Interview 52. – Annabel de Vetten



Annabel makes demonically delicious cakes & chocolates that look like the things your mother told you not to touch – let alone put in your mouth.

Twitter: @kitchenconjurer


Describe something that has recently amazed you and how it made you feel.

Those things that you should have known about for years. Those hidden design features of an object that are never described. For example, the space bar scrolling facility on the iPhone or the sewing reels in Germany where they’ve got a compartment for needles. That realisation that something you’ve used all your life suddenly has this extra hidden meaning. It’s the mix of the cleverness and the mundane.


What inspires you to be creative?

It’s just natural. I just can’t help it. I could be having a cup of coffee and see an accidental swirl in the foam and I start thinking that would make a nice piece of cake or a sculpture. I get inspiration everywhere even from the most mundane places. Books; stories (I try and make a story into something physical); other artists; films; food (especially unusual fruit like prickly pears).


Are there certain environments that aid your creativity?

Bars! But I think the bar thing isn’t just the drinking. I think it’s the socialising and the relaxing. Thom [Annabel’s husband] and I often go out for a drink and we’ll just talk about stuff and then we’d come up with ideas.

It sounds very personal but, in the shower, I come up with loads of ideas. I was actually thinking about getting a waterproof whiteboard. I think it’s being confined to space for a few minutes and not being able to do anything else apart from wash your hair. But if I’m stuck on a project I can’t go and have a shower, that won’t work. You can’t force it. I also like very creative and unusual environments: a museum, an antique shop or somebody’s house where they have really interesting objects and conversation.


Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?

Being inquisitive; open for knowledge. I don’t think you can teach or force it. It’s a natural thing. I don’t know if it’s nature versus nurture. Probably Both.

Maybe it’s something you can introduce to somebody. My parents used to take me to museums and natural history museums a lot. And they’d show me this animal, where it lives and little stories. That’s when you become curious if that’s your predisposition. I think it can definitely be nourished and not just at a young age. Introducing somebody to something new and opening a world of a new hobby or something that they wouldn’t ordinarily have sought out. Falling into something by accident and then suddenly becoming curious about something you’d never even thought about.

Tell me about your journey that has led you to making your exquisite cakes.

The journey was an accident. I made our wedding cake because we were on a budget. I taught myself and I didn’t think it was going to go anywhere else. But then I just realised that sugar is a sculptural medium. I didn’t realise how much you could do with it and then I seem to have got a knack for it. That’s because I’ve a sculptural and taxidermy background. The armature that you use for the cake, sugar, and chocolate sculptures is not that far removed from my taxidermy.

You can be as good as you possibly can be, and it will still fail if you have rubbish cake to work with. The cake is like the canvas. If it doesn’t have the right structure, you can just forget about it. The challenges of food sculpting were quite interesting to figure out how to overcome. Hygiene, environmental factors like heat/cold, shelf life deadlines. If I’ve got a booking for next year, I know what I’m going to do, but I can’t make a start, as much as I’d like to. Cakes are really hard work because they are very unpredictable and if you don’t have a passion for it, you can’t do it. If I worked at an hourly rate, it’d be pennies because it’s not just the making. It’s thinking about it, researching recipes, trying recipes and dealing with customers.

I enjoyed teaching myself and learning quite quickly. People started going, “Oh, this is really good, can you make me a cake?” I wasn’t expecting that. And then it just became a natural progression to do what I now do, the alternative sculptures. I always say if my friends saw me doing Peppa Pig cakes, they’d probably think I lost my mind. There wouldn’t be any creative gain in there for me.


What do you think when you see all the Facebook/Instagram posts of parents’ attempts at baking character birthday cakes for their kids? Are they laughable?

Oh no, I love those! People don’t like to make mistakes because they think I’ll judge them, but I don’t at all. I’m quite sad, I wish people would make me more cakes. The cakes that have been made for me maybe weren’t technically a high end product, but it’s the thought and somebody actually doing something that they’re not used to. I grew up with the homemade Smarties cakes from my parents and I think they are a lot more meaningful sometimes.


Did you like baking before you made your wedding cake?

Well I am German and that’s what we do. We’re making folk. I’d be baking with my gran. I’d go buy frosting from the supermarket and I tried to get creative and, once I made a cake for a boyfriend at the time. I made a weird car crash scene with gummy bears on top of a cake and I have no idea where that idea came from. There were skid marks on the cake, a red chunk of sugar Volvo and gummy bears cut in half. It turned out, I was psychic because that’s what happened later, the car crashed but no gummy bears or people were harmed. I’m not doing any more psychic cake forecasting!

The nature of your work is very temporary, if you leave it long enough it’s either going to be eaten or decay. As an artist how does it feel for your creations to have such a short shelf life?

I think it’s whimsical. If I was to go really, really deep, it’s like life – nothing lasts forever. And you might as well enjoy it while you’ve got it. And a piece of cake is very enjoyable.

Cakes can last for a very long length of time, the sugar paste seals them in like Tupperware. I’ve had real cakes that have lasted a couple of years as long as you don’t touch them or cut into them because then it just be an explosion of mould and stench. There are historical pieces of cake in museums that just keep forever. There’s the tradition of freezing the top tier of a wedding cake. So, I do try and make cakes with an element of a non-edibles (or technically edible but not delicious) so they can keep it without freezing. People get domes and put them on display.

The most important thing is getting good photographs for the memories. However, if a cake is really realistic the photograph can be too good because people don’t think it’s a cake. I made this bacon cake for National Bacon Day. It was five tiers of five different kinds of bacon and it is one of my favourite cakes, it was a really good job, but it was too good. It just looked like a stack of bacon. I think if we had cut a slice out of it to show that it was real cake it would’ve had a better impact.

From a business point of view… I used to paint and my biggest fear was that my regular clients would run out of space for canvases. Where are they going to put my paintings? With cake it gets eaten. Then of course birthdays and anniversaries happen each year!


The themes of life, death and decay feature regularly in your work. How do people react when they see and taste your work?

Online you get all the keyboard warriors who really feel like I should care about their opinion. I take it as a compliment if they hate it. And quite enjoy that, as long as they don’t say it’s badly made, then I’d cry. When I post things online, the compliments I like the best are from somebody who may not like the subject but rather than just being completely repulsed they appreciate the skill and effort and design. The morbidness is not for everyone, but that’s okay because there’s something for everyone. Pretty flowers and Peppa Pig are not my kind of thing. I don’t like it and I don’t have to.

The fun reactions are from the anatomical ones where you can see muscles or intestines. When people have that initial hesitation when they go to cut it or before they put it in their mouth. They’re like “Arggh, I don’t think I can do this. I’m a little bit repulsed BUT it’s cake! My brain is really struggling to come to terms with what I’m seeing and smelling.” It really does mess with their heads. I just stand back and watch them; it’s like a sport. There’s a new term now, illusion cake for anything that looks so realistic that it doesn’t even look like a cake anymore.

I like my cakes to have a backstory. I saw this cake the other day online and it was absolutely stunning; so much attention to detail but there was no explanation to it. It was just loads and loads of hashtags. I really would like to have known who the cake was for, how it came about, and their reaction. I like to write something about my cakes especially the ones that I do for display and I do just off my own. I really enjoy doing the research. I know everything that goes around it. I treat it more like an art form. And I think that’s why people who aren’t necessarily into that kind of style of cakes, they find it interesting because there’s a reason for it. I’m not just making gratuitous horror, just to gross people out – that’s crass to me. There’s always got to be a be a reason. For example, I did a surgery cake and that was for a surgery simulator. It’s this game where you’re supposed to do surgery on someone and obviously you failed miserably and there’s blood everywhere.

Can you tell me more about your “Movie Taste Alongs”? Where did the idea come from? What has been your favourite event?

Yeah, they’re just really fun events that I do because I had the opportunity to work with the cinema who were quite adventurous. It’s not my own concept though. Basically, the concept is I choose a film and then make sure the cinema can get the rights to screen it, and then I pick a few scenes distributed throughout the film that inspire me to recreate the scene in a small bite sized little treat.

If somebody is eating a burger, I would not recreate a burger because that’s just not the point. The whole point of it is imagining something in edible form that the audience would never have thought. I think that’s why it’s so popular because it’s always a surprise. You can watch people opening their treats and has a mini Christmas feel to it. During the pauses I leave the house lights on and encourage people to chat and take photographs.

I choose classic films that people are familiar with but have maybe never seen it in a cinema. When I pause it on a pivotal scene, there’s always laughter; especially if it’s in a horror film and they know something disturbing is coming. My favourite film to do was Seven. That was a game changer because that’s when we actually started pausing. The treats were based on each murder. So that was really specific that they needed to pause it just at the right time – some of the murders are just a blip and you only see result of the murder briefly.

The Taste Alongs have become more of a show with interspersing magic routines and standing on stage introducing the food. With Seven I left out a couple of sins, there was an air of anticipation. When I was doing my goodbye speech, I just pretended that was it and nothing else. And then Thom came in dressed as a delivery man and dropped this cardboard box on the stage. I didn’t acknowledge it first and people were laughing. Eventually I asked if they wanted to see what’s in the box? Then I pulled the marzipan head out the box to complete the seven sins.

What stood out for you? Any questions? Things you disagree with? Write a comment and join in the discussion.

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