Cake: Another Extension & Creation of Aesthetics

I’ve always believed in the idea that great food is the most primitive works of art in life, and people who can present food in a beautiful way must be more passionate about living than those who don’t. Bobo Lee is one of such people in that he extends his beloved definitions of aesthetics to his cakes, so that the moment you step into his cake store, you would forget that you set foot here for a bite of chocolate mousse or chestnut tower, but began to wonder if you should have Yaoi Kusama or Claude Monet.

Point1. The beauty of art and the beauty of food are in common.
Point2. You need to add your own originality to the base you learned in school.
Point3. Keeping up working without being influenced by trends and changes in the times leads to success.

Attracted by a single photo, he turned from designer to patissier

■I have heard you were an interior designer?

My major back in university was art. After I graduated, I started working in Beijing as an interior and exhibition designer. My work involved constantly looking for designs. By chance, I saw Maggie Austin’s cakes(*1), and was instantly conquered by her work, I marveled at how beautiful the cakes were!

Cooking and bakery are my hobbies and I enjoy entertaining my friends at my home with home made dishes. I read books about patisserie from time to time and managed to make some simple mousse. I really enjoy watching my friends face light up with contentment after they tried what I have made.

*1:Maggie AustinーーA former classical ballet dancer, Maggie Austin’s elegant, couture cake design has been praised worldwide in magazines, blogs and television. Maggie completed the prestigious L’Art de la Pâtisserie program at the French Pastry School with honors. She brought her unique artistic vision to life when she launched Maggie Austin Cake in 2010.

■You changed your career path from designing to cake bakery at the age of 35. Why did you take such huge move?

I didn’t think it was a huge move. I regard the works of Maggie Austin as art, not food. Food and art for a person who learns art like me, is related to each other. I like creating things, so if I can combine beauty and food together through crafting, that is an ideal status for me.

Strawberry Verbena−−BoboLEE Cake

Kitchen debut at Le Cordon Bleu Japan

■ Why did you choose to study in Le Cordon Bleu?

At that time, I decided to work for Maggie Austin first in the States, as an intern. However, she required interns to have a considerable degree of basic bakery skills, so I checked a lot of schools that can train students to have solid bakery skills. I have known Le Cordon Bleu for a long time, but there’s no campus in China back to that time. (*2)I happened to find out that Le Cordon Bleu Japan offers Chinese course, which was a great fit for me.

(*2)For more course information please check with Le Cordon Bleu Japan.

■What was the student life like in Le Cordon Blue Japan?

At that time, there were two classes for desserts major with a total of 21 people. There were about 12 people in my class. Some were doing cuisines, and some were home baking. The course was divided into two parts: demonstration and practical operation. During the demo class, the teacher would show you the whole production process and explain the main points of production while doing it. You have to focus otherwise you couldn’t finish your practical operation.

During the demonstration class, more than 20 students attended the class together, and then went to the kitchen for practice in turns in the morning and afternoon by classes. Our class was scheduled to enter the kitchen from 8:30 am, so you should get up at least 7 o’clock, take a tram, and arrive school at 8 o’clock. If you were 10 minutes late, you would not be allowed to enter. It was very strict. I think this also aimed to cultivate the rigorous learning attitude of the students. The lunch break was short as well, forming a tight and compacted curriculum.

BoboLEE’s work during Le Cordon Bleu Japan time

Meet the spice and establish his own color

■I heard that you graduated from Le Cordon Bleu Japan with first honors. Can you talk more about your graduation design?

My graduation design has a reference to the works of Maggie Austin. Since she had been a ballerina, she invented a cake style that merges the skirt of a ballerina into the elements of the cake. I made the base with reference to her work, with a larger flower. I like simple things, the works at that time and my current works are related.

The most important assessment is taste rather than the overall shape in graduation design.

I did white chocolate raspberry flavor that time and is sold nowadays at the store, too. I guess the reason I could rank first is because I put spice(basil) in the cake. And the chef specifically asked me, “What did you add? “during the scoring session.

All the students’ graduation design recipes were given to the teachers in advance for review. When I submitted my recipe at the first time, my teacher thought it wasn’t unique enough and asked me to try harder. Then I found a cake with spices in the book, which inspired me and finalized my graduation design. The recipe that Le Cordon Bleu teaches you is the most basic, and you need to explore by adding your thoughts and characteristics.

Spice are commonly seen in cuisines but seldom in bakery. I gave it a bold try. As a result, many of the cakes I produce now are combined with spices, such as Chinese pepper, pepper, rosemary and so on.

Including the dinner for Beckham before, because he wanted to have something with Chinese characteristics, I used Sichuan pepper and jasmine.

Back of house at the dinner party of David Beckham

■What is the biggest gain you think you got from Le Cordon Bleu?

I think it is strictness towards work. The Japanese are strict with what they do and in three months, I learned that attitude by watching and practicing with Japanese masters. It is of great help in terms of opening store and producing cakes. For example, I will pay attention to many details. The first thing when I arrive the store every day is to observe the details of my cake. I think this is very important, also I will go to other dessert shops to check it. Because the appearance of a product is the first information the customer would receive. You will choose and taste it only after you are attracted by the appearance.

From Maggie Austin’s intern to the owner of BoboLEE Cake

■What did you do after graduating from Le Cordon Bleu Japan?

I went to the States to work as intern for Maggie Austin. I basically was helping with the orders she got in Washington studio. I spent 3 months on the job training learning from Maggie.

■How did you come along from an intern in the States to the owner of BoboLEE Cake?

After a three-month internship in the States, I went to Shanghai and opened my studio in 2014.

It was the hardest days in my life when opening my studio. I was barely known that time as I just came back from abroad. There’s no one guiding me, and pressure was everywhere. I went to overseas for studying and when I came back and I had no financing and little orders. Of course, you couldn’t sell well when you don’t have reputation. You have to accumulate all these, bit by bit.

I decided doing sugar flower wedding cake as main focus. There were a few competitors but none did as beautifully as I. Some friends helped posting photos in SNS, like in Weibo and Moments in Wechat, thinking the cakes are really beautiful. With this, we became a hit. For the past four and five years, almost all the fashion magazines had articles about us. We didn’t have a budget for marketing, the media came because they deem the cakes as alluring. We had a quite difficult time because of no budget for marketing.

Petit yuzu cake−−BoboLEE Cake

■Have you planned a way to close your studio and open a store?

The reason why I closed my studio and opened the shop along the street was because the rent contract for studio was due. And one of the clients just proposed that, “With your great taste, why don’t you open a store?” Voila, we opened the current store as you could see here in November 2017. The store used to be a warehouse of the property management of this building with virtually nothing at all. There were muds and bricks everywhere on the ground and were in in shreds and tatters. But there are three large camphor trees of about 100 years. I was quite into the environment here and decided to rent it.
When I first opened the store, I didn’t think too much, just wanted to continue the work of the studio, and I could have a place to chat and drink with friends. I didn’t expect that the first day of the opening was that crowded. I even said, “We’re overwhelmed with customers.” (laugh)

It has been 5 years since my studio days and things have been going quite systematically with me creating new products and staff executing them.

■What do you do outside your store?

I open some courses when I have time. The price of the course is a bit higher than other sugar flower courses, but the things I do are different. Because the style I have been pursuing is the art, while others do simulations, and I hope I could have an artistic extension in sugar flowers. For example, the sugar flowers that others want to make are replicating real flowers, while I hope to have an artistic shape in it. I wish there are plastic arts in what I do and those who know it would know it. For many things, especially handmade things, you must have your own artistic style in it, and you must have creativity in it.

French cakes pay attention to aesthetics. The common point of design and French cakes is you have to make it beautiful. When you decorate, you will want to create a classic aesthetic work. The taste of the cake is not as complicated as you might think, but to make a good modeling is more difficult, you have to have your own characteristics as well as appeal to the public.

Wedding Cake−−BoboLEE Cake

Keep going on the path of patissier

■Can you share us about your dream?

I’m looking for places to open new stores, either in Shanghai, Shenzhen or Beijing.

I hope that I can do what I like. Even if I open a lot of stores and make a lot of money, I still want to spend my energy to have the sugar flower class. Because I like creating things by hand, I will continue this and let more people experience such design concept and beauty. I don’t want to grow old and doing nothing. Like the elder lady apprentice I met in the United States, she is still an intern at her age. She is a good example of you are “never too old to learn”.

■How could you remain true to your original aspiration?

I think the key issue is to persist. A lot of graduates from Le Cordon Bleu opened their own studios after graduation. At first, they met all the problems as I met and described before, little sales since you’re not famous. So basically, all of them had difficulties with financing. But the reason why I could make it till today is that I insisted on my own style instead of following trends. My insistence may also come from my very passion for doing manual work to which I want to extend to cakes. Ah, yes, it was my persistence through time as it takes time, little by little people know you. Because we were selling online we had to build our reputation by word of mouth, like if a friend bought a cake and said “delicious,” then the friend will recommend and bring in more friends. It took us about a year or so for things to be on track.

■Does the client’s review of the food have anything to do with your view of great food?

At first, I might care about the clients’ thoughts about my food. When I started making birthday cakes, I wanted to make a phone call to the customer, inquiring how they feel about the cake. Or at the start phase when I opened my store if I see anyone taking two bites and leave, I had the urge to ask the reason, is it not delicious? But slowly I will not. Because I came to understand that the simple and sincere taste under the exquisite appearance, those who understand it will naturally understand, and people who like it will naturally like it. All I need to do is to try my best and do what I am supposed to do.

“Relearning” in Le Cordon Bleu

“Those who understand it will naturally understand, and people who like it will naturally like it. All I need to do is to try my best and do what I am supposed to do.”From these words, I can see BoboLEE’s attitude to cherish his dream without forgetting his initial passion for cake making. If you are also dreaming about career change to the world of gastronomy, “It’s never to late to challenge”.

(Interview & Text:Wang Wenjia, Photography:BoboLEE Cake