A quote from the great Albert Einstein came to mind when I saw the work of this truly gifted cake artist. I remembered that Einstein said, “Creativity is intelligence having fun.” This quote not only embodies the artist but her entire body of work as the owner and founder of the Cake Opera Company.
Not afraid to work hard from the get go, the spunky, confident and passionate Alexandria Pellegrino was born with creative juices flowing through her veins. Both art aficionado and technical wizard, Pellegrino has been determined, fearless and creative her whole life. Inspired by her Italian roots, her mother’s baking and the art world, Pellegrino demonstrated creativity in her childhood years. She achieved self-expression through her art, and particularly loved drawing. Later in life she would transition from her fine arts studies of painting and drawing to designing cakes. Pellegrino took cake design to a higher level as she began paying homage to her favorite art styles: Baroque, Rococo, Victorian and Venetian.
From a very young age, it was clear that Alexandria Pellegrino was unique. Born in Thornhill, Ontario, Pellegrino marched to the beat of her own drum. While her peers frowned upon her wearing fishing boots or a tutu to school, her mother encouraged her self-expression and creativity. “I would invite my friends to my house and host art classes,” she recalls. She later attended Cardinal Carter School of the Arts, where she enjoyed and excelled in visual arts. After high school, she continued her training at the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) in Toronto.
Pellegrino developed a tenacious love for all mediums of art resulting in a myriad of skills expressed not only by painting, but also welding, airbrushing, sewing and sculpture. While completing her thesis in her final year, she began to explore implementing edible media into her artwork – items like sugar, meringue, and bread. She remembers making her first cake in her mother’s kitchen and delivering it herself. It was a birthday cake featuring a Marie Antoi- nette doll in an extravagant gown. Pellegrino explains, “When I delivered it, the mother didn’t want to use it because it was so beautiful and sent her husband to buy a grocery store cake.”
People often say “You can’t have your cake and eat it too”. Whoever coined that phrase must have been one who looks at the glass as half empty. On the flip side of that, if you’re creative enough, you not only find time to make the cake – you make time to enjoy it. Cake designer extraordinaire Alexandria Pellegrino does just that!
After graduating, she studied fine art in Italy where she also became inspired by the beauty of food. When she returned she enrolled in Ottawa’s Le Cordon Bleu’s patisserie program and discovered her love for beautiful cakes. Combined with her love of art history, architecture and fashion her unique style emerged. “When you look at my cakes, they tell a story, unraveling slowly as you look longer and closer.” The cakes are very labourious, often taking close to one hundred hours. They are an exploration of texture, shapes and colour. Every detail is intricate and refined, resulting in opulent and dramatic cakes.
Talent at this level is rare. It comes from within, and it comes from years of hard work. Pellegrino honed her many talents over the years and is a firm believer in starting at the bottom. “It’s important that you begin at the bottom, because there are no short cuts for this kind of work,” she says. I get young girls coming into my shop often wanting to be able to do this quick. It’s not that simple and it’s not that easy.”
As we sat in her new studio/production kitchen on Queen Street West, the unpretentious and unassuming petite-framed woman appears calm, yet during our casual conversation I felt her deep passion and an artistic fire that is far from dimming. She knows who she is, she knows she’s talented, and it’s that very confidence that got her to where she is today. Fearless and disciplined in her approach about art and her theatrical cake creations, Pellegrino knows what she wants. Her designs are an extension of what she loves – they are one-of-a-kind works of art. She has no photo album to choose cakes from, as no two cakes will ever be the same. Like any work of art, every design is an original.
There seems to be an element of fantasy created by nuances of an era gone by. The eye delights in the final product, searching every detail. To see the results is nothing short of extraordinary. “I had a photographer fan take a photo of one of my cakes and he sent it to a magazine called ‘Wedding Style’, which is based out of New York. The Editor, Grace Ormonde called a week later to ask about me,” says Pellegrino with a big smile on her face. Ormonde not only suggested that she start her own company, but promised that she would also help to promote Pellegrino’s work. Later, Pellegrino went on to take gold medal in a Food Network Challenge. The only Canadian in the competition, she was viewed as the underdog – and despite that, she came out on top! “I got a lot of recognition especially from the USA and with the money I won, I opened the Cake Opera Company in 2008. I worked with clients and wedding planners and began to make very extravagant pieces.” Elaborate touches such as Victorian figurines, gold filigree, gilded flowers, birds, Louis XIV and Venetian Moretto Mask figurines, Faberge eggs and theatrical drapery adorn many of her cakes. She manipulates fondant, as a seamstress would fabric or as a sculptor would marble. She paints details like a porcelain painter would china and figurines, and embellishes remarkable resemblances and details as only the most skilled artists can.
“When you look at my cakes, they tell a story, unraveling slowly as you look longer and closer.” – Alexandria Pellegrino
It was shortly after she won that gold medal that wedding planner to the stars Mindy Weiss discovered Cake Opera Co. and inquired about a cake design for one of her high profile clients. She was asked to submit a drawing at first. The inspiration for the drawing came from Sofia Coppola’s poetic film about Marie Antoinette, which was the theme for the wedding of this mystery celebrity. Once her drawing was chosen, she learned the cake would be for Nicole Ritchie’s wedding. She was flown in to make the five-tiered Versailles inspired cake with much success. It wasn’t important that the cake was for the Ritchie wedding, it was the opportunity to work with wedding planner Weiss that opened up more opportunities for Pellegrino.
After seven years of working as the sole cake designer in her Eglinton cake shop, she realized she was missing out on the opportunities to do great events like weddings in Dubai and all over the world. “I felt stuck in Toronto and finally in November of 2014 I decided to shut down my shop,” says Pellegrino. After a much-needed three-month hiatus, Pellegrino was still getting requests to come back and continue making her masterpieces. She missed her craft so much that early in 2015, the cake artist opened up on Queen Street West in the eclectic village of Parkdale. On the day that fredi Magazine met with Pellegrino in her part art studio and part production kitchen, she stood beside one of her creations, telling me it had just fallen. Luckily it was only made of styrofoam! She sits with her iMac to her right, listening to The Doors while designing a cake ‘just because’. Her studio is painted in creamy white and decorated with antiques and collectables. “I come here often, sometimes I sleep here and other times I don’t come for days,” admits Pellegrino. “The beauty of what I do is that I don’t have to answer to anyone. I take the work I want and work as hard or as little as I want, not because I don’t need the money, but I want to do what I love and that is to make edible art.”
To Pellegrino, every cake is a work of art. “It’s hard to part with it, but once it’s gone, it encourages me to make more,” she says. After closing her business and relocating to Queen Street as a one-woman show, Pellegrino now has the time to direct her passion towards teaching. Her Master Classes bring in experienced cake designers who want to learn her technique and design skills. “Learning how to create these intricate, ornate and timeless pieces of art takes many years of learning and practice,” says the artist. “At $2,000 a weekend, I teach them to make one of my cakes.” Students learn step-by-step instructions for painting romantic landscapes, molding intricate roses, modeling a fleur-de-lis, stenciling and free hand detailing, using rich washes, gorgeous gilding; all culminating in a lavish, opulent cake that is a feast for the eyes.
The whimsically designed cakes are available in various flavours. From the top selling Bourbon Vanilla cake with fresh lemon buttercream and blueberries to red velvet with white chocolate and cream cheese filling or the banana cake with salted caramel ganache and milk chocolate buttercream, she claims all are delicious and has the testimonials to prove it.
“Cakes represent excess so why not make cakes excessive ?” – Alexandria Pellegrino
Both flavour and artistry make these cakes unique, one-of-a-kind edible masterpieces. Although cakes range from three to eight thousand dollars, Pellegrino caters to a diverse following. “I have people who don’t have a lot of money but really love my work and are willing to pay for it. Some brides feel my cakes speak to them, they want the best and I make the best.” Every cake takes hundreds of hours and demands a higher price bracket. Perhaps they are not for everyone – but that suits Pellegrino just fine. She works based on very little direction from the client. She wants to know the theme of the wedding, the colour scheme and the rest is left to her creative genius. Risky? Not in the least. She has a proven track record, two gold medals from the Food Network Challenge and a long list of satisfied clients.
Why does she create such lavish cakes? “Cakes represent excess so why not make cakes excessive?” asks Pellegrino. Her de- signs and everything she does need to be over the top beautiful. She’s come a long way since making her first birthday cake. She is living her life’s passion and whether she’s working hard or hardly working, it’s not something she worries about. “I attribute my success to my confidence. I make beautiful work for myself and I am fortunate that people enjoy what I am doing and are willing to pay for it. I love what I do and I celebrate it every day.”
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