Carlsbad design engineer embraces her whimsical side building cakes for ‘Dr. Seuss Baking Challenge’
Stanford-educated Huiwen Lu discovered her passion for cake decorating while baking a cake for her son’s birthday 12 years ago
Growing up the child of Taiwanese immigrants in New York, Huiwen Lu knew her parents expected her to pursue an educational path to a safe and stable career, rather than attend the art school that she dreamed of as a girl.
So Lu, who’s now 44 and lives in Carlsbad, followed their advice. In 2000, she earned a degree in product design engineering from Stanford University and became a successful software product manager. Meanwhile, she satisfied her artistic cravings by making fancy birthday cakes for her kids. But now Lu can have her cake and eat it, too.
Lu is one of 18 cake artists competing in the inaugural season of the “Dr. Seuss Baking Challenge” on Prime Video and Amazon Freevee. The eight-episode streaming TV series debuts Dec. 13. Working in teams of two, the competitors were tasked with re-creating in cake the imaginative cartoonish characters and environments from the books of Ted “Dr. Seuss” Geisel, who spent more than half of his life in La Jolla before passing away in 1991 at age 87. The TV show’s winning team will receive a $50,000 top prize.
Lu was recruited by the TV show’s producers last spring after they saw her creative cake designs online.
At the urging of her husband, Alvin Lu, she launched several social media pages last December under the name Cocobelly Cakes (cocobellycakes.com). Through short music-filled videos on TikTok, photos and videos on Instagram and longer tutorials on YouTube, Lu shares how she devises her cake designs, the materials she uses and how she assembles them to resemble realistic toys, purses, Christmas stockings, sushi, tacos, animated characters and more. Over the past year, she has amassed more than 100,000 online followers, as well as the devotion of the “Dr. Seuss Baking Challenge” producers.
Lu spent four weeks in Los Angeles over the summer filming the series on the Sony Studios lot, an experience she described as exciting, exhausting and lonely because she had to be away from her husband, their 14-year-old son and their 11-year-old daughter. But she said meeting so many like-minded cake artists from around the country was a thrill, and filming on a huge soundstage decorated to resemble the world of Dr. Seuss was a magical experience.
Lu’s baking partner on the series was Kyle Smothers, an executive pastry chef from Columbia, S.C. Unlike the newbie Lu, Smothers has competed on four competition baking series, and he coached her from day one to set aside her perfectionist tendencies to ensure their projects got finished on time. She said there was a learning curve to baking and building cakes that were up to 40 inches tall, and it was a very stressful environment, but it was also fun and she’s proud to have her family and friends see the results.
Because Lu moved to the U.S. at age 7 and wasn’t a native English speaker, she didn’t grow up reading the books of Dr. Seuss, but her children did. And when her family moved to Carlsbad about eight years ago, one of the first places they visited was La Jolla, where they toured a gallery featuring more serious artwork by Dr. Seuss that wasn’t created for his children’s books.
“I love his artwork. That’s what spoke to me first about him,” she said. “I was blown away by how talented he was. He had this whole secret life as an artist.”
Lu said the first “cakes” she ever assembled were made from non-edible materials and shipped from Stanford to her parents in New York as joke birthday gifts. Then, when her son was about to turn 2 years old in 2010, she was inspired by a cake show on the Food Network to make him a fancy birthday cake. It wasn’t great, but it was a creatively rewarding process, so she kept baking.
“It wasn’t so much about eating them. I loved making cakes that have some surprise about them,” she said. “I like making character cakes and then chopping them in half in videos.”
Since launching her Cocobelly Cakes social media channels last winter, numerous companies and clients have reached out to Lu for custom cake orders. She has made character and product cakes for Disney, MrBeast Burger and Delish.com. She’s also the subject of an upcoming profile article on BuzzFeed.
“I never imagined that a random Instagram account would open up so many opportunities,” she said.
Lu said she has no plans to give up her day job in the software world for her hobby, even though she’s often exhausted juggling what’s essentially two full-time jobs. She’s looking forward to having a couple “Dr. Seuss Baking Show” watch parties with her family and friends and her daughter’s Girl Scouts troop this month. And she’s grateful that her family is so supportive of her art.
“They love it,” she said. “My husband knows my mom guilt so well he always says ‘if this isn’t fun, you should stop, but you’re amazing.’ To my sons friends, I’m the ‘cool mom.’ And for me, it’s sometimes a big sacrifice, but what a cool life I’m living right now.”
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