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Photos by Ross Mason

Occasionally Ella Levinson's perfectionism will go beyond her customers' demands – and budget – and she'll find herself adding miniscule details to the cake most of the party guests will likely never even notice.

Neil Levinson, whose curly hair and gentle voice brings to mind Willy Wonka, functions as head chef at Classic Cakes and Confections in northeast Phoenix.

Some of the Levinson's recent creations. "People are becoming more aware of what can be done with cakes, and they're requesting more creative things," says Neil Levinson. "They're no longer satisfied with a simple four-tiered butter cream cake. They want things to rotate. They want cakes carved in the shapes of their dresses or cars."

Not actual size! Le Cordon Bleu Culinary student Jennifer Russum.

Published by Times Publications, July 2010

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Ella Levinson picks up what looks like an authentic Valentino designer shoe from atop what looks like a stack of elegant gift boxes and whispers, in her thick Russian accent, “It’s all sugar!”

“A lot of times people won’t even know it’s a cake,” says the Siberia-born baker, who, with husband Neil, owns and operates Classic Cakes and Confections in northeast Phoenix. “They’ll pick this up and say, ‘What is a shoe doing on top of the cake?’”

But Levinson, whose designs have won numerous awards in culinary competitions and wedding magazines and have established the shop as the exclusive cake maker for the Arizona Biltmore and Sanctuary resorts, says the hallmark in all her cake’s designs is her painstaking attention to detail — an attention she admits can sometime border on the obsessive.

Take the shoe topper, for example. “We had a lady who, for her 50th birthday, brought in her Valentino shoe, and said she wanted that shoe on top of her cake,” she explains, tumbling the replica around to display thick black fondant, a supple sugar icing favored by today’s cake makers, textured to appear like sumptuous Italian leather. “Well, I couldn’t take her actual shoe and cut it apart to make a mold, so I had to buy the shoe. I bought the shoe, I took it apart, I made a mold.”

Levinson won’t say whether she bought an actual Valentino or a knock-off (“I went when it was on sale,” she winks), but insists it was absolutely essential in the creation of the extravagant $250 sugar shoe to acquire a rose-embellished leather slide in the exact style and size as the customer’s $680-a-pair model. “I know it has the perfect heel, perfect height and same profile as the original shoe,” she says, with a satisfied smile. Since creating the silicone mold, the Levinsons have recreated their Valentino shoe for other clients, including the gift box number in the shop that they made for a Hyde Park Jewelers event.

Occasionally Ella’s perfectionism will go beyond the customer’s demands — and budget — and she’ll find herself adding miniscule details to the cake most of the party guests will likely never even notice.

“Sometimes I’ll see something missing, and I’ll add it in, if I can,” she says, recalling a cake made in the shape of a 1957 Ford Fairlane for which the couple actually ordered CAD blueprints that had them tweaking the mirrors to achieve just the proper wedged shape. “I don’t charge them for that, because maybe I’m the only one who sees how it can be improved. But it has to be perfect!”

Husband Neil, who functions as head chef and whose curly hair and gentle voice brings to mind a young Gene Wilder (seriously, you half expect him to burst into a chorus of “Pure Imagination” while Ella flutters about with her modeling chocolate), stands quietly across the showroom in the couple’s new shop on north 32nd Street, directly across the street from their previous location, and raises an endearing smile.

“Oftentimes the customer gets a little more than they paid for,” he says.

Cake Aces

With Ella’s cool Russian Bond-girl intensity and Neil’s twinkling Willy Wonka personification, it would be easy to cast the owners of Classic Cakes as the next stars in a Food Network reality show — although they’d have plenty of competition around Phoenix, from venerable artisans like Tammie Coe, Christy Vega-Gluch and Barbara Gardner to relatively new upstarts like April Goff and Jay Murphy. Since the surprise success of cake-making programs such as the Food Network’s “Ace of Cakes,” The Learning Channel’s “Cake Boss” and “Ultimate Cake Off” and WE-TV’s “Amazing Wedding Cakes,” today’s top local “cake artists” have become the new rock stars of the elite party crowd.

“In the old days, if you got into the cake business, you were a 50-plus-year-old woman whose friends all raved about your pretty cakes,” says Kevin Kossman, whose wife Amy began operating the acclaimed Piece of Cake Desserts in Mesa in 1998 and who now functions as her assistant. “But now, there’s not a lot of difference between the people who are doing cakes and the people who are doing tattoos. It’s art, and this is the way they’ve found to express themselves.”

Almost every specialty cake artist credits the sea change to the popularity of the reality shows, which have not only made lowly cake bakers suddenly cool but have also educated the public on the amazing things that can be achieved with a little butter cream and fondant.

“People are becoming more aware of what can be done with cakes, and they’re requesting more creative things,” says Neil Levinson. “They’re no longer satisfied with a simple four-tiered butter cream cake. They want things to rotate. They want cakes carved in the shapes of their dresses or cars.”

Moreover, they also want cakes that’ll top the latest sugary creation everyone on the social register is singing their praises about.

“I’ll have people come in and say, ‘I was at so-and-so’s wedding, and I want my cake to be bigger and better and cooler than that one,’” says April Goff, a former communications major and student loan assistant who admits she was inspired to start her cake business, Designer Cakes by April, only after watching several seasons of “Ace of Cakes.” “Even with cakes for baby showers, we get that ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ mindset all the time. It works out great for us!”

Indeed, even in a recession, the specialty cake business has been booming. Although it’s easy to spend over $1,000 for a spectacular wedding cake today (most specialty cake shops start with a base price of between $4 and $8 per serving, but charges can escalate as the designs become more elaborate), many of the Valley’s top cake artists turn out up to a dozen such creations every weekend. The Levinsons say they’re booked solid with orders well into 2012.

“People are always asking me, ‘How did you start this business in the middle of the worst economic downturn in 80 years?’” says Goff, who started the business in her kitchen after receiving family kudos for creating her daughter’s first birthday cake and finally moved into a commercial kitchen with two assistant decorators not quite a year ago. “I mean, specialty cakes are a luxury item. They’re not a necessity. But, especially in the wedding business, people are going to get married no matter what. And they will find a way to have a wedding cake. And nowadays, the cake is as important as the dress.”

All of which makes the specialty cake maker as important to the party as the gown and tuxedo designer — and a lot more fun.

“It’s great to see people’s reactions to your work,” says the 38-year-old Kossman. “Many years ago, I worked in telecommunications, and people have a special hatred for the phone companies. So to go from an industry where I was the object of tirades on a daily basis to a business where everybody’s happy to see me coming is really great,” he says, with a laugh.

“Everybody loves the cake guy!”

Kitchen Nightmares

Barbara Gardner’s shop, Let Them Eat Cake, is an oasis of sweet-smelling chocolate and fresh fruit in an otherwise non-descript strip center on east Thomas Road in Phoenix. Inside the two-suite shop, opened in 2000 after four years of creating cakes more as a hobby, Gardner and her staff, which includes her husband Mitch, sculpt award-winning party cakes and, lately, cupcakes out of primarily butter cream — a medium which distinguishes Gardner from the majority of specialty cake makers, who tend to prefer the more pliable (but also, to many adult palates, sickeningly sweet) fondant.

“I think what sets us apart is that I can make very clean and smooth three-dimensional things out of butter cream,” says Gardner, dressed today in a robe from the Food Network Cake Challenge, a televised contest in which she participated last March along with Sedona’s Andrea Carusetta-Blaut. “Fondant is smooth to begin with, but to get butter cream smooth requires a special skill.”

Like many of her peers, Gardner views her work more as artistry than baking — “It’s art in a cake” — but says she long ago got over the pain of seeing customers cut into her prized creations. What pains her more, she says, is handing her cakes over to people who clearly don’t share her appreciation for the art form.

“I remember this girl who ordered this special cake for her mom’s 50th birthday,” Gardner says. “But she asked her brother to pick it up. He shows up in this low rider Cadillac with no room for the cake — which was very long and narrow — other than his back seat.” Although Gardner cautioned the young man to drive slowly and avoid quick starts and stops, he soon returned to the shop with the cake split in two and splattered all over the back seat.

“I had to tell him we couldn’t fix it,” says Gardner, who makes a practice of photographing each cake before it leaves the shop and having customers sign a waiver if they prefer not to pay for delivery. “I was more sad for the sister. Because the cake was really important to her, but her brother just didn’t care.”

April Goff has her own answer for people who ask her if she’s ever dropped a cake. “I say, ‘Have you ever dropped a baby?’ Cakes are fragile, and you have to treat them with practically the same loving care.”

Apart from careless delivery drivers, most professional cake artists are soured by newcomers who often undercut their pricing by working out of their own homes — an illegal practice, according to Maricopa County’s Environmental Health Department. Inspectors require a permit for anything beyond a one-day bake sale, and any food offered longer than that must be prepared in a county-regulated, professional kitchen.

As the cake field has grown to become more anarchistic and rebellious, however, some cutting-edge designers have managed to enter the profession armed with little more than a Website and some pallet knives and airbrushes.

“About 80 percent of the local cake makers you’ll find in an online search aren’t operating within the regulations of the Maricopa County food code,” estimates Kossman. “There’s just so many of them now, and there are so many things that are apparently more important to the health department, that they just kind of go untouched.”

To legally comply without opening their own bake shop, some rogue cake artists lease space as needed in “incubator” kitchens, where a group of bakers will individually rent space by the hour to complete their creations.

That’s how Jay Murphy has been operating his business, Kick Ass Kakes — and building an enthusiastic following for his over-the-top creations. On a typical weekend recently, Murphy could be found pulling long hours at a leased space in Tempe creating a 42-inch-tall replica of Big Ben for a wedding (“That’s where the groom proposed”), an upright bass guitar for a noted jazz musician’s birthday and a bizarre cake in the shape of two sea turtles — mating.

“It was for the birthday of a person who likes sea turtles,” Murphy explains. “And then they thought they would embarrass the mother by having them mating. But that’s kind of become my signature: I always try to give the customer a little more than what they’re expecting. That extra detail that’s a little extreme.”

A former clothing designer and graphic artist, Murphy, 42, decided to get into cooking following the death of his wife, a restaurateur, to breast cancer, and enrolled in the Scottsdale Culinary Institute mainly to keep occupied. While he hopes to open his own storefront soon, he’s found the shared space environment of the incubator kitchen conducive to artists.

“What appeals to me is that it’s still creative work — you’re designing, sculpting and painting — but then it also has to be edible,” says Murphy, who insists on making all his own ingredients from scratch. “So that’s like an extra challenge.”

No matter how today’s cake artists are entering the field, the explosion of talent has irreversibly expanded our perceptions of what can be done with a pastry bag.

“Before the cake boom, not a lot of change was happening with cakes,” observes Kossman, whose specialty has become his whimsical, gravity-defying upside-down tiered cake. “I look at pictures of my wedding cake from 15 years ago, and it looks the same as my mother’s wedding cake from 50 years ago!

“Cakes have come so far in the last six or seven years,” he adds. “And a lot of those older ladies who were making their pretty cakes before have simply been pushed out, because they were too stuck in their ways. It’s a whole new game now.”