In her three-and-a -half decades in the food industry, it seems Anthea Leonard has made cakes for everyone.
From Elton John to Olivia Newton-John, Barbra Streisand to Prince Charles, she’s the woman Hollywood counts on to bake fantastical creations that push the limits of what we imagine in cakes.
But Leonard isn’t just a baker to the stars. She’s also a small business woman, who employs a staff of ten that swells to 15 in the busy months in inner Sydney. She owns cake company Sweet Art, and today does full-scale wedding planning in her two inner-city stores.
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She also operates a cake decorating school, where she teaches artists and sculptors.
That’s the secret to her success, you see. Leonard first went to art school in east Sydney, before travelling to Europe and America to further her studies in sculpture and art. Passing a cake shop in West Hollywood in the 1970s, she thought the cakes looked similar to her clay creations. She ended up getting a job at that store and spent the next few years learning the baking trade.
“It’s quite different over there – they use buttercream for everything,” she tells SmartCompany from her Sydney store. “I learnt how to pipe flowers till my hands hurt. Of course, given where we were based, the clientele was pretty extraordinary. And because my cake work was quite different, I ended up breaking lots of new ground.”
In 1980, her reputation established, she moved back to Sydney and founded Sweet Art. She was just 27 at the time.
“I didn’t plan it to be a business,” she says. “You just don’t think about it when you’re creating and breaking new ground all the time. People were continually coming to me with new ideas and seeing if they could be made into cakes. And that was the fabulous thing – I got really interesting jobs. Most were in film, theatre, for advertising, or for other artists.
“I could only really do 10 cakes a week, maximum. So that’s why I started to train people. I started training artists I got from the art schools. I also began getting someone in to make the icing, and then someone in to do my accounts. And that’s basically how it grew.”
In time, her clients began to ask for other services – like stationery for weddings, for flowers, and eventually, for full-scale wedding planning. These went on to form extensions to the Sweet Art business.
But through it all, Leonard’s continued to make new and interesting cakes. She loves the technical challenge of making things that don’t really look like desserts.
One time, she made a 12-foot-long cake of Uluru. “That was amazing. It wasn’t straightforward figuring out how to make it look like gnarly red earth.”
Another time, she made a life-sized statue of the Queen. She had to go to an engineer to figure out the logistics of it. “That was really fabulous,” she says. “I love trying anything new.”
It wasn’t the only life-sized cake Leonard made – she made a life-size Barbie cake for the doll’s fiftieth anniversary in 2009 (pictured).
“I’ve always had a lot of joy out of making the absurd, like a roast chicken cake. Because I majored in ceramic art, I can make them look extremely real.”
Some of her most recent creations included the cakes used in the pivotal afternoon tea scene in director Baz Luhrmann’s recent film, The Great Gatsby.
“I did a lot of research for that – it had to be in the theme and of the era. I also used the same icing they used back then, which is very different to the type we use now. Because I started in buttercream, I was able to pipe all the flowers.
“The other thing that was edgy is that one of the main actors was vegan. And that was tricky – I had to work with vegan icing and still get the look I was after. The layering of that was very tricky, but it was wonderful to work on the movie.”
One of the most fascinating things about Leonard’s business is that, until recently, it was all very low-tech.
Less than a year ago, she finally fitted out her business with touch-screens to help her better communicate her vision to customers.
“I have a Dell laptop that turns into a tablet, and I use it all the time. I sit there, show them photos of different jobs that I’ve done. Instead of having to talk them through it visually – now we can sit looking at a computer on a wall, or sit on coaches. I can give them costings – it’s all there.”
It’s a bittersweet improvement for Leonard. “For so long I didn’t understand,” she says. “I lost a huge amount of my history because I never backed up (my designs).
“One of the things I’d really like to mention to your readers is that the lack of knowledge a lot of us have about IT can mean we lose valuable things: our references, our photos, our work. I’ve been in business for 34 years. I wish it had been available back then. I would have saved so much more.”