One Brisbane-based baker has made a business of bringing her bespoke wedding cakes – and farm-to-table philosophy – as far as New York City, the temples of Kyoto, and bustling Shanghai. Wherever she is in the world, the same rules apply. “Once the clock strikes midnight, I begin,” says Gillian Bell, who will only ever bake on the actual wedding day. “I make the cakes by hand, slowly, quietly, whispering good wishes for a long, happy, fulfilling marriage, as I do,” she smiles. “I know! I sound mad! I feel like I live in a fairy story, sometimes.”
The self-taught talent took to the wooden spoon before she’d started school, baking her way through university and then turning her hand to wedding cakes. “I dabbled on the fondant-side – the more traditional wedding cake decoration – a little, but it never felt right to me.” Her current creations are ‘naked’, sometimes scantily clad in a dusting of icing sugar, fresh soft frostings, buttercreams or ganaches, and simply adorned with edible flowers.
“I’ve always been working with organic ingredients,” says Gillian, who grows what she can from her inner city “postage stamp-sized garden” and nearby rented allotment. “I do a bit of urban foraging and trade with people in the neighbourhood, too. If I notice they are growing something I could use, I knock at their door and see whether they are willing to trade a bag of kumquats or some magnolia blossoms for a tart or a cake.” She also owns a share in a local Jersey Cow – one of a small herd happily grazing on an organic, family-run farm – and relishes the spoils of her investment (“You’ll never find this kind of taste in the dairy cabinet of a supermarket”).
Baking abroad began after years of declining requests to ship her cakes, when one day, she suggested to an enquirer that she “was rather more robust” than her wares. “If they really wanted one of my cakes, I could come and make it for them,” says Gillian, who’s just returned from a commission in New York, where she door-knocked her way to a mixer the day before the wedding. “I can’t take much equipment with me, so I borrow tools from people I meet or put the call out via Instagram.”
On the road, her ingredients also come by the kindness of strangers, such as New York baker and author Sarah Owens, who introduced her to the farmers market in Union Square. “When I was in Shanghai last year, I spent days getting to know the local market stall holders to learn about what they were selling, what was in season, and how they prepared it,” says Gillian, that time cooking from a borrowed studio down a laneway in Tianzifang, Shanghai.
Her advice for would-be professional bakers? “Believe in what you do and others will too. Don’t worry about what others are doing. They are on a different journey. And don’t try to be all things to all people. It’s a fool’s game and it’s a waste of time and energy. Define your own success.”
Photography by Lara M @LoveWalkEatSee