BY MARNI PRICHARD MANKO| March 4, 2014 |
Believe it or not, that’s a cake, from last year’s Let Them Eat Cake event, whose theme was “A Night at the Movies.”
When Harry Giordano and Philadelphia wedding consultant Mark Kingsdorf first dreamt up the notion of a small wedding-cake contest to honor Kingsdorf’s mom, who had passed away from breast cancer, and Giordano’s dad, who had battled bladder cancer, City of Hope—a research and treatment center for cancer and other diseases, now recognized as one of the nation’s best—was embarking on a dream of its own. Ten years later, Let Them Eat Cake has grown into the largest fundraising cake competition in the region, and its main beneficiary, City of Hope’s Biller Patient and Family Resource Center, has become a place of respite for cancer patients from a round the country, offering education and soul-soothing services like art therapy, yoga, and counseling.
“Mark had just formed The Queen of Hearts Wedding Consultants, and we helped out with a bridal show at Envy,” says Giordano, who has been City of Hope’s senior director of development for 17 years and oversees fundraising in the Northeast for this 100-year-old California-based organization. “The gowns got messed up and nobody paid attention to any of the display tables, but everybody paid attention to the cake. So we just decided to have a cake contest. Our first spot was the W. We had 12 cakes in the ballroom, and we charged $20 to come in and eat as much cake as you wanted there, plus a piece of cake to take home.”
Now showcasing 40 of the most amazing cakes in the tristate area, crafted by highly “decorated” local bakers and students, the annual Let Them Eat Cake competition has become a sugar-packed wonderland of deep-dark chocolate, creamy white fondant, and all the mixed-berry purée filling a dessert lover could imagine. And while the event has been a massive draw for brides and brides-to-be, it’s also become a huge hit with people who simply love sweets.
“Let Them Eat Cake started out as a way for brides to do all of their cake tastings at one place,” Giordano says. “But then brides would bring their girlfriends, and now it’s evolved into a foodie scene where we’ve topped out at 1,500 people.” It’s been so successful in Philly that plans are in the works to add a contest in New York.
But don’t let the indulgence and revelry fool you. This is a serious competition, with celebrity cake designers like Sylvia Weinstock and Ron Ben-Israel and local VIP chefs from the Four Seasons and The Ritz-Carlton judging the entries in nine categories, based on qualities like taste, texture, and creativity. There’s a different theme each year—past themes include “A Night at the Movies,” “Wedding Through a Child’s Eyes,” and “Destination Weddings”—with this year’s being “Fantasy Wedding.”
“I absolutely love to see the creative work, high energy, and quality ingredients, and Let Them Eat Cake has all of the above,” says Weinstock, whose A-list clients have included the Kennedy family, Oprah Winfrey, Hillary Clinton, and Martha Stewart. She even gives little bouquets of her signature handmade sugar flowers to the winners. Says Giordano, “The students treat her like she’s one of The Beatles. They cry and hug her.”
Lead judge Ron Ben-Israel (center) with Terry and Colleen Laky of the Macungie bakery Piece ’a Cake in 2013.
And these aren’t your standard bakery cakes. They rival or even surpass the mind-boggling creations seen on shows like Cake Boss and Ace of Cakes. These are gravity-defying creative masterpieces that seem too intricate to have been constructed from mere flour, eggs, and sugar. A giant chocolate elephant balances on his trunk on a circus big top. A fire-breathing dragon is cloaked in black frosting. A gorgeously delicate monument is adorned with fragile cherry blossoms made from spun sugar. “I was afraid to even go near that cake,” says Giordano with a laugh. “It was truly that elegant.”
But beyond the forkfuls of frosting and flutes of Champagne, Let Them Eat Cake is first and foremost a fundraising event. And for Giordano, having felt the impact of cancer firsthand, the cause is extremely personal. “City of Hope means everything to me,” he says. “Our credo is that we treat the whole family. When mom gets breast cancer, it doesn’t just affect the mom; it affects everyone. I know that.”
While everyone may leave Let Them Eat Cake with a full stomach, the event has a goal even grander and more audacious than its cakes. “We’re going to cure cancer,” Giordano says with conviction. “I know it’s going to happen.”
For the 10th anniversary of City of Hope’s Let Them Eat Cake competition, guests will enjoy cake samples from 40 bakeries, complimentary wine and Champagne, and live entertainment from BVTLive. All proceeds from sales of the $50 tickets will directly benefit City of Hope. Tuesday, April 1, at 5 pm at the DoubleTree by Hilton. 237 S. Broad St., 215-985-0869