occasions

Grueling Hours, Private Planes, Meghan Markle, and Piles of Buttercream

Can Madison Lee become the new queen of big-money bespoke cakes?

Photo: Christian Rodriguez
Photo: Christian Rodriguez
Photo: Christian Rodriguez

Madison Lee’s Garment District studio sounds more like a SoulCycle class than a bakery filled with batter, buttercream, thread-thin edible lace, and delicate sugar flowers that are sculpted deep into the night. “I try to find music that’s a minimum of 135 beats per minute,” Lee explains. “It helps me focus.” She taps her foot as she pulls a tape measure across the top of a Styrofoam dummy cake. “Then I’ll change to a more uptempo song to let the team know it’s time to speed up.”

It is 11 o’clock on the Thursday night before a wedding weekend, so that time is now. Lee, wearing her signature chef’s jacket and red lipstick, darts to a whiteboard for a quick bout of mental arithmetic. “I’m missing a tier!” she announces to a small gaggle of assistants gathered around a table.

Petal by petal, they assemble intricate sugar flowers, just as they’ve done for days. At one station, tiny lilies of the valley; at another, regal chrysanthemums. A new employee, fresh out of architecture school, carves petals into sheets of gum paste, hoping to meet Lee’s exacting-yet-intangible standard: “It has to be perfect,” Lee explains. “And that means not perfect, like in nature.”

Approaching 2 a.m., Lee takes over from an assistant who’s struggling to press a convincing ivy mold. Lee demonstrates with a hearty press: “It’s not working,” she explains, “because you’re afraid.”

As it turns out, there’s no room for fear when creating cakes that can cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars for clients who might very well charter private planes to convey finished confections to where they need to be. The world of high-stakes, bespoke baking is filled with fabulously wealthy clients, all-night baking sessions, and — for the people like Lee who actually make these extravagant showpieces — grueling physical labor behind the impossibly ornate details.

Doing battle with a batch of yellow cake batter, Lee digs into the depths of an industrial mixer that almost completely envelops her petite five-foot frame, using her (freshly washed) forearm as a giant spatula. “This is where I should have maybe gone to my dad’s,” she says. “He has a bigger mixer.”

After dropping out of college, Lee, a Long Island native, learned the trade at her family’s classic Italian bakery, Cousin John’s, in Park Slope. A decade ago, she was a newcomer and the only female in their kitchen — “It was torturous!” Lee says with a laugh — but it was there, along with a stint working the door at a nightclub in Greenpoint, where she honed her unflinching work ethic. “My first clients were walk-ins at Cousin John’s who saw my display cakes in the window,” she says.

She continued to train, under the legendary baker Betty Van Norstrand and the British sugar-craft expert Alan Dunn, as well as with the sugar artist Nicholas Lodge in Atlanta. She also appeared on novelty cooking shows like Cake Hunters and Ridiculous Cakes, where contestants build confections shaped like, say, giant hoagies, pizzas, cheeseburgers, or even buildings. “It was too rough,” Lee says of reality-TV cake-baking. “I don’t want to press bricks into things.”

After six years churning out dozens of occasion cakes every week at Cousin John’s, she’d built up a client roster that allowed her to make her own mark, with sugar flowers and elaborate wedding cakes towering five, six, or seven tiers high. “This is what I always wanted.”

For decades in New York — and around the world — the world of elite cakes has been dominated by a single name: Sylvia “the Queen of Cakes” Weinstock, who began her cake career in 1978 at age 50 and, now pushing 90, retired from cake commissions in 2017.

When Weinstock started, women had minimal roles in professional kitchens and cakes tended to be decorated with real flowers that had been, Weinstock says, “sprayed with insecticide — who wants to eat that?” Over her 40-year career, Weinstock’s client roster grew to include names like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Kennedys, Mariah Carey, Oprah, Michael Douglas, and — as you might already know — the Clintons and Trumps alike.

Still, she says, “I don’t know who came up with that ‘Queen of Cakes’ title. I guess I could be a king, but I don’t have the equipment.” Now that Weinstock is retired, there is no clear-cut successor to the title of Cake Queen, but there is more than enough competition.

Sketching out a design, and several of Lee's finished cakes in her workshop. Christian Rodriguez.
Sketching out a design, and several of Lee's finished cakes in her workshop. Christian Rodriguez.

If the industry had a King, it would likely be the Israeli cake maestro Ron Ben-Israel, who’s been dubbed the “Manolo Blahnik of cakes” in his own right and has the designer-shoe-shaped cakes to prove it. Meanwhile, D.C.-based ballerina-turned-baker Maggie Austin has baked for President Obama, and in San Francisco, Jasmine Rae’s austere, sculptural cakes might be the world’s most perfect Pinterest fodder. (Later this year, Lee plans to host Rae in her studio for a workshop series.)

“Everybody wants it,” Weinstock says of the title. “Is there one name? No, but I think Madison Lee wants to try for that.”

But Lee and Weinstock fervently disagree on one crucial cake issue: Weinstock famously despises fondant — the heavy-duty icing that can be sculpted and molded, as well as help cakes withstand tricky weather conditions — while Lee embraces it. (“It’s a big debate,” Lee says.) But the two women also have plenty in common and are almost evangelical about using batter made from scratch. Both agree that it’s an issue of control: “As a chef, it means I have complete control over the ratios, and the ability to adjust textures and densities of the cakes,” Lee explains.

Lee and Weinstock also share a crucial secret weapon: Three years ago, Lee hired Weinstock’s former right-hand woman, an unflappable sugar-flower master named Vilna Peters. A native of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Peters spent 33 years working under Weinstock, and it wasn’t uncommon to see her in the cockpit of a chartered cargo plane with only a wedding cake in the back, on its way to a multimillion-dollar wedding in the UAE, Florence, or South Africa. (Peters recalls one commission that ended up being flown to Bahrain for a wedding. The budget was $175,000, she recalls. “And they didn’t even want any cake,” Peters remembers. “That one was pure Styrofoam.”)

“Madison is very lucky to have Vilna,” Weinstock says. “She has wonderful hands.”

It sounds like Peters feels similarly about Lee: “She bakes, she designs. At the end of the day,” she says, “the magic comes from her hands, her vision.”

Magical hands, however, aren’t enough to stand out in New York’s upper-echelon baking scene. Instagram skills are key, and the flip side is that you must also stay one step ahead of everyone else who’s good at Instagram, where ideas can be replicated instantly. “I’ll make a fuschia and post it on social media,” says Alan Dunn, the British sugar master who trained Lee, and “the next day I see that someone else is making fuschia.”

But even if Instagram has changed the speed with which the industry moves, at least one constant remains: the unmatched marketing cachet of celebrity clients. So when Lee didn’t receive credit in the press materials for what was perhaps America’s most-watched cake-consuming event of 2019 — Meghan Markle’s star-studded baby shower at the Mark Hotel — she took to Instagram.

Skirting the limits of a lengthy nondisclosure agreement signed with Kensington Palace, she purged her entire account, leaving behind a single image of what was ostensibly the royal-shower cake-display table, several zipped-mouth emoji, and a cryptic caption: “Actually there were 2 cakes,” a not-so-veiled reference to the behind-the-scenes work that went into making both a show cake and the one served to guests. On just a few days’ notice, Lee had created a special recipe known as the Duchess — a buttery yellow cake with elderflower buttercream, filled with fresh berries — and another tier of gluten-free cake with German chocolate, a nod to the event’s host, Serena Williams.

Women weren’t always welcome at the top of the baking industry.

When Betty Van Norstrand burst onto the all-male cake-competition circuit in the 1960s with her decorating partner Irene Miller,We were oddballs,” Van Norstrand remembers. “We were housewives.” That description downplays just how taxing the work could be. In the case of a looming major cake deadline, it was “20 hours a day, day after day after day,” Van Norstrand says. “I’d work until three in the morning, sleep until 6:30, get my children up for school. That’s what you have to do if you want to be successful.”

Even now, the hours required to create these showstopping cakes are brutal. “You’re talking weeks and weeks and weeks of gradual work for one cake,” Dunn says. “There are people out there who will spend days making a single rose.”

The dedication to craft is so intense that many of these new-generation bakers would rather be called cake artists and want cakes to be recognized as a legitimate artistic medium. For her part, Lee is concocting plans to display her works in an actual art gallery. But for now, these cake artists have an edible product to deliver, and for spare-no-expense clients, transporting the cakes can be just as difficult as baking them.

In March, Lee found herself needing to transport a partially completed seven-tier wedding cake, which by then had required 2,000 man-hours, from her midtown studio to a rented commissary kitchen in Miami, and thence to a ceremony in ritzy Coral Gables. At nearly $40,000, the project budget offered enough wiggle room to charter a small propeller plane to transport the cake to Miami.

Racing up the West Side Highway to an airstrip in White Plains in the back of a Chevy Tahoe driven by her mother, Lee propped herself on a gallon bucket of Satin Ice fondant. While her mom handed out Excedrin and tortilla chips, Lee gazed at the Intrepid, docked on the edge of the Hudson River.

“We put a cake on that once,” Lee said. “There was no way to get it on there, so they put it on a crane.” She pulled up an iPhone video depicting days upon days of labor swaying precariously in the wind. “I was a nervous wreck!”

Lee’s signature perfectly imperfect sugar flowers. Photo: Christian Rodriguez

After the flight, in the rented kitchen in Miami’s Doral neighborhood, Lee and her team finished carving architectural rivets into each cake tier, delicately iced it, buffed the fondant coating, and dusted each petal with edible powder paint. Having made around 5,000 cakes in her career, Lee didn’t hesitate when the time came to hoisting the central, 80-pound cake tier onto her shoulder and impaling it onto a trio of wooden support rods.

The cake’s final hours in Lee’s hands were spent sweating in the Miami heat on the way to the venue, where, in a nail-biting turn to avoid walking it through cocktail hour, the massive midsection was lifted over the neighbor’s fence before the massive strawberry shortcake arrived at its final resting place. If Lee was shaken, it didn’t show. “Vilna, I need a chrysanthemum — a big one,” she exclaimed as sugar flowers finally came out of their cases and made their way onto the cake. At the eleventh hour, an assistant lifted Lee into the air to place the final bloom.

By the time a couple slices through one of her cakes, Lee and her crew are usually long gone. For Lee, that’s the nature of this particularly ephemeral art. “It lives at the venue for four hours,” she says with a shrug. But even if she’s stoic about her cakes’ limited life spans, staying to serve them is still too much. “I never cut the cake,” Lee says. “It’s like creating a piece of art and killing it yourself.”

This post has been corrected to show the total budget for the cake flown to Miami was $40,000, not $20,000, and that the club where Lee worked was in Greenpoint, not Brighton Beach.

Can Madison Lee Become the New Queen of Big-Money Cake?