Turning food into art has never been more popular. Look at the runaway success of TV shows such as The Bear and Instagram accounts from Laila Gohar to Paris Starn. Food art is becoming so popular that a profitable niche within the niche is suddenly starting to emerge – a wibbly-wobbly proliferation of jelly artists.
Murder Cake, founded by the Hong Kong native Kiki Cheung, is a good example. At her home in south east London, Kiki’s two cats Bok Gak and Sei Jai – named after categories of Japanese porn: censored and uncensored – will encircle you. They purr for attention. ‘Hong Kong people are obsessed with Japanese porn,’ Kiki explains. Having lived in Tokyo in her early 20s, Japanese cultural references from anime to the polka-dot-obsessed artist Yayoi Kusama are also seen in many Murder Cake creations. ‘Sometimes I randomly have some idea and try to put it into the jelly,’ she says.
Today, established businesses are starting to take notice. She’s been commissioned by the Paris-based fashion label Y/Project and the footwear brand Melissa to promote their lines of jelly shoes. In her typically modest way, Kiki explains how she’s turned something so unstable into a successful business: ‘They just gave me the moodboard, and I made four cakes.’
But she’s still figuring things out. As such, for the time being Murder Cake remains her side gig. Growing pains are inevitable. When the hype London restaurant, bar and hotel The Standard asked Murder Cake to supply jelly for some of its events, Kiki knew she couldn’t accept the commission without investing thousands of pounds into extra molds and equipment. It was a cost The Standard wouldn’t cover, nor was she quite ready to take the financial risk on her own. Her appetite for risk is limiting her growth potential due to the size of her kitchen and the equipment she owns. She had to turn down the commission.
‘I prefer the artistic freedom that commissions provide,’ she says. ‘In the UK, there are lots of brands who commission food artists to make work for fashion weeks, dinners and events.’ Back in Hong Kong, however, the idea of starting a business out of jelly would be a non-starter, she says.
She first encountered jelly in kindergarten when parents of her classmates brought it in as a treat. But she returned to jelly as a way to distract herself from the 2019 protests in Hong Kong: ‘At that time, I was trying to find something I could do that made me feel at peace.’
Kiki and her husband Hong-kit Lo, an illustrator and tattooist, swapped Hong Kong for the UK in 2021. In Hong Kong, Kiki was working as a fashion editor at a lifestyle magazine. When she arrived in the UK she started working full time as a pastry chef in a vegan bakery near her new home in Deptford. ‘I really wanted to learn some foundational baking skills because everything I know is self-taught,’ she says.
On top of that, Kiki was keen to learn the flavors that British people liked most. She quickly understood that tastes are completely different to those in Asia. So what do British people like to eat? ‘Raspberry, chocolate, pistachios and Victoria sponge!’ she says. While back in Hong Kong, goji berries, matcha and hojicha (green tea) dominate.
Working with jelly is no joke: ‘Transport is a problem’. Often she has to transport jelly from her apartment on the seventh floor down to a waiting Uber – not easy considering her creations sometimes weigh up to six kilograms per cake, and she has to carry four at a time. For someone at just over five feet tall, she jokes, this is the most frightening aspect of her job.
To the annoyance of her husband, she says, she sometimes floods the kitchen. ‘It can get messy’ if she doesn’t give molds enough time to set or hasn’t put enough thickening agent in the mixtures. But watching her measuring out at the kitchen counter with the attention-to-detail of a scientist handling plutonium, this seems unlikely.
A criticism occasionally leveled against ‘food art’ as a concept is that the creations usually don’t taste as good as they look. After all, food that’s inedible is probably just art. Thankfully, Murder Cake doesn’t have that problem. The towering cake she makes for Courier – fluffy sponge base, layer of vanilla custard, thin seam of crunchy white chocolate plus rainbow jelly – is delicious.