If you happened to walk down Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills at 6 a.m. last Sunday, you'd have seen something far more interesting than the crowds that filled the streets later that day for the city's centennial party. Because just after dawn, a group of extraordinarily gifted pastry chefs gathered to build a giant birthday cake.
A strikingly faithful replica of the Beverly Hills City Hall Tower, the cake would stand 9 feet high, 12 feet wide and 24 feet long, be composed of more than 700 pounds of chocolate and, when it finally came time to cut it, be deconstructed into 15,000 pieces of chocolate layer cake.
The pastry chefs worked for nearly eight hours on Sunday, assembling the wooden base for the cake, erecting the towers built of pastillage and modeling chocolate, unloading the sheet pans of frosted cake from the refrigerated truck that had been backed down Rodeo Drive the day before, mixing and spackling the structure with frosting, dusting the cake lawns with cake crumbs and cocoa, placing a garden made of stunning sugar flowers around the base.
When the cake was finally finished, they smoothed their chef's jackets, clinked glasses and posed for pictures as the crowds came for the party. The building towered over them, the top a turquoise dome built of sugar, the kelly green sugarwork palm fronds sparkling in the permanent California sunshine.
The work had, of course, been going on for much longer than that morning. In August, Guittard executive pastry chef Donald Wressell began constructing the cake in his chocolate lab, the tiny professional kitchen in Culver City where he works for the family-owned, San Francisco – based Guittard chocolate company. ]
Because this was not simply a matter of baking an enormous number of sheet pans of cake and layering them. Building a cake of this size means building a structure, a platform, a system of walls and doors and windows. Think of it not as a birthday cake so much as one of the enormous sugar centerpieces Marie-Antoine Carême built for Parisian high society in the 1800s, elaborate confections that were more architecture than dessert.
Baking the actual cake – a project that took three days in Wressell's friend Yvan Valentin's commercial bakery – was just the most recent extended project. For months, Wressell had been building the base of the cake in Guittard's shop, in his own garage, and in his entire driveway, using his carpentry skills to first construct the City Hall base out of wood.
First he made a 3-D model of the entire project. Then the walls went up in wood, then pastillage, sheet after sheet of the sugar-based dough that was first rolled out, then dried, then painted and aged to look like the surface of the actual building.
The 1930s-era architectural details were made into molds by another of Wressell's friends, Mike McCarey of Mike's Amazing Cakes in Redmond, Washington, then pressed from modeling chocolate. The windows and doors were painted, the palm trees also built from modeling chocolate (the trunk) and pulled sugar (fronds). As Wressell worked, friends and colleagues visited, many flying in from out of town to help. Sherry Yard, the longtime Spago pastry chef who's now working on her own Helms Bakery project, came over often; Ewald Notter, master confectioner and the first pastry professional inducted into the Pastry Art and Design Hall of Fame, dropped by to create a whole garden of sugar flowers.
Wressell's cake project actually began 25 years earlier, when he was executive pastry chef at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, a position he held for 19 years. In 1988, when the city of Beverly Hills was holding its 75th-anniversary party, Wressell also baked a birthday cake for the city – another pretty big cake, comprised of 100 sheet cakes, which fed 10,000.
“This was before people did this: it was pre-Duff,” Wressell recalled, alluding to the Duff Goldman Ace of Cakes era we now live in, where building giant cakes is not nearly as crazy as it was 25 years ago.
A few months ago, Wressell had been dining with Sally Camacho, now executive pastry chef at the Jonathan Club in downtown L.A., who also worked with Wressell at the Four Seasons. That's when Wressell remembered that first cake – and realized that the centennial was coming up, with another birthday, another reason to bake a cake. “Be careful what you wish for,” Wressell says now.
On Sunday morning, Camacho fitted another section of cake onto one of the wooden platforms that buttressed the pastillage walls of City Hall, smoothing the frosting with an offset spatula. More cakes were brought over, wheeled off the refrigerated truck in repeating pastry racks.
Marina Sousa, of Just Cake in Capitola, sprayed colors onto the enormous pastillage shopping bags, which she and James Rosselle of Elle Cakes in Santa Monica had made to decorate the palm tree – lined, edible front lawn. Sherry Yard spackled frosting with the indefatigable energy that has defined her nearly 30 years with Wolfgang Puck. Keegan Gerhard, of D Bar in San Diego, who has twice been named one of the country's 10 best pastry chefs by Chocolatier, attached green sugar palm fronds to their bases with a blowtorch. The chocolate flowers (360 dark-chocolate petals made by hand, the chocolate tempered in Culver City with an Italian machine) came out of their boxes and were arranged around the sugar building. Yvan Valentin, for eight years the pastry chef at L.A.'s famous L'Orangerie, dusted the chocolate lawn with cocoa.
Imagine the shopping list: 280 lbs. of Guittard unsweetened chocolate, 55 lbs. of Guittard 61 percent chocolate wafers, 110 lbs. of Guittard white chocolate wafers, 350 lbs. of Guittard 64 percent chocolate bars, 110 quarts of buttermilk, 360 lbs. of butter, 460 lbs. of sugar, 262 lbs. of cake flour, 125 lbs. of Guittard cocoa powder. Oh, and 450 lbs. of pastillage. (The Guittard company picked up the bill for all of this, not the city.)
It's the kind of list that Wressell wouldn't have been able to fathom when he began his career as a 15-year-old dishwasher at a steak restaurant in Kirkland, Washington. And probably not when he began working as a pastry chef in Seattle, or even later, when he worked with the legendary chef Jean-Louis Palladin at the Watergate Hotel (yes, that Watergate Hotel) in Washington, D.C. A massive Carême-style project might been more imaginable with Michel Richard, the much-lauded pastry chef whom Wressell followed out to Los Angeles.
But things of this scale are mostly done in the white-tablecloth rooms and buffet kitchens of grand hotels, so it's fitting that Wressell began his giant cake career at the Four Seasons. It helps that the great-grandson of a Depression-era shipbuilder also has a background in engineering in carpentry. And it helps that Wressell has good (and talented) friends.
As the crowds gather, the grown-ups take pictures of the biggest birthday cake they've ever seen and the children eye the massive pile of chefs' knives and spatulas that will cut the cake into 15,000 pieces. The cake looms over the sidewalk and the chefs who built it, throwing sugarwork shadows.
Wressell and his pastry chefs, giddy from lack of sleep, too much coffee and maybe not a little sugar, stand back to survey their work. And while the next anniversary is too far away for most of them, there are always more projects on their sheet-tray horizon. The Rose Parade? Maybe Wressell can get a dispensation from the committee to make his float's flowers entirely of chocolate.