BEIRUT: Buddy Valestro, the star of TLC reality show “Cake Boss,” has become a household name across the region since his flippant Jersey lingo and large Italian-American family started airing on Dubai-based food network Fatafeat.
Cake Boss also gave the region a window into the high-energy and, as it turned out, highly entertaining art of ostentatious cake decoration. But before Valestro’s antics about famiglia and powdered sugar became a hit on regional television, there was Safi Kawtharani, owner of Patisserie Cremino and Lebanon’s original cake boss.
Located on the Old Airport Road and wedged between the Higher Shiite Council, Army checkpoints into the southern suburbs and nondescript office buildings, Cremino has grown to become Beirut’s go-to bakery for customized, fondant-covered cakes.
“My father owned a shop that sold chocolate. I’ve been making chocolate since I was 16. We would go to school and in the afternoon and in the morning before we would make chocolates,” Kawtharani said as he led The Daily Star through a tour of his confectionary complex.
These days, the crazy fondant cakes are his personal focus. “I like dealing with the special occasions,” he said.
Holidays are crunch time at Cremino, when patrons come from all over the Greater Beirut area looking for delicious ways to celebrate anything from Christmas to hajj. Mother’s Day is also huge, with the shop typically logging sales in the thousands of cakes. And this summer is shaping up to be particularly busy, with another wedding season and the World Cup in June. “There are no orders yet, but you can see people have already started putting out their flags,” he said.
Cremino’s store space is three floors high, with pastries, breads and ice cream on the first floor, a massive display of chocolates in colorful tin foil on the second and a third dedicated to glassware and gift items.
The real work, however, happens on the two floors underground, and as we descended the stairs, wafts of melting chocolate and cake batter greeted us before we could see the industrial kitchens.
The comparison between Kawtharani and Valestro stops at their professional talents. Instead of Valestro’s boisterous, and often cheeky, banter, Kawtharani is reserved and lets the various managers of his cake empire run the gritty details. And unlike Valestro, Kawtharani values his privacy. Ordinarily, he would not have agreed to bring journalists behind the scenes, but he had news to share.
“We’re opening a new branch in [Sanayeh],” he said. The expansion comes on the heels of a tumultuous year, during which half a dozen car bombs have struck the southern suburbs, the general area where the bakery is located. Business all over the southern suburbs has taken a hit as poor security deters customers from outside the neighborhood. Kawtharani had been planning the expansion, but the security situation pushed him to open sooner.
The new shop will bring in cakes from the headquarters on the Old Airport Road, as well as take specialty orders and cake reservations for those who prefer the relative safety of Ras Beirut. The new shop is expected to open in Sanayeh in the next two months. Hopefully before Ramadan, he said.
Kawtharani ushered us into a temperature-controlled side room, where his chief cake decorator was modeling seashells and sea flora from pink sugar paste. The delicate work would eventually make the decoration for layers of a modest-sized, mermaid-themed cake.
This cake is nothing compared to the intricate works of edible art the decorator has done in the past, he explained. “[The biggest] was a NASA cake,” he said. That cake included a recreation of the Apollo rocket blasting off with a cloud of air sprayed exhaust and a miniature astronaut standing by his moon-docked satellite, which the team had only a couple hours to create.
“We didn’t think we’d have the time to do it,” the decorator recalled.
Many of the cakes that come out of this small side room infuse a very local flair into the cake art fad. Take a vertical three-layer cake decorated as a massive mosque, with moon-tipped minarets and a green central dome. Tanks, AK-47s and handguns with “Happy Birthday” messages scrolled at the bottom are also common. Life-sized replicas of nargilehs and local police uniforms were also sculpted from colorful sugar.
On a typical Saturday, Cremino’s cake decorators will fill about 40 orders for specialty cakes.
Descending to the final kitchen, the smell of sugar sweetens at the sub-two level, where, like in childhood dreams of candy-filled lands, vats of melted chocolate bubble while crisp, buttery croissants cool on metal racks and eight industrial ice cream makers churn away.
Kawtharani took us over to Bassam, his pastry tester, who is watching over a pot of chocolate bouche. He had cut and powdered his latest concoction, a soft and slightly melted slice of brownie cake, for Kawtharani to taste. He took a single bite and nodded vaguely in approval. “There’s no name for this yet. There’s always something new to test.”