A REPRINT FROM THE
The New Mexican's
It's been merely a year and seven months since this Bronx boy breezed into town trailing a cloud of cake crumbs behind him.
But in no time at all he has managed to get his name at least inscribed in the fantasies of those who simply cannot live without that luscious piece of dessert, that fingerful of rich chocolate, that marzipan pink flower atop the birthday cake.
But, for most of us dessertophiles, the association stops there. For this is Cliff Simon, a k a Cakes by Cliff, master of cakes that go well beyond dessert.
These are edible works of art, offerings typically only for celebrities or other such who can afford his delicious creations -Liberace, say, or Madonna or Diana Ross. Their stories have been recalled in Pasatiempo in Simon's on-going series printed in these columns over the past year. Now Simon is about to take to the stage with his cakes - and a little entertaining talk about just how hilarious, oh, and stressful, life can be when you're in charge of appeasing the unappeasable.
At 6:15 p.m. Thursday in the La Fonda Hotel's New Mexico Room, Simon will present Cake Talk, what he calls one hour of stories and slides about life with cake, Ross, Liberace and, of course, his mom, Lil.
And - here's maybe the best part - afterward, Simon himself will cut and serve to all a piece of his cake. Guaranteed, absolutely free of charge. (Still, you may want to be sure to laugh at all his jokes.)
As Simon will surely tell you, the leap from theater set designer to cake artist was inspired by his "grandmother energy. I love to feed people and make them happy," he explained the other day during a break while a wedding cake was rising in the oven. In the niid-1 970s, he was working at a printing company in New York. At night, because, he explained, he is no social butterfly, he'd go home and renovate his newly-rented apartment. But when that was finished, what was the poor boy to do?
"I bought a Julia Child cookbook," he said. "Simply because I loved her. I always watched her shows. She was so funny. Do you remember the time she dropped the turkey?"
Given the fact that Simon had a chocolate obsession, he skipped right past the quenches, the cassoulet and went right to . . . you guessed it. The rest, of course, was a long and, at times, disasterous road leaming how to get those cakes to work.
"I started baking a cake a night," he said. "Of course, I couldn't possibly eat a cake a night, so I took them into work with little napkins and plates and would serve everyone a piece of cake."Well, they loved it and started ordering from me. At first, he said, he only made garden-variety cakes - a little flower here or there, a border of rosettes, maybe a little writing. Then, a friend asked him to do a cake in the shape of Ohio and Simon found his calling.
"It was great. I did corn fields in(i blue skies and even had a little apple tree sticking up," he said. "All of it edible." Word of innovation gets around quickly, particularly in a place like New York, and Simon soon found himself creating cakes for performers at Radio City Music Hall. That's where Ross discovered him and subsequently called him to fly to Switzerland to do her wedding cake.
Simon, it seemed, was not quite prepared for Switzerland. He landed, equipment in hand, at the Beau Rivage in Lausanne, which had one of the most professional kitchens he had ever seen.
"I was totally unprepared and it was a disaster," he said. "I mean, here was this little guy who was used to working in his own kitchen in the niidst of all these professionals with a big attitude.
"But I did not rise well to the occasion. Things like, they'd offer me bars of Lindt chocolate and I'd say, 'No thanks, I use Belgian chocolate,' went over really well. "
These are the stories you'll hear about in depth, stories that chronicle learning this strange new art and all the lessons that went on along the way.
"I've learned a lot in dealing with all these situations," Simon said. "Much of it I can laugh at now, but at the time I would be having a nervous breakdown. Like when a cake would collapse 20 minutes after I delivered it."
Or the time he made a huge Faberge egg cake for Malcolm Forbes and was given two first-class $950 tickets to fly the cake from New York to San Diego. And the flight attendants refused to let him buckle the cake in the seat next to him. Major problem.
"Finally the pilot had to come back and give permission," Simon said.
Ultimately, though, it is not the actual cake that matters - Simon can say this now that he's had several huge successes under his belt. It's the creative process, the hours and hours spent decorating that holds the fun. And, of course, the learning process along the way.
"It is about cakes, but it's also about taking things out of the realm of cakes," he said. "Anything we do can be a learning process. For me, it just happens to be cakes."