Custom Cakes as a Point of Difference

A pastry chef recognizes and exploits a sweet revenue steam.

This lacy chocolate cage-framed cake has been a sweet hit on Instragram.

Special cakes for events are commonplace, but Hotel Bel-Air’s Executive Pastry Chef Garry Larduinat has created a unique cadre of wow-worthy cakes for all occasions.

So many guests were bringing their own cakes into the Wolfgang Puck at Hotel Bel-Air restaurant that Larduinat recognized a new revenue source. “We have talented young pastry chefs,” he realized. “We can do cakes.” Now, when people make reservations for special celebrations, the hotel offers the opportunity to purchase housemade cakes, which also are featured on the hotel’s website.

“We launched the cake program a year and a half ago and added three pastry chefs to do it,” Larduinat says. And it’s profitable. “We sell three or four cakes a week,” he reports.

Young men ready to pop the question find the cakes an ideal throne for a ring at the end of a romantic dinner; couples celebrating anniversaries enjoy custom-designed cakes in their rooms; an elegant grande dame recently celebrated her 98th birthday with one; groups of women share one at wedding showers. And plenty of celebrities enjoy them, too, Larduinat says, but mum’s the word on revealing their identities.

The cakes are elaborate. Fondant bees hover over the bestselling lightly torched Swiss meringue “Beehive” cake. Colored white chocolate petals create realistic “Sunf lower Fields.” A lacy chocolate cage frames the pastry chef ’s personal favorite, and its portraits have garnered nearly 10,000 likes on his wildly popular Instagram (he has 195,000 followers).

Cake 2 - Let Them Make Cake - 2017 0102 JanFeb
Visually arresting cakes include this gluten-free, flourless chocolate cake.

“The hotel’s beautiful surroundings were the true inspiration behind this new offering,” says Larduinat.  Hotel Bel-Air is an oasis in the middle of Los Angeles, and Larduinat waxes poetic when he describes the lush flora and fauna on its grounds. “These new cakes reflect the property’s look and feel,” Larduinat says. This goes a long way toward explaining why the leaves on the “Artichoke” cake are as pink as the hotel itself. Any way, “green is not really an appetizing color,” he says.

There are half a dozen flavors to choose from, including a gluten-free, flourless chocolate cake. The “Honey Bee,” a banana sponge cake, is filled with silken dulce de leche mousse and a banana brown sugar compote. The “Mocha Chocolatte” takes its name from the coffee and dark chocolate mousse separating its chiffon layers.

The cakes are extremely labor intensive, but the end result is worth it, Larduinat says. “The time involved in baking and preparing each cake is approximately 48 hours, which is why we ask for this much advance notice when ordering one.”

The cakes can be made in four sizes, ranging from four to 10 inches, and cost from $80 to $279.

An unexpected bonus from the cake program was the boost in staff morale. “You want to make sure your team is always happy and proud,” Larduinat says. He believes the cakes have given the team a new sense of pride and a challenging task beyond routine plated desserts or amenities.

The Swiss meringue “Beehive” cake is a bestseller.
The Swiss meringue “Beehive” cake is a bestseller.

“I’m lucky to have a young team, very hungry to learn and become better,” he says. “We might only make one wedding cake a week, so someone might say, ‘Oh, I wish I could work on the wedding cake.’ But now we’re making special cakes three or four times a week, so they have more opportunity to practice.”

Perhaps they will even learn how to make a Croquembouche, the traditional French wedding cake, made of a tower of cream puffs held together with caramelized sugar. Larduinat, the son of two French pastry chefs in Limoges, used his classic French training to produce intricate creations like this during the six years he spent as the executive pastry chef of Payard Patisserie in New York before joining the hotel.

“It’s very difficult to make, as the sugar has to be the perfect temperature, so you have to work quickly,” he explains. “The construction of the cake is quite detailed as well and it’s challenging to make the perfect shape. I once made one with more than 4,000 puffs and eight feet high for a wedding in New York. It’s taken many years of practice and kitchen burns to perfect.”

And maybe the best lesson of all is that sometimes it is truly possible for art and commerce to meet.

Beverly Stephen  is former editor in chief of Food Arts magazine.