We talked to her about her process, the weirdest cakes she's ever made, and how she feels when she gets accused of "inciting cannibalism."
All photos courtesy of Annabel de Vetten
The cakes of pastry chef Annabel de Vetten, a.k.a. Annabel Lecter, the woman behind England's Conjurer's Kitchen, take the form of severed baby heads, human skeletons, and taxidermy animals. It's a combination of fine art (she was originally trained as a sculptor), the macabre, and dessert.
I'm a big fan of all three, so I recently chatted with Annabel via Skype to find out more about where she gets her inspiration for these creations, what she tells the haters who accuse her of "inciting cannibalism," and if there's anything that's too weird to turn into a chocolate-filled pastry.
VICE: Did you have an interest in the morbid from before you started baking?
Annabel Lecter: Absolutely. When people say, "How come you're doing all this weird, unusual dark stuff?" I always say it would be weird for me not to. If I started to make pink, girly cakes with flowers, all my friends and family would think I'd gone mad. I did taxidermy at university, a lot of body casting, horror films—it's just something I've always been into. When I was 16 I was a bit of a goth and I'd run around cemeteries. I do like the dark and [the] morbid, but I always want a bit of lightheartedness to go with it. So I'm not this kind of doom and gloom type of person.
Before I got into pastries, I was a fine art painter. From the time I could hold a pen I was always drawing and painting things. I studied sculpture at university. Growing up in Germany—taxidermy was big over there—there were stuffed squirrels on the hallway at my granddad's house. So taxidermy gave me something to utilize for my sculpture work at school. One of my pieces was a taxidermied owl with a wax baby head on top.
Is that where the idea for the chocolate baby head comes from?
There was a TV show and they wanted something really, really, really disturbing. They wanted something edible. It was a pilot and it was based on the "would you rather" principle. I don't think it ever got picked up. One of the things was "would you rather eat this chocolate baby head" or do this other thing. The first thing they wanted was a severed penis, and I was like, "No, I'll come up with something more disturbing." And when I showed the chocolate baby head they were like, "Yup." So that's where the chocolate baby head piece comes from. I still have the mold.
Do you think that if you combine the macabre with something edible it becomes more appealing to people who maybe aren't usually into dark stuff?
I think people get a real thrill from cutting into a body part. Because it's not something you're supposed to do, obviously. And then you go ahead and do it and you get rewarded with this tasty treat. It really messes with people's heads. I've watched people eat fingers and they have this look in their faces—Oh, I should hate this but I love it. They just feel really naughty. I do find it challenges people but they really enjoy it.
How did you end up making morbid pastries a full time occupation?
It's really quite boring. I was asked to do a wedding cake at kind of DIY wedding. I knew how to make a cake but not much about decorating. So I read a few books and I really took to it. I think I did one class but I'm pretty much self-taught. So the first few times there was a bit of trial and error. And then I had a few requests from friends and it started taking over. And I started getting jobs, and because I wasn't going in the pretty, flowery sort of direction, I kind of stuck out because of the theme and the subject matter. I was a full-time fine artist, so I was painting, and it got to the point where I quit my other job. Because I asked myself if I got an order for a cake or for a painting, which would I rather do? And I said cakes. It's great. That was four years ago. I'm busy all the time now. If people want a weird wedding cake, they come to me.
Are most items made to order or based on existing designs?
Made to order mostly. My clients are great. They have a general theme or a general idea, but I get free rein. It's amazing, I appreciate their trust in me. Like this weekend, I have a client who sells taxidermy in London and she's having the grand opening. So I'm making the death and burial of cock robin where the birds are the pallbearers based on Walter Potter's work. My kitchen is full of little birds at the moment.
Do you have a "typical" buyer or is it all over the place?
Really all over the place. Usually creative people with alternative tastes. No living wakes or anything. I have done weddings, birthdays, vow renewals, lots of corporate stuff—just events and media stuff. I've done a couple of funerals, but they were just for friends, relatives, that sort of thing. [Funerals] are all very short notice. It's a bit more difficult.
I saw a piece that was labeled "Jessica Joslin." Is this a collaboration with a traditional artist? Do you do these often?
Yes, I like those. With Jessica we did "art for art" trades where I sent her chocolates and she sent me sculptures. This one on my site was one we cooked up together where she designed a piece specifically for me to make into chocolate. So that was really special. I've got some [other] stuff in the pipeline but I can't say anything about it yet.
I also had one recently where I got an order from a guy for his girlfriend's birthday and he asked me for something "vile and disturbing." After some back and forth we decided on an enlarged replica of Jonathan Payne's Fleshlette, which is a tongue with teeth on it. They ended up keeping it in a glass case and not even eating it.
The Dexter one seems interesting.
Yes, that was for the media event at the beginning of Season 8 here in the UK. I think in the press pack for the media there was his "eulogy" and had kind of an "order of service." We sent out slices of the cake and of course it was flavored blood orange and it was wrapped in cling film. I didn't know if he was going to live or die at the end so I just tried to make him look amused rather than scared or happy. I created a "kill room" here in my kitchen to take all the pictures. You learn very quickly when you do that there is no way he can set that up in a few hours and then go home. It took three people a full day. And miles and miles of cling film.
On your site you say "there is nothing too weird for the conjurer's kitchen." What is the oddest request you've gotten and were you able to deliver?
The perfect example is the S&M wedding cake. This lady phoned up—it's my favorite kind of phone call—"This may sound weird, but can you...". And I said yeah, whatever it is I can do it. So she wanted something to reflect her interests but she also wanted something stylish and not over-the-top in your face. It was her wedding and she didn't want to put people off. Some of the online research I did was... interesting (I think I know blocked that whole research from my mind). It's still one of my favorites because from far away it just looks like a good looking cake. The delivery from that was interesting as well because we took it to her house and put in her dungeon. She was just a lovely lady. She was in her 50s and was having sort of a second life.
Are there any designs you won't take on?
Somebody phoned and said they wanted vagina cupcakes. A) I don't do cupcakes and B) I don't do anything with genitalia. It's not for me. There's other people who do them. Also, no cutesy baby stuff. I've turned people down because I don't do [typical] kids cakes. But I don't get those calls any more. If they want a Halloween cake that's fine though.
Although I did do some severed testicles once. But it was for media for a good film and they were in jars and stuff. So it was more... medical.
The sloth one is really cute. Is it modeled after a live or taxidermied one?
A living baby one. I don't think there's a stuffed baby sloth. There shouldn't be. That's just a whole bowl of wrong.
Do you get a lot of negative comments on the internet?
It comes with the territory, I get, "Why are you disturbed," "Why do you do that", "how can you make this"...and I'm like, "At the end of the day, it's only a cake." It's food. I'm not burying anyone, or digging anyone up, or killing anyone. It's food. With the baby heads if you google the comments I was called out for "inciting cannibalism," being a "satanist," as well as called a racist because they were white chocolate. It was just the best. And with all of that, people were asking if I was upset. No, because I'm none of those. [However], if somebody said they were really badly made I would have cried. If somebody said this tasted like crap then yeah, I'd be upset. The other stuff I just find entertaining. Priorities, you know.
Follow Simon Davis on Twitter.