Let me tell you how great cake really is," says Tariq Hanna, chef/owner of Sucre. "The 159th (Air National Guard) fighter squadron is stationed in Belle Chasse. They were having a ceremony and one of the reservists knew me and asked if I could make them a (sheet) cake. I said, 'Sure,' but if I'm going to do it, I'm going to make them a cake. I made them a 3-foot scale replica of an F-15. No one knew I was doing it.
"Do you know what that cake got me?" Hanna adds. "I was made Louisiana's first-ever honorary commander of the Air Force. I flew in the back seat of an F-15 fighter jet. Never underestimate the power of cake."
Hanna is harnessing the power of cake at the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience in the Big Gateaux Show, to celebrate the festival's 20th anniversary, benefit Second Harvest Food Bank and raise the profile of pastry chefs in New Orleans.
Hanna won the "Shark Summer" competition on the second season of TLC's Ultimate Cake Off. On the Food Network's Incredible Edible Mansions competition, he built a gingerbread replica of Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water house. It's televised cake competitions, he says, that have changed his business.
"Now people want amazing designs that spin and shoot sparks," he says. "The thing they don't realize is that they could buy an entry level Kia for the same cost."
But competitions are about excess, even if they have set specifications. The cake contest at NOWFE requires competitors to incorporate the festival's 20th anniversary as well as a burlesque theme, and the cake must be at least five feet tall.
For competitors, he's recruited some top talents. They include Bronwen Weber, who beat him in the Edible Mansions competition, and is tops in the field. Representing New Orleans is Solandie Exantus, the Royal Sonesta's pastry chef. Each of the contestants will be assigned three students from Delgado Community College's culinary program. The competition will be judged by a panel of experts, and co-hosting the event is Johnny Iuzzini from Bravo's Top Chef, Just Desserts.
Hanna also engineered the competition to be different than most cake contests. Generally, the massive cakes must be entirely edible, but they are rarely ever consumed. This competition requires that everything on the outside be edible, but not all of the interior needs to be edible, to be less wasteful of food. And there's a second part of the challenge: Each team must prepare 250 portions of a signature cake, which will be available at the event. Attendees can sample the cakes and enjoy chocolates from Sucre and Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte. The victors win a $5,000 prize sponsored by Valrhona.
"We want something that will wow people," Hanna says. "How often do you walk by a five-foot cake and say, 'I've seen it'?"