They say you eat with your eyes first, but when it comes to the lushly gorgeous cakes created by Charlotte Neuville, you aren’t going to want to stop there. A former fashion designer turned chef, Neuville’s company, The Fashion Chef, creates confections that amaze all the senses. Ranging from the petite to the colossal, her cakes are always conceived and constructed with an impeccable eye for detail and design. And we aren’t the only ones to take note—her clients include the likes of Anna Wintour, Oprah Winfrey, and Barack Obama.
Today, Neuville marks the release of the latest project she’s been cooking up: a book. Released in conjunction with her business partner at The Fashion Chef, Michael Coffindaffer, Stylish Cakes: The Extraordinary Confections of The Fashion Chef chronicles more than 60 of Neuville’s masterpieces, including the background of each cake, process shots of its construction, and details of the finished product. We asked our own Creative Ambassador, Simon Doonan, to chat with Neuville about the project, so read the sweet results of the interview below before heading over to Barneys.com to scoop up a copy for yourself.
Simon Doonan: Your cakes are theatrical and flamboyant, but always trés chic. How do you manage to walk that line?
Charlotte Neuville: So much of it is instinctive. Chicness on its own gets pretty boring after a while—it’s so much more fun to give it a twist, turn it on its head, and see how far you can go without losing its inherent beauty.
SD: One of my favorites in the book is The Psychedelic Cake. Tell us how that design evolved.
CN: A client approached us with a surprise birthday party concept for her boyfriend. She wanted a ‘60s-themed cake, as he was turning sixty at the time. She sent us photographs of him in his “hippy days”—long flowing hair, pouty lips, and quite handsome. I have a collection of original Fillmore (as in the original San Francisco Fillmore) band postcards from the 1960s, which ended up being hugely inspiring. All of a sudden, her boyfriend’s long, flowing hair became sugar paste peacock feathers and the peacock feathers wound their way around the back of the cake into psychedelic letters announcing his birthday.
SD: You and I both worked for Diana Vreeland. Tell us about your experience.
CN: After getting accepted to Parson’s Fashion Design program, I wrote a letter to Mrs. Vreeland while I was still in San Francisco, asking her if I could work for her that summer. Soon thereafter, I received a personal letter in return, inviting me to work in her department. My jaw dropped. I ended up spending the next three summers working in the Restoration Department and having full run of the archives. It was heaven!
SD: Your parents sound fabulous, and they are clearly a big influence on your aesthetic. What was special about them?
CN: I am first generation French-German. Everything in our home was informed by a European past, and a love of art, beauty, and style. My father was one of the most talented draughtsmen I’ve ever known, and he used to scratch out a living drawing caricatures of the denizens of the French cafés in his former, unmarried life. There was an enormous collection of art books that my father used to share with me. He had a wonderful way of sharing information about the artist, whilst asking my opinion about the artwork. He was an executive at I. Magnin, the temple of chic in San Francisco at the time. I remember going to a James Galanos fashion show at a very young age and being awestruck.
My mother’s domain was the kitchen and the garden. She was as smart as a whip and dressed with enormous style. She was often stopped on the street with, “Do you know you look like Jackie Kennedy?” She had an enormous influence on me.
SD: Your cakes are never sloppy or mushy—they always have a very graphic, tight look to them. Are you a frustrated graphic designer?
CN: While my personal artistic style tends towards the graphic, give me a Howard Hodgkin painting any day! One of The Fashion Chef’s hallmarks is our attention to detail. It is a language that allows me to express outrageous ideas in cake form.
SD: Which fashion designers do you wear whilst creating?
CN: I’m not terribly fancy whilst designing and decorating—it can get a little messy. Right now, I’m very into tops (“vintage” Ghesquiere Balenciaga, A.L.C., Derek Lam, and The Row) and I’m loving pink for spring.
SD: What was your biggest cake nightmare catastrophe?
CN: As we often are commissioned to do, I delivered a rather large wedding cake in the height of summer. It was the centerpiece of the dance floor, right next to the heat of the band’s amps, dancing bodies, and 90-plus degree sunshine streaming through the tent in the late afternoon. It was a wild party, and the cake valiantly stood there for 9 hours, patiently waiting to be sliced. No one else noticed (except me!) that the sugar paste flowers had grown soft from the heat and that the edible paints were starting to stream down the sides. All they remember, to this day, is how luscious and fluffy it tasted! But I was not a happy camper that night.
SD: Your biggest triomphe?
CN: Two months ago, we created a 7-foot-tall “wedding cake tree” for a breathtakingly beautiful wedding at The Pierre. The cake tiers were covered in sugar paste decorations that mimicked the embroideries on the bride’s exquisite Oscar de la Renta couture gown, and each branch twinkled with our hand-cast flowers.
SD: You must surely be the only cake artist in history to have created plaid icing. Was it as difficult as it looks?
CN: It took forever!