Chester’s Ben Cullen and his illusion cakes give us trust issues
PUBLISHED: 16:33 12 November 2020 | UPDATED: 16:42 12 November 2020
Fancy a slice of cake deception? Then Ben Cullen might just be your extreme baker...
We don’t do stereotypes here at Cheshire Life, but if we did, we’d be pretty sure that if you met Ben Cullen, a cake artist wouldn’t be the first thing to come to mind.
You see, the blue-eyed, tattoo-covered, 30-year-old takes the term ‘baker’ to the extreme. His life-size creations include everything from food items to animals, cartoon characters to caricatures, and more recently, a new-born baby.
A new-born baby made to size, which actually isn’t a huge amount of cake. “I baked four 18-inch cakes and carved them down from there,” the Chester-based Brummie says. Sometimes he’ll sketch out the design (especially if it’s a complex idea) but often he’ll simply work with the object he’s recreating in front of him, or from a handful of photos.
“The baby used roughly 12 eggs and 700 grams of butter, flour and sugar,” adds Ben, who goes by The Bakeking on social media. It was commissioned for a music video by British rapper Slowthai.
“Somehow something doesn’t sit right with it,” he laughs. “The baby freaks me out a little bit.”
Ben stacks up enough cake to fit with the design, carving it down to the exact shape he needs. He usually carves it a little smaller, to allow for the chocolate or buttercream crumb coat and fondant detailing.
It wasn’t always as straightforward as it sounds – Ben was once a complete novice. To put it bluntly, it wasn’t until his mid-20s that he first picked up a cake whisk. His CV tells quite the story, though, from a degree in graphic design and fine art at the University of Chester to work as a professional graphic designer and tattooist.
So, it wasn’t until a chance introduction to art in the form of a fondant Peppa Pig that he seriously considered a shot at it. Because there was never an early passion, he says – only dreams as a young boy of growing up to be a footballer or boxer.
“A girl I was tattooing – her mum was there to hold her hand – and making conversation with me she was saying that she was into art and that she was a cake decorator,” says Ben. Cue Peppa Pig. “I thought, “I’m going to have to try that.” It was my dad’s birthday coming up and I literally had no idea how to make a cake so it was as simple as I rang my mum, she told me everything, I wrote it down, went to the shop and made the cake.
“Don’t get me wrong, if I look at it now, I’m like, ‘Oh God’, but at the time I was over the moon with it. I was showing it to all my friends because I’d never done anything like that. I became obsessed.”
Ben’s obsession sent him on a self-taught journey, making use of his airbrushing knowledge (a skill he was lucky to already have under his belt from his time spent tattooing) and learning the tricks of the trade via instructional videos, cake shows and practise, practise, practise.
He ventured from the traditional side of the cake world, going solo with cake as a full-time profession in 2016. At the time, he was working as a graphic designer.
“I had to just make whatever was being ordered,” Ben says. “I’m lucky now in that people know the sort of things I want to create, so the people that come to me want those things.”
People – or A-listers, in Ben’s case – include the likes of popstar Rita Ora and Leigh-Anne Pinnock from girl band Little Mix, both of whom he made a caricature birthday cake for. He worked with Liverpool Football Club manager Jürgen Klopp in the early days, has teamed up with television channel Nickelodeon and had his cakes plastered across a Times Square billboard in New York.
He prides himself on being a 100 per cent one-man band, working from his private studio in Chester. “I would probably struggle letting someone else help,” Ben says. “I’ve never had any outside help and I think it’s mainly because I absolutely love what I do and know exactly how I want each part to be. I want to get better and develop my personal style – and I love the challenge.”
Social media has played a big part not only in his global fame, but also his mission to break the mould of the baking industry and make it more acceptable to young, or ‘cooler’ people.
“I just worked every minute of every day so I could do the orders,” Ben says. “But then also in my own time I had – and still have – a bucket list of cakes that aren’t traditional. It has got to be the weirdest list.” Ben’s list contains things like a frog, chicken, the back and base of a body… “I’ve just got these pictures in my head that I think would be so cool to do,” he says.
On average, his masterpieces tend to take anywhere up to a week but are usually finished between two and three days. “What I call a day on one cake might be seven until three, and on a different cake it might be six in the morning until midnight,” he says. “And often I might get it wrong, so I’ll have to start again. That happens quite a lot.”
Ben has been lucky over the last few months in that, despite the pandemic (and an initial panic), he’s gained a new audience and become known for his online video content. ‘Everything is cake’ memes went viral, showing clips of illusion cakes being cut. Viewers joked it gave them trust issues – but Ben was doing it long before this summer made it a trend.
“I had put a lot of time and effort into these videos, just for content really, to keep things interesting on my social media,” he says. “It has come in really handy. I had the work already sat there, and it just brought in a whole new audience for me.”
And with Christmas on the way, Ben hints he’d like to make a full-size snowman or Santa Claus. It’s his favourite time of year. Last year he made an elf for the 12 Days of Christmas parade in Chester. “That was one of my favourites,” he says. “I’m keen on making a full-size Santa this year. It’s something I’d really like to do – a proper Santa with big rosy cheeks.”
Ben has come a long way since making his cake debut with his dad’s birthday cake. He’s appeared on Channel 4 show Extreme Cake Makers and created a seven-foot ringmaster for the entrance of the biggest cake decorating show in the world: The Cake International, held in Birmingham.
“When I first looked at the prospect of cake in 2015, I heard about this show and went down there. Since then, I’ve been so many times. Over the years I tried to get better, competing and learning from the artists there. For Christmas 2018, they asked me to do this ringmaster piece for the main exhibition at the front door of the show that was greeting the public. Thousands of people go to that show and I have always been one of them. It was a real honour for me.”