We followed Wynn master cake baker Flora Aghababyan into her kitchen as she prepared to fill our fashion feature with delectable props.
Flora Aghababyan affixes gum paste chrysanthemums to a cake.
It can probably be said that everyone who works at Wynn Resorts is in the wish-fulfillment business. After all, guests have come to expect that the unexpected will materialize while no one is looking. Gorgeous fresh flowers appear on the Esplanades, tiny mosaic tile floors are replaced, fabulous art pieces arrive and install themselves. The reality, of course, is that crews of talented people—outnumbering the guests by a ratio of 3:1—form a kind of quiet city all their own at Wynn, each specializing in bringing their own brand of magic to fruition, and most accustomed to accommodating special requests.
Still, the request we made of Wynn master cake artist Flora Aghababyan likely ranks among her most unusual of the year: Create a love story in cakes for a fictional couple treating themselves to a decadent evening at Wynn Las Vegas. You’ll see the stunning results in our fashion feature on page 40, but to understand just what would go into those dozens of incredible custom cakes, we followed Aghababyan to her kitchen, hidden within that inner sanctum at Wynn Las Vegas.
Aghababyan and assistant Daisy Lacambra cut and paint sugar dough decorations for a fashion-inspired cake.
As we arrive, an assistant is already feeding chilled blocks of sugar dough into a fondant sheeter, flattening them into malleable sheets they’ll cut into decorations. Shelves of edible pigments line the walls, and another assistant is airbrushing edible gold paint onto trays of spiky gum paste sculptures, transforming them into near duplicates of the gilded chrysanthemums that line the walls at Wing Lei. Aghababyan moves effortlessly through her kitchen, brushing a flat piece of modeling chocolate that she’s stamped with a brocade texture with translucent edible gold. She works fast: Though she keeps the kitchen at a consistent 66 degrees F, there’s a narrow window for shaping the chocolate: work it too much and it begins to melt, wait too long and it won’t wrap around the cake. She’s surrounded by inspiration; fashion shoots from inside Wynn, a catalogue of her own involved cake sketches—and shelf upon shelf of her specialty cakes under glass covers. An edible Tiffany-blue box appears open, freeing a quirky fondant dog; a bouquet of intensely sherbet-colored roses is a sugary ode to Wynn’s floral designs. There is even a porcelain-like interpretation of the landmark Benedictine monastery Ettal Abbey, for which she won the nation’s foremost Sugar Art Show, its frescoes immortalized in sugar paint.
A Chanel dress from Fall/Winter 2017 used as inspiration for our fashion story
“I start every cake with a drawing,” she says above the hum of her equipment. “But I’m approaching this fashion shoot a little more abstractly. Of course, I’m searching for inspiration in the fashion, but to me this shoot will be about giving the scene a variety of sizes and shapes that will look whimsical and work within the space.”
For Aghababyan, there’s no clear break between her love of fashion and of cakes (aside, naturally, from what’s inside). “Fashion has always been a big influence for me,” she says. As a child in Armenia, she modeled, acted and danced on television, “and even at that young age I had a vision for what my whole outfit needed to look like before I walked out the door,” she laughs. “I never thought I would end up making designer cakes. But usually we end up doing something we never thought we would, don’t we? I think this is the best way.” At 12 years old, she began channeling her creativity into baking in the kitchen with her mother, herself an accomplished baker. The difference, she says, was that “I don’t like to do things like anyone else. I like to look at what everyone else is doing and then do my own thing.”
Aghababyan with a finished showpiece.
Her technical prowess and artistic innovation brought her from bakeries in Armenia and Russia to Bellagio in Las Vegas, where she created special occasion cakes. Five years in, she heard that Wynn Las Vegas was looking for a cake designer and was hired to fill a week’s term. That week turned into a decade, and now she has her own little kitchen fiefdom here, a made-to-order custom cake design business, in which guests and non-guests alike can order from her specialties with 48 hours’ notice, or design their own with the artist herself five days in advance. Much like a fashion designer, she seeks inspiration everywhere, even taking the occasional wander around the hotel. “I walk through Wynn and Encore, and I look everywhere. I can see things—colors, decorations—that I might not need then. But months later, I’ll remember..”
And though their artistic finesse boggles the mind of anyone seeing her cakes all at once for the first time, she maintains they are not about art for art’s sake. “It has to look wonderful, but also taste delicious. As I’ve made more and more cakes, I’ve begun to understand how people can be made so happy over a small thing,” she smiles gently. “You can have everything, but a lot of times we don’t need that much to be happy. Sometimes just a piece of cake.”