Photos by Henry Paul and Anna Kucera
Cliff Luu is one of Sydney, Australia’s best bakers. But by the looks of his cakes, one would never know that he’s also completely self-taught. An office worker by day and pastry artist by night—Luu has quickly rose to stardom with his minimalist designs that are almost too pretty to eat.
Luu began baking just four years ago in 2014 and found himself creating confections on a weekly basis for close friends and family. After putting together an online portfolio and sharing his work on social media, Luu was suddenly building his experimental cakes for some of the culinary world’s top food figures—an impressive feat for any baker, professional or not.
Luu’s real life though, away from the screen, is altogether different. He doesn’t eat, sleep and breathe sweets—he’s just like you and me. “I live with my partner and French bulldog Howard. I wake up and start my normal office job quite early. After a full working day, I come home to bake, decorate and answer emails. I manage the @cakesbycliff Instagram as well.” On the weekends, Luu spends most of his time hosting cake workshops, designing and making deliveries. “I try to schedule at least half a day to ensure I catch up with my friends,” he explained, “it’s a very fine balance I am still trying to finesse!”
What sets his work apart from the traditional layer cakes we’re used to seeing is the artistic influence that stems from his studies. Luu received a bachelor’s degree in Design in Architecture from The University of Sydney, which quite literally shapes the foundation for a lot of his work. His style today takes on a minimalist, geometric feel that is both unique and gravity defying.
His cake-making process oftentimes takes place in stages. If Luu is working on a commissioned cake for a client, he starts by drafting initial sketches that are then sent out for approval. Once they’re able to come to an agreement, it’s time to get baking. While it’s difficult to approximate just how long a singular project will take him, Luu admitted to one time creating a cake in just two hours. “No one knew!”
From an aesthetics standpoint, Luu’s cakes make a strong visual impact. They’re tall, colorful and intricately detailed. He uses tempered chocolate to make sails as cake toppers; isomalt for glassy, ice-like shards; drip techniques; luster dust for shine; and buttercream brushstrokes that give them their signature abstract texture. By the end, they more so resemble a type sculpture or painting as opposed to something edible.
Luu also looks to collaborate with local businesses to give his cakes depth, and add an extra special element. “Working with amazing florists helps achieve a really non-traditional look,” he explained. His cakes have been known to feature doughnuts, macarons, as well as fresh and dried fruit.
What’s perhaps equally as important are how the cakes actually taste, a component Luu hasn’t forgotten about. A “Cake by Cliff” flavor can be as standard as you like—vanilla, chocolate, red velvet—or as adventurous as you’re willing to go. Luu has made cakes reminiscent of his Asian heritage such as a Thai iced milk tea butter cake filled with condensed milk buttercream and a vanilla cake filled with freeze-dried lychee buttercream.
Everything that Luu knows, he has learned on his own. Whether through personal experience, baking books, YouTube or social media, his artistry and inspiration comes from just about everywhere. “I follow some amazing creative accounts on Instagram who inspire me,” he explained, “But I also gain inspiration from my travels, meeting new people and hearing their stories, walking down the street in Sydney, talking to my clients — it’s hard to say where exactly my inspiration comes from.”
A crowning achievement for Luu thus far has been an avant-garde cake he was asked to make for the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia’s 25th birthday—which was cut by the Prime Minister himself. “For this milestone, I created a five tiered cake which incorporated iconic artworks/exhibitions that the museum has had in the last 25 years.” The cake’s color palette was inspired by architect Sam Marshall who was responsible for renovating the museum back in 2012. Luu also worked with a Melbourne-based cookie artist and local art educators to put the whole thing together.
Looking back, it is still hard for Luu to picture the amount of success he’s found today, and in this short amount of time. “I started baking as a bit of a hobby, something to share with my friends and family. It was a nice outlet from the routine of work and life; I never thought it would lead me here!” As a contemporary baker with his own distinct point of view, Luu has found a way to convert conventional cake-making into an art form of its own.