Images provided by Madison Lee
Chef Madison Lee’s sugar flowers bring together two of our favorite things: blooms and sweets.
What’s better than garden-grown flowers? Gorgeous confectionary blooms crafted with sugar but inspired by the real thing. Chef Madison Lee is the country’s hottest cake baker—and she’s as flower-obsessed as we are. Lee welcomed us into her studio to talk flowers, brides, and why fast music is what helps her get the job done.
Chef Madison Lee
A quick perusal of the gorgeous flower-topped cakes in baker/artist Madison Lee’s studio gives one the impression of a sophisticated, restrained atmosphere where you’d expect to hear Stravinsky, cocktail-hour jazz, or classical piano. Imagine our surprise when Lee asked Archie, her studio manager, to cue up some power pop at top volume while she and her right-hand woman, Vilna Peters, kick their sugar flower production into high gear.
“The beats per minute help me focus”, Lee explains, launching into molding and shaping yet another petal of a delicate sugar rose de mai blossom. While it seems counterintuitive that such raucous noise could help her produce such delicate, ethereal beauties, her abilities in cakery (is that a word?) prove that defying the odds of her industry is exactly what she sets out to do with each creation.
Images provided by Madison Lee
At left, Vilna Peters. Above, Peters and Lee craft stems for the sugar flowers.
Let’s back up a bit: how did we find ourselves in the studio of a sugar flower whiz? Well—a blue-sky creative brainstorm on how to best display our Rose de Mai-centric collaboration with John Derian led us on an Instagram hunt for sugar flowers, the ideal prop for photo-shooting the gorgeous, bloom-festooned limited-edition collection. When we landed on Lee’s feed, which is bursting with wedding cakes that positively brim over with gorgeous, lifelike sugar blooms, we knew we’d found our collaborator. With a devotion to her craft that’s brought her around the world in search of handmade petal molds and instruction from the masters of the art form, Lee brings a lifetime of bakery experience to her work. Her family’s bakery in Park Slope, Brooklyn was where she cut her teeth, creating elaborate cakes to display in the window. Her signature? Flowers. In her studio today, she has a library of flower and garden reference books that rival any horticulturist and a collection of petal molds and ‘veiners’ (silicone molds that impress the fondant with the crinkles and lines unique to each leaf and flower type) collected from a sugar flower master in Amsterdam.
Madison Lee sugar flowers and the Chantecaille X John Derian collection
Those early creations—and several appearances on reality TV cake bonanzas like Ridiculous Cakes and Cake Hunters were the foundation for today, where Lee is thought to be the heiress to cake queen Sylvia Weinstock’s crown. In fact, Peters was one of Weinstock’s closest collaborators until Lee hired her to work in her own studio—and she agrees that her boss is indeed on her way to the top of the competitive cake art market. “Madison’s vision and her work is so wonderful—she is a true artist”, Peters says, noting that Lee’s eye for color, specifically re-creating the shades and tones of real-life flowers for her sugar creations, is incredible. To see them work so closely, huddled together as they roll the stems and pollen-dusted centers of delicate rosa centifolia, our beloved rose de mai, it’s obvious that the twosome have a creative connection built on trust and years of experience, not to mention working together on some insanely intricate and elaborate projects: seven-tiered cakes overflowing with gardenias or wisteria vines, cakes that require thousands of hours of craftsmanship and, occasionally, helicopter rides to their final destination.
As we chatted with Lee and Peters on the day they prepped our rose de mai sugar flowers, naturally, the topic of makeup came up—Lee’s signature beauty look is a strong red lip, no matter the time or place. She’s a makeup lover, it turns out and actually worked as a makeup artist before her cake career took off. Watching her blend colors for the pale pink petals and lemon-y yellow centers of each individual bloom was a bit like watching a Chantecaille makeup artist custom-blend a foundation shade. “I just keep working on it until it feels right”, Lee says, admitting that she’s a perfectionist through and through. Could she do her dreamy job any other way? We don’t think so, and we’re pretty sure each and every client she’s hired wouldn’t have it any other way.
Madison Lee’s color blending kit