Art You Can Eat

Flour, eggs and sugar become transcendent in the hands of some of Las Vegas’ best cake decorators

The art of cake decorating revealed itself to me in the unlikeliest of places: Tao Beach. It was Stephanie Pratt’s 24th birthday party in April, and bikini-clad cocktail waitresses interrupted my interview with the reality starlet to deliver her cake: a life-size 3-D sculpture of a sand bucket, complete with sugar handle and sugar sunglasses resting on top.

Pratt squealed and posed for photos with her pastry sculpture. And then, while her entourage ate slices of the sand bucket, she raved about a cake she’d received the night before—it was shaped like her favorite purse. She insisted on showing me photos and marveled about how “they” knew what her favorite purse was. Like the sand bucket, the purse was incredible.

Watching the spectacle, it hit me: There was some aspect of flour, eggs and sugar that, when manipulated by the right hands, became transcendent. This was … dare I make the leap … art?

And there was something about this “art” that seemed uniquely Las Vegas: the flashiness, the joyous audacity of creation, the fearless use of glitter. We may have lost our art museum, but perhaps we could still have a fertile ground for a different medium, one that’s not yet canonized past its point of freshness and experimentation. I recently made the rounds to test my theory.

• • •

After a little research, I discovered that there are two linked socio-confectionary breakthroughs that led to our cake-decorating boom. One was the popularization of fondant, frosting made out of sugar, gelatin and glycerine that can be shaped, cut, colored or molded, kind of like an edible Play-Doh. The other was the rise of reality TV shows featuring people who like to work with fondant: Cake Boss, Ace of Cakes, Ultimate Cake Off and more.

A local institution, Freed’s Bakery, was recently featured in one such TV show. Its 350-pound, 4-foot-tall caricature of the Strip was on the Season 2 premiere of TLC’s Fabulous Cakes. “We were forced to consider things like structural space and negative space,” third-generation baker and owner Max Jacobson-Fried says of the masterpiece.

A year ago, Fried made the connection between cake and art, seeking out several freelance artists for a pilot project. “We gave them some fondant to see what they could do with it,” he says. Pam Castiglione was one such artist. Before becoming a cake designer for Freed’s, she specialized in portraits and 3-D sculptures.

• • •

It took the act of starting his own business for world-champion pastry chef Chris Hanmer to realize he was also an artist. After rising to fame on the Food Network Challenge and working as the executive pastry chef for the erstwhile Ritz-Carlton Lake Las Vegas, he runs the School of Pastry Design, teaching professionals and hobbyists how to make chocolate and sugar showpieces, which can stand alone or be used as cake-toppers.

“It’s an art because the most boiled-down version of what people judge art by is that it has to move you,” Hanmer says. “And I think that what we’re able to create with our hands is actually moving in some way, whether it’s a wedding or it’s purely artistic.”

Hanmer entered the culinary world via the traditional route; he started training as a chef at age 15. And it’s been a long process of introspection to break out of the box of culinary tradition. Judging by the breathtaking sugar and chocolate sculptures decorating his kitchen-classroom, he has succeeded.

“I’m not going to paint the horse in the field,” Hanmer says. “I’m going to put some things together that represent the feeling of the horse in my field. Going to the modern art museum [in D.C.] helped me see that you can really do that.”

The most striking item is a 4-foot-tall abstract showpiece that to me is reminiscent of a dinosaur skeleton, but Hanmer has his own interpretation. “People go, ‘Chris, what is it?’ and my response is that it’s beautiful,” Hanmer says. “It doesn’t connect. ‘How can that be beautiful? What is it?’ It’s beautiful. ‘But why?’ Or, ‘It’s a zebra.’ ‘It’s a piano.’ No, it’s just beautiful.”

And yet, Hanmer, like all the cake decorators I spoke with, must toe the line between his artistic inclinations and the clients’ wishes. He likens it to the dichotomy between Pablo Picasso and Thomas Kinkade. “The public wants what they want,” he says, “and that’s why there’s a Thomas Kinkade gallery on every freakin’ corner.” And yet Hanmer, who prefers modern lines and sleek design, concedes that few brides desire a daringly avant-garde wedding cake. “It’s that duality that’s kind of difficult,” he says.

In the end, the teacher in Hanmer wins out: “I’m not going to cut my ear off and go crazy because I’m so artistic,” he says. “But I think it’s important to try to articulate to people that there’s no wrong way to create, as far as I’m concerned.”

• • •

So, independent and family operations are able to follow their bliss and create art while earning a living. But what about giant casinos? How would they fare, considering the sheer scale of their operations? Turns out, more or less the same.

“There’s nothing that I’d rather do than be decorating or doing pastry. It’s definitely an art form; I get to express myself,” says Bellagio assistant pastry chef Jeanette Droegmoeller, who started out as a fine arts major in college. “Depending on how I’m feeling that day, I might do more of a brighter cake with purples and yellows, or I can go more classical and stay all white. … Any kind of shape you want to do, you can do anything.”

Sensing that there was something special about the Vegas cake scene, Droegmoeller decided to move here to pursue cake decorating after graduating from the French Institute in New York City. The 26-year-old has been here two years and she loves it.

And if the elaborate five-tier cake that she was decorating didn’t prove her point, she gave me a tour of the Bellagio pastry shop, which had as many tools as an artist’s studio, but smelled a lot better.

• • •

A week ago, I was sitting in the kitchen offices of Gimme Some Sugar, a “boutique cake studio” near Sunset Park. On a long shot, I asked the owners, Kristen Wiese and Miranda Prince, if they happened to know who designed the cakes for one reality starlet’s birthday at Tao Beach.

The cake designers’ faces lit up. “We did!” Prince is a native Las Vegan, but Wiese came to Las Vegas because the “big things” that she wanted to do with cake decorating were “all here and I knew I couldn’t get that in Oregon.”

Like all the other chefs, Wiese and Prince found cake decorating to be the happy combination of art and edibles. And their impressive display of cake design showed their range of interests—from Wiese’s love of fashion to Prince’s affinity for what she calls “plain cakes.” And to give you a taste of what she considers plain, Prince’s favorite cake is a groom’s cake replica of the Q*bert arcade game. “I think a shaped cake with a story behind it is the best,” Prince says. For example, the 20-inch-tall Jim Beam bottle cake for Kid Rock’s 39th birthday at Lavo is an architectural feat that matches the recipient’s personality. The logo was hand-piped and the flavor was white cake filled with chocolate ganache. In addition to shaped cakes, Gimme Some Sugar also puts its own spin on traditional tiered cakes.

Wiese says that 75 percent of her inspiration for designs comes from fashion. “I’ll be looking around online or looking through a number of fashion magazines and I‘ll see like patterns or textures, things I want to incorporate. That’s fun for me. I like playing around with the fondant, doing ruffles and different appliqués, lace patterns, the fascinators, different accessories … That’s cake decorating: accessorizing!”

Next, the girls—the older of whom, Wiese, is only 26—led me on a tour of their kitchen. They showed me the now-familiar modeling tools, and handed me three different varieties of fondant to play with.

The duo pulled a banana sheet cake out of the industrial refrigerator and told me there was one more important aspect of cake decorating.

“What?” Was it another technique for shaping fondant?

“Taste!” Telling me how important it is to maintain flavor while decorating, the girls concocted a quick banana-cake-Nutella-and-peanut-butter sandwich. It was nothing to look at, but it tasted wonderful.

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