Friday, March 6, 2009

Cake Story

With the exception of pudding, I have not eaten a decadent chocolate dessert in a while, and that’s too long for someone like me. That's why recently I’ve been thinking more often than usual about chocolate cake. And that’s what brought me back to a tale from the Broadway days, about really great chocolate cake, and the meanest boss ever.


In the early 1990's I worked in Times Square at a Broadway theatrical advertising agency. Lucky for me my account group had the best client in the office. His name will not be posted here due to the efficacy of Google search engines. I will, however, tell you that he is from the United Kingdom and there is a tribute DVD about him on (click here for link) that I wish I owned. This post will refer to him as (code name) Seth. He is, in my opinion and many others, one of the world’s greatest theatrical producers and visionaries. And in spite of his success and the global popularly of his productions which include "Phantom of the Opera" and "Les Misérables," he is a highly respected, brilliant, and good man.

My first few months at the agency happened to coincide with the opening of Seth’s next great show, "Miss Saigon." For some reason this show is usually the show people see less of than the more-famous others, but to me "Miss Saigon" has always been my favorite of the popular trinity. This could be due to several reasons. Was it because it was the first Broadway show I worked on as an account person? Or because I felt more of an emotional impact watching this show than the others? Or was it because of the show's highly publicized controversies—its casting of a non-Asian actor for a lead Asian role, and its then-highest ticket price for front-row mezzanine seats that put audience members neck-level with the swirling blades of the working helicopter? Or, was it because of cake?

Whatever the case, I loved that show! Working on the advertising and promotion for it before opening night was a thrill. So one day my group was meeting about "Miss Saigon" promotional strategies. My boss—who we will call for the purposes of this post Barbara, and who in the privacy of my mind was usually referred to as other things—asked the group for opening night present ideas. It’s the tradition to send gifts to the people putting on the big show, and the norm is Champagne, an engraved trinket or the like. Seth had received so many opening night gifts in his long career that Barbara thought we should think out of the box on this one. That's when I came up with a pretty good idea.

"How about a cake?" I told the group that on the upper east side there’s a fantastic cake shop called Creative Cakes. I lived nearby and saw it on some TV show some time in the 1980's. It’s famous because they make cakes that look like anything! You know, like a 3-dimensional Empire State Building or a Monopoly board. At the top of their game, they'll pretty much recreate whatever item you ask as a cake, with precision of design and color to boot. The only rule is that the cake itself must be chocolate with butter cream icing. No exceptions! This place had been on my mind for years, even though my microscopic salary wouldn’t permit me access to such a cake. But an opening night present paid for by the company, that I could do.

My suggestion was to have the cake shop create a delicious replica of the "Miss Saigon" poster and give it to Seth. As I spoke I took short breaths for fear that the wrath of Barbara would cut me if this was the stupidest idea ever. But, she loved it! She said it could be my project and I was thrilled. The poster (see photo above) was simple in some regards yet very complex with reference to the logo, which was a sort of triple-entendre using calligraphy. First your eye sees a generic Asian letter character. Then you see a girl’s face as part of the character, and then the character reveals itself to look like a helicopter, superimposed over a rising sun. Talk about a challenging thing to recreate in icing! But I had faith that Creative Cakes could do it.

As the meeting was about to adjourn and all felt well, my boss Barbara belatedly resumed her normal, more psycho personality, when she halted the meeting adjournment with a loud “Wait!” She then looked me darkly in the eye, and her voice filled with the dank seriousness of Vincent Price introducing a horror film when she said, “There’s only one way this will work. You must make the bakery match the poster color… EXACTLY!…or Seth will HATE it.” (Cue to bats flying out of brain and into the Manhattan sky. Scene.) Barbara continued, “Go to the art department and get the PMS chip for the poster and bring it with you to the bakery. Tell them you need ICING samples sent over so we can pick an EXACT MATCH. IF they can’t match that color exactly from the poster IT’S NOT WORTH IT and we’ll do something ELSE! Don't forget to GET SAMPLES!”

Ok so to bring you up to speed on the term PMS if you don’t already know, PMS stands for Pantone Matching System. The system enables printers anywhere in the world to have the ability to print an exact color match on anything being printed, for an extra fee. Things like posters, flyers, food packages, etc., and usually branded items where color cohesiveness is important. It's why the Coke logo is always the same color when you see it. (Note: Coke used to have a PMS color for its trademark red, at one point dubbed “Coke red,” so when printers all over the world made Coke cans and ads and logos, there would be no misunderstanding of what that red should be.)

And so, the Pantone company prints books of every PMS color, that you can tear into little chips for sending to a printer. People pay good money for PMS colors to be used, because it’s like a color insurance policy. When my agency inherited the London-designed "Miss Saigon" poster, it came with a PMS color attached for that maroon background. What Barbara was saying was I had to force a baker to adhere to this PMS color or else. Hmm. Really? I wanted to say to my boss, “Ya see to me, Seth is very important but he's not crazy. Don’t you think he’ll be pleasantly pleased to receive such a unique gift, that'll look just like the poster and he can also eat it? Do you really think he’ll be MAD and REJECT THE CAKE on the opening night of his latest mega-million dollar baby if the ICING IS NOT A PERFECT PMS COLOR MATCH!!?!?!?” You know I couldn’t say this, for fear of Barbara’s death stare (which I actually mastered and used against her in later years). Powerless to say anything to the contrary, I simply said meekly, “...Ok.”

Quaking through the doorway of the famous cake shop, I feared they would very well throw me out upon hearing this request. But I did it, sheepishly approaching the counter with my "Miss Saigon" poster and "Miss Saigon" PMS maroon-ish color chip in hand. And guess what I learned? Since the shop was a place for the elite of NY, and located on the snooty upper east side, they were used to rich people making demands. That was their business. (Like the person who spent $2000 for a cake that had to look exactly like her poodle for the, ahem, poodle’s birthday party.) And thus the baker did not laugh at me, but he also didn't smile. He simply told me that in order to match the PMS chip he’d have to charge extra, due to his need to create several color samples, which he would send over to my office in a few days, and if we didn’t like the samples he’d try again, and again, until we picked one. Oh good, I knew then that I would get to have a job another day. Since money was no object in this case, it was a deal.

A few days later I expected our messenger service to send over a few small cups of icing for us to review. To my joyful surprise, the baker sent over (insert Oprah’s voice here) THREE MINI CAKE SAM-PLES!! I'm talking three separate 5"x5" square cakes, each done up with a slightly tweaked icing! And damn if the baker didn’t do a spot-on job of matching that color. When Barbara walked over I held my breath, so afraid she’d reject them all due to her evil madness but lo and behold, she liked one. Then the heavens sent more blessings she approved the color on one of the cakes, because that's when she allowed me and my fellow plebes to eat them. (It was a moment straight out of "Oliver!") Yes, after all those years of unrequited Creative Cake dreams, after fantasizing of what that chocolate cake with butter cream icing would taste like, the cake was mine without having to take out a personal loan from the bank. That was probably one of the happiest food moments in my life, and the cake did not let me down. It was moist, delicious, chocolatey, butter creamy sugary perfection.

When I called the baker and told him that one of the colors was approved, he finally let slip a little attitude, sighed a huge diva exhale and thanked God above. Sure there are the elite rich in New York who order his cakes, but he confessed no one had ever brought in a PMS color chip for the icing. I mean, seriously, it’s a fucking cake. After people eat it, it’s gone.

We had the cake delivered to our office so we could see it and take some photos. Then a few of us painstakingly carried it through the crowds of Times Square over to the stage door of the Broadway Theater, right before curtain on opening night. Seth, I heard, loved the cake, which indeed turned out to be an exact replica of the poster, along with the color. I would still bet money that on Seth’s brilliant Broadway opening night for "Miss Saigon," the last thing on his mind was going to be whether or not the icing on a cake was the poster's perfect color match.

Oh well, whether you’re an office slave in a big agency in NY dealing with silly demands, or just on a diet years later in LA, sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do. At other times, it's ok not to, so tonight I think I will be eating cake.

Until we eat again,

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