To say Charlotte Neuville takes the cake where pastry art is concerned is a bit too easy, but it’s true. Just ask her A-list clients who include Anna Wintour, Oprah Winfrey, Mark Lee, the CEO of Barney’s New York, and President Obama. 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 new coffee table 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. Knowing that her French heritage provided the foundation for her love of the pastry arts is the icing on the cake. 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 greatest joys of cake design is its immediacy and witnessing a customer’s delightful reaction.
A striped silk textile that Charlotte used in one of her fashion collections served as the inspiration for this Tahitian Vanilla Bean Butter Cake
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.
Charlotte’s beautiful book of bespoke cakes is destined to become a culinary classic
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 we’re working on now. It’s a five-foot-seven-inch tall sugar paste sculpture of a woman in a feathered and beaded Valentino gown. She will be 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?
Charlotte’s favorite things
1. When serving champagne with cake, Charlotte’s go-to flute is this one by Baccarat.
2. Charlotte’s treasured ivory and sterling silver cake servers are over 12 inches long.
3. Charlotte sets her table with Sferra linens.
4. When serving cake to friends, Charlotte uses vintage zodiac Blackenton cake platters.
5. 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!”
6. Christofle makes a set of sterling silver flatware that looks similar to Charlotte’s favorite, a vintage set of Cartier flatware that belonged to her parents.
7. Charlotte’s favorite wine glass is this Lalique goblet.
8. When serving coffee and tea with her cakes, Charlotte uses her vintage Limoge china.
9. Charlotte likes vintage Spode, vintage Limoges, and Hermes dessert plates.
10. For a new cake server with vintage appeal, try this beautiful sterling silver one by Tiffany.
Hosting a summer soirée? Serve Charlotte’s whimsical Summer Barbecue cake ($68)
Charlotte’s Buttermilk Pound Cake Recipe
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.
To buy Charlotte’s new book, click here. For more information about Charlotte, or to order one of her couture cakes for your next party, click here.