he's never given up.''