"I'm in the business of good times," says Lilly Vanilli, who has quickly become one of London's most celebrated cake makers. She's right – cakes are for joyous occasions, weddings, birthdays, anniversaries and happy gatherings. Self-taught Vanilli has carved a distinct niche for herself in the world of baking, using seasonal produce and toppings (glitter, edible flowers and berries) and never making the same cake twice.
"We use a local greengrocer on Broadway Market," Vanilli explains. "and a butchers and grower in Cornwall – Sean O'Neil of The Modern Salad Grower grows organic edible flowers at Keveral Farm and is fantastic. Our millers are a generation miller based in Essex."
Vanilli had an international upbringing: raised in Saudi Arabia, she later moved to New York and then Melbourne. "Cooking was never really a big part of my childhood," she explains, "we were freezer food kids." But her grandma did have a love of baking and would often involve her in kitchen activities. Vanilli's obsessive nature drew her to the science and history of baking and designing cakes. She continues to collect vintage books, many of which line the shelves of her east London bakery.
A few years after starting to make cupcakes for friends, Vanilli's burgeoning business now includes a sweet and savoury bakery, open to the public every Sunday and an in-demand private order service. In addition, she has produced two cook books and co-founded the Young British Foodies, an awards dedicated to celebrate new talent. Alongside her trademark tiered cakes, Vanilli's rich back catalogue ranges from the decadently beautiful to the macabre: floral tiered pastel cakes, Bleeding Hearts cakes and zombie cupcakes.
As well as a unique portfolio, Vanilli's success can also be accredited to her distinct style of visual communication. A modern, all-important move in these digital times – her predecessors in cake land, Mrs Beeton and Mary Berry, certainly never had to worry about such things. As a former graphic designer and journalist, Vanilli has co-created GIFs and short films featuring her cakes and uses Instagram to document each creation. Every cake is photographed in front of the same bakery wall, for that all-important continuity. "Instagram works like a visual reference for me. I haven't found a better way of communicating what I do. It's completely transformed my business."
"I really enjoy the decorating part of cake-making," Vanilli explains. "But, really, it's all about the eating part! The cake always has to taste as good as it looks."
Vanilli is currently working in India where she is planning to open a bakery in Kerala 'Bloomsbury's' in Kochi. "It's western style patisserie with Kerala ingredients and flavours," she explains, whose bakery is still opening every Sunday in the safe hands of her team.
Text by Laura Bradley
Film by Stefan Heinrichs