Last December, business partners Alexandria Pellegrino and Jessica Smith flew from Toronto to Los Angeles with carry-on that was as fragile as it was weird: a sugar-modeling-paste sculpture depicting Nicole Richie, the daughter of singer Lionel, and her musician husband-to-be Joel Madden, as Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI—before the royals’ decadent reign came to its bloody, tumultuous end. Richie was decked out in a white wig, black mask and ruffly gown and splayed on a chaise longue; behind her, Madden, in a white wig and mask, presented his bride with arms outstretched; through his jacket, the rocker’s famously inked arms could be seen, each tattoo replicated precisely.
The painstakingly detailed tableau could be seen as a biting social commentary on over-the-top celebrity culture, but wasn’t: it was the topper of the extravagant cake served at Richie’s and Madden’s Dec. 11 “Versailles”-themed nuptials.
Smith and Pellegrino, the pastry chef and designer, respectively, at Toronto’s Cake Opera Co., had transported surreal confectionary before. In February 2010, U.S. customs officials were bemused by a suitcase filled with sugar roses for a cake they’d be making for a Tim Burton-meets-Alice-in-Wonderland-themed sweet 16 in Scottsdale, Ariz.
That party they were invited to. The closest they got to the high-security celebration at Lionel Richie’s Beverly Hills estate was the back entrance, where they delivered their five-tiered cake edged in edible 24-karat gold, created at a West Hollywood bakery taken over for the occasion.
The commission was a high point in their two-year collaboration, says the 29-year-old Pellegrino, who attended the Ontario College of Art and Design before turning to making ephemeral art with fondant and cake flour. “We still don’t believe it. It’s like, ‘We were at Lionel Ritchie’s house! With something that came out of this kitchen.’ ” It was all really hush-hush, says Smith, 28, who studied culinary arts at Toronto’s George Brown College and has worked at London’s Michelin-starred Yauatcha. “We weren’t even allowed to take pictures of our work.”
Sitting in their uptown Toronto shop in chef jackets and over-the-knee boots, Pellegrino and Smith present as confident patisserie swashbucklers. Samples of their couture cakes line one wall—one looks like blue Wedgwood china; on another, a glittery black lobster adorns an ivory tower festooned with black roses, oysters and pearls; their “ode to Canadiana” features deer and painted “birch bark” on pale green fondant. Inspiration ranges from Christian Lacroix’s 2008 collection to ’60s chinoiserie wallpaper, which resulted in a cake painted with sumi-e style brushwork and topped with a Japanese crane. Clearly, Richie, a Tinseltown style-setter, played it conservatively.
The two women met in 2005 while studying at Le Cordon Bleu Ottawa Culinary Arts School. Pellegrino founded Cake Opera Co. soon after. “All my instructors said, ‘You should be making showpieces in Vegas,’ ” she says. The timing dovetailed with a growing cultural fixation on cake, evident in the emergence of the golden age of cake TV—a spawn of shows including Ace of Cakes, Wedding Cake Wars, Cake Boss, and Ultimate Cake Off. In 2009, Pellegrino asked Smith, then head pastry chef at Toronto’s Truffles restaurant, for help on a Food Network cake challenge. Within months, they were in a partnership. Grace Ormonde, editor-in-chief of the U.S. magazine Wedding Style, was an early supporter. “I had worked with the best and thought I’d seen everything,” she says. “And here come these two women who blew me away.” Their cakes taste as delicious as they look, she notes: “That’s not always the case.”
Their custom design work, which begins at $300 and rises to $6,000, tends to focus on weddings, which isn’t surprising. Once cakes only had to be pretty, says Ormonde: “Now everyone wants their wedding to be unique. They want sculpture.”
When consulting with brides, Pellegrino asks for visuals—the dress, flowers, a brooch—then brings her imagination to bear. An opulent three-tiered, chocolate, 24K-gold and burgundy cake created for a Venetian-themed wedding last year took its cue from the invitation. “I was drawn to the envelope’s lining; it had a beautiful pattern,” she says. For the top, she created a sugar replica of the masks worn by the bride and groom.
They’ve made black and purple cakes, but Pellegrino says she loves all-white cakes, with a twist: “I like to recall that traditional wedding feeling and then there will be something on it like, ‘Whoa, where did that come from?’ ” Given the work required, their cakes can exist as a metaphor for the marriage to come: under the showy surface, there’s a carefully constructed infrastructure necessary to keep it all aloft. A black-and-white pirate-themed cake took 150 hours to build, says Pelligrino: “It requires the mind of an engineer.”
Creating fantasy can be a slog. Fourteen-hour workdays are common; Pellegrino and Smith do all of their own deliveries. “Streetcar tracks are the bane of our existence,” says Smith, the driver. “She’s crapping her pants,” says Pellegrino, the navigator. They’re more laid-back about marketing. “We’ve taken a very non-aggressive approach,” says Smith. “The work speaks for itself.”
“Alexandria is brilliant,” says Catherine Lash, creative director of Toronto’s The Wedding Co., a wedding show producer. “You will not see anything recognizable in her designs—it’s not Martha Stewart magazine. She’s going to the opera, she’s going to art galleries.” Researching Madden’s tattoos in the tabloids offered rare lowbrow trolling, Pellegrino says: “I got to read all of these wonderful, smutty magazines.” Her favourite period is 17th-century northern
European still life “vanitas” paintings, whose shadowy compositions warn the viewer not to invest too much importance in mortal wealth and pleasures, a message that might be lost on people planning $100,000-plus weddings.
A playful irony percolates through Cake Opera Co.’s rococo-chic website and shop, one reminiscient of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, the 2006 movie that reinforced the link between sumptuous pastel pastries and the woman who never actually said “Let them eat cake.” Gilt abounds. In the front window, a French guillotine slices through a retro wedding cake bleeding edible 24-karat gold. Inside the shop, antique glass cabinets are filled with macarons, meringues, marshmallows and cupcakes with names like “The Lady Pompadour” and “The Musetta.” Pellegrino laughs at the mention of Coppola’s movie. “Never seen it,” she jokes. “Don’t know what you’re talking about.” That movie fuelled the macaron trend—and resultant backlash—”a tragic story,” says Pellegrino. “It’s such a beautiful confection,” Smith explains. “But now wedding planners are saying, ‘We’re so over that.’ It’s a slap in the face.” “They’ve been around hundreds of years,” says Pellegrino. “Cupcakes have been around 50 years. So throw them to the curb!”
Cake Opera’s theatrical flair attracted Beverly Hills wedding planner Mindy Weiss, who organized Richie’s nuptials. She’d heard of them via Ormonde. Their website blew her away, she says. “I would stare at it in awe.” When Weiss learned Richie wanted a Versailles theme, she contacted them with only two weeks’ notice. “Before I knew it I received an email with the most fabulous drawing of the cake,” says Weiss. “I did not change a thing. And I always change something!” The finished cake was “amazing,” she says. “It was an art piece that the guests would walk up to and stare at.”
Gushy coverage of the wedding in People and Hello! resulted in a flurry of requests to ship, which they won’t do. “Most people can’t afford to fly us in,” says Smith.
Weiss, who plans events for people who can afford it, says she can’t wait to work with them again: “They’re perfection.” Predictably, there’s talk of a TV show. “We’re open to it,” says Smith. They’d be naturals—photogenic, funny, and smart enough to know that if Marie Antoinette were alive today, her apocryphal command would be “Let them watch cake.”