To say Charlotte Neuville takes the cake where pastry art is concerned is a bit too easy, but it is true. Just ask her A-list clients, who include Anna Wintour, Oprah, and the CEOs of numerous luxury brands. An internationally renowned fashion-designer-turned-pastry-chef, Charlotte makes divinely delicious cakes that are as stunning, sophisticated, and intricate as the most prized pieces of Parisian couture. One look through her exceptional book, Stylish Cakes: The Extraordinary Confections of The Fashion Chef, and you can see why these chic works of edible art could only have been created by someone with the eye, taste, and precision of a successful fashion designer. Join us as we dish with Charlotte about everything from what Diana Vreeland taught her about life to her favorite buttermilk cake recipe.
What are the similarities and differences between fashion design and cake design?
I approach cake design in much the same way that I approached fashion design. I am very visual and get inspired by museums, theater, film, and fashion events. Even just walking on the street provides so much eye candy. The primary difference is that a fashion designer has to wait a year for the three-dimensional realization of a sketch to be in a customer’s hands and receive a reaction. One of the great joys of cake design is its immediacy and witnessing a customer’s delightful reaction.
How did your upbringing and French heritage influence your aesthetic?
My French heritage is a cornerstone of The Fashion Chef brand. We have a hyper-awareness of taste, as in the “sense” of taste. We strive for a chicness and refinement that is at once French (unique and elegant) and American (has a sense of humor). I was raised in an atmosphere of beauty, art, style, and creativity. My mother, who was French and loved to cook, had an unerring sense of style and bore a resemblance to Jackie Kennedy. My father was a merchandise manager at I. Magnin & Co., San Francisco’s temple of chic, and scoured the world to purchase one-of-a-kind antiques and objects for the store. I would spend my weekends by his side perusing his art books.
Who are your favorite party hosts, event planners and caterers?
Anna Wintour, the Brodsky family, and Joanna Fisher are wonderful hosts, and I love love love working with the event planners David Monn, Nancy Sloan Alchek, and Lady Elizabeth Anson. My favorite caterers are Sonnier & Castle and Hank Tomashevski.
For whom would you you most like to design a cake?
Amal and George Clooney. Amal has an effortless chic that reminds me of the late Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy. The world needs more people with that kind of fearless glamour. Plus, I love how smart she is. The cake would have to reflect their depth as a couple, maybe something graphic countered by extraordinary sugar paste flowers.
How long does it take you to create a cake once you’ve decided on the design?
Some showpieces take 75 hours, others take 200 hours. A smaller project might take 32 hours.
Charlotte created this magnificent sugar paste floral display for a private celebration at the Frick Collection in New York City
What cake are you most proud of?
One that comes to mind is a five-foot-seven-inch tall sugar paste sculpture of a woman in a feathered and beaded Valentino gown. She was holding her birthday cake on a tray!
When you were in fashion, you worked with style icon Diana Vreeland, and after graduating from the French Culinary Institute in 2011, you worked with master cake designer, Ron Ben-Israel. What lessons did you learn from these two style greats?
I wrote Diana Vreeland when I was an aspiring fashion design student in California. The fact that she took the time to write back, asking me to join her, was a lesson in and of itself. Ron reminded me how important it is to feed your personal need to create on a regular basis. It completes me to have a creative day, whether it is sketching, piping, or decorating.
What are some tips you can offer party hosts for creating a beautiful cake?
Always try the recipe on your own before you serve it to your guests. What if you don’t like it? Give yourself enough time on the big day to make the best cake you possibly can and think about how you want to display it. Which platter will you use? Which serving utensils? Which dessert plates? Are you going to be serving it with champagne or coffee and tea?
Playing Favorites with Charlotte Neuville
For a cake server with vintage appeal, Charlotte likes this sterling silver one from Tiffany & Co.
Charlotte likes this flatware collection from Christofle, which looks similar to her favorite set, a collection of vintage Cartier flatware that belonged to her parents.
When serving champagne with cake, Charlotte’s go-to flute is this one by Baccarat.
Charlotte likes to set her table with these linens from Sferra.
A collector of vintage coffee and tea services and other tabletop pieces, Charlotte says, “When you see an item that is unique, around which you can create a ‘story’ at your table, buy it!”
When serving coffee and tea with her cakes, Charlotte uses her vintage Limoges china. She also loves vintage Spode and vintage Hermes dessert plates.
Buttermilk Pound Cake Recipe by Charlotte Neuville
This will make two 8 x 4 inch loaves or four 7 x 3 inch loaves.
1 cup butter or margarine
2 cups sugar
3 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup buttermilk
1 tsp vanilla
Cream butter thoroughly until quite fluffy. Now beat sugar in, a little at a time, until mixture is quite light. Beat eggs in, one at a time, very thoroughly. Sift together flour, soda, and salt. Mix together buttermilk and vanilla. Add these ingredients alternately to sugar and egg mixture, beginning and ending with dry ingredients and beating thoroughly. Bake about one hour in 325 degree oven. This cake is excellent and moist. It slices very thin and can be kept wrapped in foil for a week. It also freezes well.
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