Madison Lee’s Garment District studio sounds extra like a SoulCycle magnificence than a bakery packed with batter, buttercream, thread-thin safe to eat lace, and delicate sugar vegetation which might be sculpted deep into the night time. “I try to locate music that’s a minimum of a hundred thirty-five beats in keeping with minute,” Lee explains. “It helps my attention.” She taps her foot as she pulls a tape degree throughout the top of a Styrofoam dummy cake. “Then I’ll exchange to an extra uptempo song to permit the team to understand it’s time to hurry up.”
It is 11 o’clock at the Thursday night earlier than a marriage weekend, so that point is now. Lee, wearing her signature chef’s jacket and crimson lipstick, darts to a whiteboard for a quick bout of mental mathematics. “I’m lacking a tier!” she broadcasts to a small gaggle of assistants collected round a table.
Petal by way of petal, they bring together complex sugar vegetation, simply as they’ve executed for days. At one station, tiny lilies of the valley; at another, regal chrysanthemums. A new employee, clean out of architecture college, carves petals into sheets of gum paste, hoping to meet Lee’s exacting-yet-intangible well known: “It needs to be perfect,” Lee explains. “And which means now not ideal, 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 no longer operating,” she explains, “because you’re afraid.”
As it turns out, there’s no room for worry while creating desserts which can value tens or maybe masses of lots of bucks for clients who may very well constitution non-public planes to convey finished confections to wherein they want to be. The global of excessive-stakes, bespoke baking is packed with fabulously rich customers, all-night baking sessions, and — for the humans like Lee who actually make those extravagant showpieces — grueling physical exertions behind the impossibly ornate details.
Doing battle with a batch of yellow cake batter, Lee digs into the depths of a commercial mixer that nearly absolutely envelops her petite five-foot frame, the usage of her (freshly washed) forearm as a large spatula. “This is wherein I ought to have perhaps long past to my dad’s,” she says. “He has a bigger mixer.”
After dropping out of university, Lee, a Long Island local, discovered the exchange at her family’s conventional Italian bakery, Cousin John’s, in Park Slope. A decade ago, she become a newcomer and the simplest female of their kitchen — “It changed into torturous!” Lee says with fun — however it changed into there, along with a stint running the door at a nightclub in Greenpoint, in which she honed her unflinching paintings ethic. “My first clients had been walk-ins at Cousin John’s who saw my display desserts in the window,” she says.
She endured to educate, below the legendary baker Betty Van Norstrand and the British sugar-craft professional Alan Dunn, as well as with the sugar artist Nicholas Lodge in Atlanta. She additionally regarded on novelty cooking shows like Cake Hunters and Ridiculous Cakes, wherein contestants build confections formed like, say, giant hoagies, pizzas, cheeseburgers, or even buildings. “It became too difficult,” Lee says of reality-TV cake-baking. “I don’t need to press bricks into things.”
After six years churning out dozens of occasion desserts each week at Cousin John’s, she’d built up a client roster that allowed her to make her own mark, with sugar flora and tricky wedding desserts towering five, six, or seven stages high. “This is what I continually wanted.”
For many years in New York — and round the world — the world of elite cakes has been dominated by a single name: Sylvia “the Queen of Cakes” Weinstock, who started her cake career in 1978 at age 50 and, now pushing ninety, retired from cake commissions just over a year in the past.
When Weinstock started out, girls had minimum roles in professional kitchens and desserts tend to be adorned with actual flora that was, Weinstock, says, “sprayed with insecticide — who wants to eat that?” Over her forty-year career, Weinstock’s patron roster grew to encompass names like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Kennedys, Mariah Carey, Oprah, Michael Douglas, and — as you would possibly already understand — the Clintons and Trumps alike.
Still, she says, “I don’t recognize who got here up with that ‘Queen of Cakes’ title. I guess I might be a king, but I don’t have the device.” Now that Weinstock is retired, there may be no simple successor to the identify of Cake Queen, but there’s extra than sufficient opposition.