Ten-layer cakes. Intergalactic chocolate. Cheesecake push-pops. Baking festivals and DJ’s dessert degustations. A new generation of young bakers is stepping up the game on Sydney’s baking scene, and if the attention they’ve drawn is anything to go by, Sydney loves them for it. Andrew Bowden, Katherine Sabbath and Anna Polyviou are three Sydney locals taking sweet food to the next level – and they’ve got the pictures to prove it. With tens of thousands of Instagram followers between them, these two young pastry chefs and one home baker are finding new ways of engaging diners and blurring the line between art, performance and food.
“Visuals are so important in dessert making, because you eat with your eyes first,” says Bowden – Andy Bowdy as he is known among fans, Lord Pastry Master as he’s known at Newtown restaurant, Hartsyard, where he’s been head pastry chef for more than two years. Dripping with icing and scorched meringue, stacked in layers of cheesecake and salted-caramel mousse, and topped with a lavish assortment of chocolate, cookies, caramel popcorn, fruits and flowers, Bowden’s bespoke cakes look at once too perfect to eat and completely irresistible. Each creation is posted on Instagram in all its glory with an anecdote or list of flavours. Pictures of his indulgent, American-inspired pies also draw virtual crowds, as does the announcement of his soft-serve flavour of the week. “A lot of classical pastry is very polished and precise, but that’s not me. I like to make my desserts look so over the top that people just want to dive in and involve themselves,” he says.
For Polyviou, executive pastry chef at the prestigious Shangri-La Hotel, inspiration is drawn from all sorts of places. “I see something and I think, ‘I want to make a dessert that looks like that’ and then I work from there,” she says. In the case of her award-winning dessert, Anna’s Mess – inspired by the classic English Eton Mess – at first sight
there’s nothing messy about it. A porcelain-like, white tempered chocolate sphere with two viewing holes gives a glimpse into a layered interior of rose and French-vanilla tea mousse, strawberry gel, vanilla bavarois and a whole host of hidden flavours only revealed once it’s cracked open with a spoon. A test tube full of pop rocks is then sprinkled over the top, adding a final, ’90s-style flourish to the extravagant dish. “I want diners to interact with it, to make a big mess out of a beautiful, elegant creation,” says Polyviou.
High-school teacher, home cook and social-media sensation, Katherine Sabbath claims her passion for cake decorating comes from a fundamental desire to create something visually interesting and new. “As a kid I loved art and Play-Doh and creating my own fun. I also remember being completely blown away by Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Quite a few of the visual elements have filtered down into some of my slightly unhinged creations,” says Sabbath. Indeed, her unicorn cheesecake looks as though it could have come straight off the production line at Wonka’s factory. With layers of pistachio, vanilla, coconut and raspberry cheesecake set on an Oreo cookie base, iced in striking stripes of colour, and topped with a splash of “hair and makeup” as she calls it – it’s an artful mess of fairy floss, popping candy and multi-coloured chocolate. “It’s like My Little Pony mixed with an edible rainbow and shot out of a confetti canon straight into a David Bowie video clip,” says Sabbath with a laugh.
But getting sweets to look this good is no piece of cake. Sabbath’s upside-down ice-cream-cone cake takes her four evenings of solid after-school baking to complete. “Each cake layer needs to be baked and cooled, frosting needs to be applied evenly ... and the dripping ganache needs to be just right or it can turn into a messy disaster.” The ice-cream-cone component takes Sabbath an entire evening to put together. “I’ve had a few mishaps but you’ll never see them on the internet!” she says.
For Bowden, each request for a bespoke cake brings a completely new flavour challenge, and much of the chef's work involves experimenting with completely new methods and recipes. While building the cake takes around two hours, there are many more hours of prep to get all the cake layers cut out, the biscuit layer set and the mousse mix packed with assortments of nuts, fruits, cookies and caramels. The final, nerve-racking stage is, “Building the cake and making sure it’s standing at the end,” he says.
With such skillful attention to colour, composition and detail, it’s little surprise that an increasing number of people are coming to appreciate this meticulous work as art and food in equal measures. However, with almost 50,000 followers on Instagram, Sabbath says she is, “Seriously gob-smacked” by the support she’s found online.
This cycle of inspiration also works in reverse. As their fans interact with them online, the bakers invent new ideas for desserts or flavour concepts. “People kept posting photos of their cross-over Andy Bowdy and Katherine Sabbath cakes, so we figured we should actually try our hand and do one in real life,” says Bowden. “We’re collaborating to make Anna Polyviou’s birthday cake, in fact!”
With this highly visual approach to making and consuming sweet goods showing no sign of slowing down, perhaps the question must be asked: Do people love to eat these creations as much as they love to look at them?
If the queues snaking down the street for 2014's Sydney Flour Market are anything to go by, the answer is: absolutely.
After drawing frenzied crowds of sweet-lovers in Melbourne, the Flour Market set up shop in Sydney in August last year, with Bowden and Sabbath appearing as major attractions. “The idea for Flour Market came about because we wanted to create a platform to bring the best emerging, artisan and specialty bakers together,” says co-founder of the event, Sarah Booth. Bagels and cronuts were served alongside Sabbath’s hamburger cupcakes and Bowden’s chocolate and chips mini pies. Everything was sold out by midday.
“We could never have anticipated the way people responded to this event,” says Booth. “It was like a Boxing Day sale!” Booth says that Bowdy and Sabbath were a hit with market-goers because of the unique way their creations bring together flavour, art and experience.“They really brought some theatre to the event.”
It’s this that seems to have attracted attention both online and offline. However, like any work of art, it seems that no imitation or photograph can replicate the experience of seeing the real deal. Let alone eating the real deal.
For Polyviou, “It’s all about giving people the whole experience.” Since taking her place in the Shangri-La kitchen in 2013, she has brought her passion for spectacle, colour, music and food together to host some of the most sought-after food events on the calendar. Her Dessert Degustation series invites a limited number of diners into the hotel’s pastry kitchen, where they can interact with the desserts as they’re prepared around them, while a DJ spins tracks to match the multi-course experience. Each event is themed and teams up with a fellow chef, including previous collaborations with Gelato Messina, Adriano Zumbo and Bowden. Polyviou also launched the inaugural Sweet Street Festival this year, which transformed the Shangri-La ballroom into a kind of sugar-fuelled rave, with break dancers performing among sweets stalls and crowds of cake-hungry guests.
With a 10-page-long waiting list for her degustations and a packed house at the Sweet Street Festival, Polyviou says she has been blown away by the eagerness of sweet lovers to get involved in the scene. “It’s been such a massive hit, I’ve already started planning it all again for next year!” Flour Market, too, will return bigger and better than ever in the new year.
As new creations and collaborations, photos and festivals continue to pop up every week, it seems there’s never been a more exciting time to be an out-and-proud sweet lover. Whether you’re in it for the daily eye-candy hit, are all about that 10-course dessert degustation, or you’re a home baker looking to get creative, there’s no shortage of inspiration on the Sydney baking scene. With so much on offer, you can have you cake, Instagram it, and eat it too.