When Jay Muse graduated from culinary school, he did what every aspiring pastry chef dreams about – he opened up a specialty bakery in New York City. “I just wanted to make muffins,” he says looking back. Cake wasn’t going to be a mainstay on the menu. Then one afternoon, a customer walked in and asked him to make a cake for her wedding. The rest is history.
Today, Jay is chef and partner of Lulu Cake Boutique in Scarsdale, NY. Headed by a dynamic team of bakers and designers with resumes that list Per Se, JoJo, and Auquavit, the award-winning bakery is sought after by couples who want their big day dessert to make a statement in style and taste. We’ve been fortunate to see Lulu Cake Boutique’s masterpieces in person, serving as the sweet punctuation mark on a handful of Real BB weddings. For these reasons and more, we couldn’t wait to interview Jay for our Industry Influencer series.
Talking by phone in early April, Jay led many of his responses with “It was by accident…” But as the interview went on and we learned about Jay’s story and approach to work and life, we started to get a sense that he was taking steps, whether intentionally or unintentionally, that would guide him down this career path. He was doing something right at his small bakery, all those years ago, to make that woman think he was qualified to make her wedding cake after all. Here, Jay talks about his decision to quit his career in law and become a pastry chef, how growing up in Hawaii imparts his approach to business and life, the thrill of a ‘challenge,’ and how he stays creatively inspired.
After receiving a law degree from Columbia University, you went on to train at The Culinary Institute. To the outsider, this seems like a major pivot in career path. What motivated your decision?
By accident, I realized that I had a passion for baking and being creative. While clerking after graduating from law school, I started making cakes in my apartment for my colleagues to celebrate a special occasion. It actually began as occupational therapy, a way of dealing with stress. Eventually, I became excited and thought, ‘Maybe I can make baking cakes more viable. I am going to give it try… what do I have to lose? I always have my law degree to fall back on.’ Everything worked out and here we are talking today.
Cooking and baking often have ties to childhood memories of being in the kitchen. Looking back, was there a person or experience that influenced your culinary pursuit?
Honestly, I do not have a nice childhood story of making cakes with my grandma. I actually never really baked, or expressed any interest in it until I was an adult. Baking began as a therapeutic and creative outlet for me. I do have an art background, however, and could always draw and paint. I especially loved sculpture, so the idea of making edible art really appealed to me.
You are originally from Hawaii. Do you feel that your experiences growing up on the islands influence your approach to work, both professionally and creatively?
One hundred percent. I come from a very small island. My upbringing taught me to be humble, and a lot of focus was put on character building, striving to be your best self and make things right. I feel my background definitely shaped who I am today on a spiritual level, which flows over to how we run our business, particularly how we work with and give back to the community.
Did you have any mentors or teachers who really inspired you when you were just starting out?
Cake designers Sylvia Winestock and Colette Peters – both women were amazing to work with. In the culinary world, I worked with Marcus Samuelsson, David Waltuck at Chanterellé, and Jean-Georges at JoJo and Lipstick Café. Seeing what the pastry chefs at these restaurants were doing really expanded my baking horizons when it comes to flavors.
What made you want to specialize in making cakes?
It was by accident to be honest. The typical post-culinary school dream for a pastry chef is to open your own bakery, which I did – Patisserie LuLu & Espresso Bar. We sold breakfast pastries and coffee and it was successful. Then one day, a woman walked in and asked us if we could make a wedding cake. There was going to be about fifty guests and she didn’t want to spend more than $1,000. I was like, ‘Seriously?!’ having no idea people were willing to pay that much for a wedding cake. I looked at my husband, Victor, who is also a pastry chef and my business partner, and said, ‘Let’s do it.’ This was before you could Google information and images on a whim. So we went to Barnes n’ Noble and bought Martha Stewart’s book on wedding cakes and made one. I remember that the cake barely made it to the venue, a Chinese restaurant in Scarsdale, NY. But we hand delivered it on time, and she was extremely happy. And from that point, we were like, ‘Ok, we need to bake wedding cakes.’
We continued with the bakery, but were primarily self-taught when it came to cakes. This is when I went to study with Sylvia Winestock and Colette Peters. Victor worked with Sylvia and Ron-Ben Israel. And the rest is history.
Looking back though, we were positioned to enter the scene at just the right time, before the Ace of Cakes boom happened. We were able to establish ourselves, build a reputation, and cultivate lasting relationships with our clients. Being in the business for over twenty years, you see a cycle that begins with the wedding followed by the baby shower, first birthday, bar mitzvah and sweet sixteen, and then back to the wedding again. Our customers are very loyal, and we are truly grateful for that.
When you founded Lulu Cake Boutique back in 2001, you were one of the first cake designers to use mostly organic ingredients. Farm-to-table and locally sourced were very new terms at the time. What made you want to take this stance when others in the industry were not?
That ties back to Hawaii. Growing up, I was taught to have reverence for the earth and nature. We are to respect and cherish what the planet gives to us. In all honesty, this decision wasn’t for health reasons or to follow a trend. Every single human being is impacted by climate change – this is an issue we cared deeply about from the beginning.
You make cakes that cater to just about every wedding style. Can you tell us about some of the various design options offered at Lulu Cake Boutique?
Our designs run the gamut from simple and minimal to intricate and ornate. We pride ourselves on our sugar flower work. We also love to hand sculpt and make figurines, jumping at any chance to make a clever and witty couple cake topper. I would say that more than anything, we love a good challenge. For example, a bride comes in and says, ‘My husband’s a geek and loves his Play Station. I love macramé. We want a wink and nod to both of our interests, but the cake also has to be elegant.’ We have as much fun coming up with the concept as we do with the execution. And we’ll make it work.
You offer two types of wedding cakes – fondant and buttercream. Can you explain the difference for our readers who are just starting to think about their big day dessert?
I always feel that buttercream is for purests and foodies – if you are more food-forward, you are most likely going to want a buttercream cake. If you are more design-oriented and want a lot of decoration on your cake, fondant is probably the better option. We use a very high-quality fondant, Massa Ticino, which is imported from Italy. It has a very neutral taste, soft texture, and is pleasant on the palate. It’s nothing like the American version, which is very sweet and chewy.
How can a couple use their wedding cake to reflect their style and personality?
Often, a couple will come in with their invitations, florals, etc., and wants to incorporate these details into their cake design. Then we have clients who want to do something really out of the box. We had a couple, who on their first date, Netflixed Breaking Bad and wanted their cake theme to be based on the show. It ended up being really cool – we made a figurine of the main character wearing a chicken t-shirt and hat for Los Pollos Hermanos.
Couples also get really creative and expressive with flavor. For example, if one likes strawberry and the other likes banana – we could do a strawberry cheesecake filling with banana pudding topped with brown-buttered Nilla wafer crumbs. I find that couples get more excited about flavors than they do with design. They come to us because they know we have a pedigree of pastry chefs – our head chef worked at Per Se, so they are experienced and know what they are doing when it comes to being innovative with flavor.
Since we are on the topic, what are your most innovative cake flavors?
We had a flavor called ‘Some Like It Hot’ created by Eliana, our head pastry chef. It’s a vanilla cake with a dark chocolate mousse and raspberry puree that has been reduced with Tabasco sauce. It’s amazing with the perfect hint of spice. I would say that out of all our clients who test the flavor, more than half choose it for their wedding cake. An unusual, cool flavor we made is vanilla cake with lemon curd and candied basil. Another unique flavor on our menu uses a vanilla cake with dark chocolate ganache, black pepper infused caramel and California apricots. I was a huge fan of elderflower before Meghan Markle – picked up from my experience at Aquavit. I love incorporating Swedish pastry elements like licorice and cloudberries into our flavors.
Dessert and celebration go hand and hand. The wedding cake is especially important in this sense because it carries so much symbolic meaning. How does it feel knowing your cakes represent one of the most special moments in a couple’s new life together?
It’s what we live for. It’s our greatest pride and joy. Being part of the celebration is truly an honor. You’ll hear people say, ‘Nobody cares about the wedding cake’ or ‘Who cares if the cakes does not taste all that good.” But when you think about it, a piece of wedding cake is the last thing that the newlyweds and their guests are going to savor at the end of the night. It’s the final touch. Do you want your guests to go home and say, “Omigosh, everything was amazing and THAT cake!” or “Omigosh, everything was amazing…” with no mention of the cake because it was dry or subpar? Or worse, they bring up the cake because it was bad. And so much of our business is word of mouth – people remember the wedding cake and then they ask questions. For us, creating an unforgettable wedding cake experience is our greatest advertisement.
We can’t emphasize the importance of the cake enough. And any bride that we’ve had who just did cupcakes or desserts has lived to regret their decision. We actually have a folder of emails from brides who wrote back to us saying, “Why didn’t I just have a wedding cake to take a photo with my new husband or wife, smash in each other’s faces, and just enjoy eating?”
It goes without saying, we are obsessed with your sugar blooms. Which are your favorite flowers to make?
I’m often asked this question, and my answer is always the same. I love making wisteria. After we moved from the city to Scarsdale, one of the first things I did at our new house was plant wisteria. In fact, we were on a reality TV show for home design and garden and I told them ‘I want wisteria everything.’ People think I’m nuts, but I am obsessed with how it looks and smells.
What do you like most about making wedding cakes for couples getting married in New York City?
There’s an energy in New York City, which you can tap into that can’t be found anywhere else. There’s a spirit that takes everything to the next level – it’s over the top, without being blatantly over the top, if that makes sense. I like the challenge of having clients who are very intentional with their style and knowledge. And to be honest, I love having brides who want their wedding to be published in the New York Times.
There are two ways of looking at it. Some question, ‘Why all the pomp and circumstance revolving around just this one day?’ I feel this view is a real killjoy and takes the spirit out of every little girl’s dream of having a once-in-a-lifetime event. And while this ‘fairytale’ vision changes as you get older, the idea of having an ‘extra special’ day doesn’t have to. Even a wedding with a casual, backyard vibe in New York City feels sophisticated and has meaningful attention to detail to it. I realized this about 15 years ago. After dropping off the cake, there was an issue with the topper. So I had to go back to the venue during the reception and fix it. On my way out, the event manager stopped me and said, ‘Thank you so much for coming out. I can’t really offer you anything, but would you like one of these?’ She then grabbed a cone full of shoestring French fries from a nearby waiter’s tray. I looked closer to see that the paper cone was actually printed with the New York Times real estate section. Stepping into elevator, I remember thinking ‘This is perfect. This is New York.’ Similar details have popped up over the years. I remember seeing a planner with her arms filled with bags of H&H bagels. As the valets pulled up, she would put a bag in the front seat for guests to have the next morning.
What is your advice for our readers who want to start their own business?
If you are true and authentic to yourself, then you never have to worry about competition. It’s better to see others in your industry as friends rather than competition, because you can grow with each other. There will always be people in your corner… and you never know when you are going to need to borrow sugar and eggs, right? Honestly, we are friends with most of our colleagues. I remember Oprah, on her last show, saying something along the lines, “You’re never going to finish the marathon if you are constantly looking around to see who’s behind you and how close they are.” If you are always working from a place of fear and worrying about what everyone else is doing, you are going to be miserable and it’s going show in your business. Our mantra has always been, ‘stay focused and just keep moving forward.’
We sell out every weekend and are booked months in advance during the wedding season. I need bakers who I can refer business to, and trust to do a good job. In the end, it looks good for the both of us. There’s enough to go around for everyone – we are in New York City and people are getting married all of the time. This really has been our philosophy from the beginning.
If you could design a wedding cake for any couple throughout all of history, who would it be? What would the dessert look like? What flavor?
John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy. The cake would be inspired by Cape Cod and Victorian in spirit. The design would be very ornate, like the old-fashioned wedding cakes that were covered with intricate piping, swirls, and scribes. But the inside would be filled with colors of a spring garden in Cape Cod. Wild yet meticulously manicured – the gardens you see looking over a white picket fence and think, ‘Oh, how beautiful.’ Put them anywhere else other than the Cape though, and they look messy and unkept. And there would be wisteria of course.
The New York wedding industry has been hit hard by the pandemic. Now that we are starting to feel more hopeful regarding the situation, what are you most looking forward to about getting back to work? And do you foresee any wedding cake trends in the future?
I’m looking forward to the chaos of crazy weekends, sleepless nights, and staying at the bakery until 4 am. All the madness that comes with a busy wedding season. It’s exciting to be really tapping into the creative energy of designing and baking again.
What I am seeing with our clients is a sense of gratitude that wasn’t really there before all of this happened. Gratitude for being able to afford a wedding and to finally be able to celebrate with friends and family. Brides still have a vision and know what they want to do, but there is a different energy behind it. At the end of the night when they look back on everything that just happened, it is going to mean something different.
How do you stay creatively inspired?
I go to museums – I love Rothko along with Diebenkorn and the other West Coast artists. One of my favorite things to do during the holidays, particularly right after the New Year, is looking at the shop windows on Fifth Avenue at three o’clock in the morning. I also find inspiration in couture fashion, and love going to design houses to see the dresses up close. I go to fabric stores to study the various patterns, textures, and appliqué. I also have some close friends who are florists and enjoy accompanying them on an early morning run to the flower district along W 28 street where they pick out flowers for their next event. Furniture stores like ABC Carpet & Home are always fun to visit. New York City is endless treasure trove of visual inspiration. For flavor ideas, I like to go to spice shops. Kalustyan’s in Turtle Bay has shelves stocked with hundreds of spices. I’ll buy a basketful to take home and play around with.
You finally have a day off. How do you spend it?
Surfing. I’ve been surfing since I was a little boy growing up in Hawaii. I like going to the Hamptons, along the shore of Long Island, and the Cape. Surfing from sunrise to sunset… that would be my dream day.