From Hello Kitty to Rolex watches, custom cakes by Hong Kong baker are so realistic you’ll do a double take
- Alison Chan of Dear Harley Bakery is known for creating realistic-looking cakes that resemble everyday objects and people, from Hermès bags to Marvel characters
- The self-taught baker is holding her first exhibition at K11 Musea mall, where visitors will be challenged to distinguish her ‘illusion cakes’ from real items
Baking might be a science, but creating custom cakes is very much an art. In Hong Kong, Alison Chan, owner of Dear Harley Bakery, has become known as the master of illusionary confections.
Her skill for turning sponge cake and fondant into exact replicas of any object or item is now so celebrated, the popular Hong Kong mall K11 Musea is presenting an exhibition of her “illusion cakes” as part of its Art Karnival that starts on July 29. Not bad for a self-taught baker who used to be a news reporter.
For her K11 Musea display, the theme is “after-party”, with the exhibit resembling a long table after a celebration. “We have things there like candles, napkins and other items; 15 of the objects are made of cake,” she says.
“The visitors will have to figure out which are real and which are not. So it’s pretty fun. It takes me about a day to make each cake with the carving, painting and decorating.”
Chan’s interest in messing around with clever confections came just as dessert art started to trend online and in the media. Shows like Cake Boss, Extreme Cake Makers, and even The Great British Bake Off have inspired a wave of interest in the artistic possibilities of flour and sugar.
But while people like the dazzling results, few appreciate the hard work required to pull off such ingenious creations.
“No matter how skilful your teacher or the class, if you don’t practise yourself, it’s nothing,” Chan says. “Some things you just have to do a hundred times before you get it. I think in this industry hard work must be paid.
“There are so many different things in cake decorating to discover. You can use crystal sugar art, you can use chocolate. There’s so much to learn.”
“On some of those shows that feature really gigantic cakes, like three or four feet high, I think it’s just for show,” Chan says. “In normal celebrations, you would never have such a large cake because no one can finish it. It’s really for showing off at a big party.
“I’m sure some Hong Kong people could spend thousands or tens of thousands of dollars for a custom cake, but I have never made anything that big. And I don’t like to waste ingredients just to show off.
“Of course, I would love the opportunity to, for example, try a car-size cake. That would be very cool. I’ve done a lot of cars but for just 10 or 20 guest portions. But to do a real car-size cake, it’s going to waste a lot of ingredients and it would take a whole week.”
The other issue with ridiculously large cakes is that their transport is always a nightmare. “I’ve had lots of disasters. Mostly it happens in the cake delivery part,” she says.
“I’ve also had some strange requests from clients. Once I had to do a birdcage. So I used icing sugar to make the cage but it was very brittle. That cake caused me a lot of anxiety.”
Fortunately for Chan, Hong Kong customers don’t often demand oversized cakes or cakes with concepts that are too unusual. In fact their tastes are quite predictable.
“For me, the priority is the cake needs to be yummy. That’s how I can keep clients coming back. But to make my business successful and sustainable, the cakes have to be impressive and look good for clients. People eat with their eyes first.”
Chan says that, in contrast to the fastidiousness and obsessiveness she shows to make realistic cakes, she’s not so meticulous when she’s away from the bakery.
“I wouldn’t say I have a detailed personality,” Chan says. “I have to do it for the cakes because it’s my job. But generally I’m not a very particular person. My husband is a Virgo so he’s more meticulous and clean. I’m the messy one.”
She adds: “With an illusion cake, the most challenging thing is you need to analyse the real product or object before you can start. I can’t just make a cake. I need to have a plan before executing it. That’s the more tricky part. That’s also why I can’t expand too much. I don’t want to do a mass production.
“I enjoy my small team. We do creative work and we can keep up the quality. Money is not everything in my life. That’s why I don’t have the ambition to be the next Maxim’s Cakes [a prominent chain in Hong Kong].”
Alison Chan of Dear Harley Bakery’s ‘Cake Illusions’ exhibit will be at K11 Musea’s Kunsthalle, 6/F, K11 Arts & Cultural Centre, from July 29 to September 11.