Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Let Them Eat Cake, If They Can Afford It

So we finished watching Season 1, Disc 1, of "Cake Boss" last night. First let me state unequivocally how much I adore this show. With that out of the way, let me pick it apart.

Yesterday I complained about Buddy Valastro's use of pound cake. Lo, in later episodes, he actually goes with red velvet for one of his concoctions, if only because it's a zombie cake and he needs something that looks like blood. He also, in perhaps my favorite segment of the series so far, demonstrated how to make the dough for an Italian pastry called lobster tails. When baked, it looked like puffed pastry wrapped around cream puff dough, filled with cream. I hate seafood, but I want one of those tails. Now. This was exactly the behind-the-scenes glimpse I had hoped for--how bakers make all those things that customers see when they walk into a shop.

That's the good news. The bad news is, this show feels naggingly scripted. Out of the blue, Buddy's mom forbids "exotic, erotic, whatever" cakes and a customer just happens to request one for a raunchy bachelorette party. The delivery team just happens to drop a cake on their way out the door, creating additional chaos. An engaged couple agrees to have live doves as part of their wedding cake. No. Way. There's not a bride on this planet who hears the words "you'll release the doves from the cake" and agrees to have live creatures winging around her reception, possibly pooping on her veil (though I was more concerned about damage to the cake itself). Perhaps most egregious was the scenario in which a husband purportedly surprised his pregnant wife with a delivery of baked goods from Buddy. I say "purportedly" because how surprised could a person be when a camera crew shows up at her house and sets up equipment to film Buddy walking through the door.

I'm starting to suspect that all of these "customers" have been recruited to create an excuse for ridiculously extravagant cakes. You ever heard of a "Zombie Walk"? Me neither. And in exchange, the aforementioned plants receive said cake, and perhaps the entire party, for free.

Which brings me to the "c" word. "How much do these cakes cost?" asked the voice of reason, aka, my husband.

I had posed a similar question to a local pastry chef, Peter Rios, the owner of Alliance Bakery in Wicker Park. He told me about a couple who had approached him to bake their wedding cake. The pair apparently lived or worked, I'm not sure which, right across from Pennsylvania Avenue. They wanted the Capitol Building for their cake, to feed 150 people. Rios spent half a day figuring out a design and quote for the cake, and arrived at $2,000. Let me repeat. $2,000. At that, Rios admits he's taking a loss. "We could never charge what goes into baking that cake."

The couple, on a budget, balked. Rios wound up creating a smaller dome and another cake on the side, for about half the original price. Even at that relative discount, Rios confesses, "I would never pay that."

Brides, or their fathers, often will. But Buddy's customers aren't all brides. In one episode, he creates a 4-tiered monster for a Sweet 16 party. The cake easily would have fed 200 and I counted maybe 15 girls at the soiree. The zombie cake was even more excessive--using Rios' pricing as a guide, I'd estimate the value in the $3,000-$4,000 range--and this for a group that seemed likely to be unemployed when they weren't busy being undead. I'm betting that in both these instances, Buddy donated the cake, having wrung sufficient drama out of their creation for yet another episode.

The problem is that your average couple from Peoria now wants, and expects, a Buddy-style cake for their special occasion. On the one hand, that's good news for freestanding bakeries that lost a fair amount of their cake business to grocery store chains and Costco over the years. "Now people understand that what we produce is of value," says John Roeser, owner of Roeser's Bakery in Humboldt Park, which has been in business since 1911. How great of a value they don't quite grasp. "People bring in pictures and want you to make a $7,000 cake for $200."

That only happens on TV.


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