Kate Sullivan. Photo: Gail Albert Halaban
When Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart think you’re the best, you know you’re on the right track.
Kate Sullivan’s Cake Power rose to fame not only because her confections are so darn delish, but because they look like hyper-real conceptual art projects. Think: hand-painted cakes that resemble Rubiks Cubes, handbags, wine bottles, and record players.
But despite the lofty heights of her career, what with the adulation of two of the nation’s top tastemakers, not to mention accolades like being named one of the Top 10 Cake Artists of North America by Dessert Professional and earning a Trendsetter of the Year Award, this Brooklyn-born baker’s feet are planted firmly on the ground.
We chatted with her what drives her passion for pastry perfection, and the conversation was as delicious and unexpected as her confections.
EARNING HER DESSERT
Before Sullivan started whisking up confections for music stars (Yo-Yo Ma), art stars (Richard Serra), viewers on The Today Show, and glossies like People and In Style, she honed her artistic eye, working her way up to become photo director of Parenting and Smart Money. Her crisp, cutting-edge layout designs and collaborations with photographers and artists like Antonin Kratochvil and William Wegman are still sought out and poured over by art and photo geeks.
Like many of us, she turned her hands to baking for fun and stress-relief in her off hours. But unlike most of us, her inspired creations became as sought after by friends and families for their avant-garde aesthetics as for their buttercream-infused yum. (Please tell me I’m not the only one whose lovingly made birthday cakes look like they got sat on?)
Sullivan explains that she fell in love with the idea of baking in a new dimension at a dear friend’s wedding.
“One of my best friends had a gorgeous ‘Day of the Dead’ wedding cake,” Sullivan recalls. “This was 25 years ago, a time when you never saw outside-of-the-box cakes like that, and it was love at first sight. The cake was made by Colette Peters who is a pioneer of food art.”
At first, she kept her creations to herself, but in 2004, the siren song of a sweeter, more independent, life called, and she answered. The O.G. biz was dubbed LovinSullivanCakes, and it immediately made an impact. I mean, let’s be real: wouldn’t you rather have a fanciful, 3D bouquet of tropical flowers popping off your wedding cake instead of that boring rosebud?
Her art director’s eye informed her approach to baking, which is equal parts artisanal (everything is handmade and painfully planned out beforehand) and tech-forward (bring on the laser beams!). She explains now that she has the whole baking thing down, she is visually inspired most by artists like Alexander McQueen and “fashion design in general.”
Photo: Cake Power
Plus, the world around her. “I’ve lived in New York and Brooklyn all of my life so I consider myself a die-hard city person, but I will say that the rare moments when I find myself outside of the city, nature and the movement of wind through leaves or a star lit sky send me running for my sketch pad in an effort to steal little bits of that magic,” she explains.
Another key to Sullivan’s success: cross-pollination. (Take note ambitious fellow-makers!)
“Over the years I’ve learned a lot working with people in different disciplines,” Sullivan says. “I’ve collaborated with a performance artist, painters, welder, engineer, architects, ice sculptor, 3D printer designer and fashion designers, and, in each case, they brought something new to the table that heightened my perspective.“
HAVING HER CAKE
These days, her Cake Power studio — the name inspired by iconic indie singer Cat Power — is anything but assembly line. Sullivan and her clients collaborate together on individual cake creations, all of which are created by hand with the help of 3D technology, projectors, PhotoShop and architectural renderings. If you’re building a marshmallow bust of Marie Antoinette, you have to make it so that it doesn’t cave in!
Photos from Food Network footage
Not that her journey to success wasn’t utterly terrifying, like walking a tightrope between skyscrapers during a windstorm.
“I don’t think I had any idea what it would take to have a business like this, except that I was pretty sure it required solid 12-hour workdays,” she admits. “I started my business and started a family late in life. My dreams were equal parts full-time mom and full-time baker and I just wasn’t sure there was any way to make that math work out or how that was going to come together.”
As for that old ambitious mom-shaming chestnut, “having it all”?
“Balance is still tricky but I know it’s a lucky problem to have,” Sullivan says. “Honestly, if my husband were not the primary breadwinner in our family, I don’t think I would have been able to get this off the ground.”
Sullivan’s legendary creations are too numerous to list, but here are a few of our favorites:
24 handmade “sushi” cakes made for Nobu’s 20-anniversary celebration
A made-to-scale model of the new Whitney Museum, served up as an art installation when it opened
A Statue of Liberty cake for a Tunnel to Towers fundraiser
A Gingerbread Castle/Mister Rogers mash-up cake for the George Eastman Museum
Photos: Cake Power
YOU SHOULD GET BAKED
If you’re hungry to see her creations in action, you’re in luck.
“I have been creating a lot of very tall complex cake projects for television lately; and, while it has its grueling aspects, it’s also wonderfully challenging, and mostly it’s a blast,” she says. “I just finished up on a show with the Food Network that will air in December 2019.”
A study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology linked activities like baking to a greater sense of relaxation and contentment. Those benefits are amplified, other experts suggest, when you’re doing the baking for others.As Sullivan so aptly puts it, “I love that cake’s impermanent, that it exists as a gift to acknowledge and celebrate a milestone in someone’s life. I love that you can smell, touch, taste, and see it, but that it’s gone in a moment and hopefully is part of a lasting memory of love and affection.”