food

Lily Vanilli, The Queen of Cakes, Helped Make Baking Cool Again

Here's how British baker Lily Jones, founder of Lily Vanilli, transformed her hobby into a thriving career.

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Lily Vanilli | House and Leisure

When Lily Jones started made cakes and pastries to sell at a market in London a decade ago, she did not know that she was starting the Lily Vanilli empire. She was just trying to make a few bucks, after struggling to find a job.

‘Back then, baking was not cool,’ says Jones. 'It was the time before shows like The Great British Bake Off, and in the UK [baking] was still seen as something that grannies do. I started making cakes and savoury pies to sell at a market where my friends where selling homemade jewellery – the only people who came to the market were my friends who were just as broke, so we ended up eating the cakes and drinking margaritas.’

Jones always loved baking. While living in Australia, she had a boyfriend who loved to cook, so she decided to join him in the kitchen and explore her love of baking. Not formally trained, Jones took to the internet to up her skills. 

‘I started reading books and watching YouTube tutorials. I was obsessed with doing weird stuff with baking and wanted to have as much information as possible. So, while learning the basics – like how to make a simple sponge – I was also learning how to temper chocolate.’

One day, while trawling the internet, Jones noticed that one of the top trends on Google was people searching for cake recipes. 

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‘I thought, who on earth is looking at recipes like this besides me? It stuck with me, and I told my friend who worked at the Times that they should look into this,' says Jones. That friend decided to write and article about the rise of baking as a profession and added Jones to the article as an illustration that even young people are jumping on the bandwagon. This was Jones' golden ticket. 

'My friend called me and asked me for my contacts for the article. I made up Lily Vanilli on the spot, sent my details and after the article came out, I had so many people asking for orders.’ Jones recalls. 

Some of those people included the likes of Elton John, Kate Moss and 10 Downing Street. Before she knew it, Jones was opening her first bakery and had become the number-one bespoke cake designer in London. She now owns two bakeries, including one she recently opened in Tbilisi, Georgia. She has also penned several cookbooks and is a consultant for some of the UK's top brands.  

Instead of letting the success go to her head, Jones decided to use her influence to pave the way for young people in the industry and help with much-needed aid in Syria through her #BakeForSyria initiative. She also co-founded the YBF awards, which celebrate up-and-coming members of the food industry. 

#BakeForSyria is a cookbook that Jones put together to raise funds for children affected by the war in Syria. It was the follow up to her campaign, #CookForSyria, which saw well-known chefs sharing traditional Syrian dishes and getting involved in supper clubs, bake sales and more. This is a project close to Jones’ heart. 

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‘One of the biggest challenges for me is the the realisation of how much help Syrians need. The #BakeForSyria initiative raised £47 000 (about R89 000) – and that is not even a third of what’s needed. But at the same time, we’ve received so much support; people are so willing to help and that is reassuring.’

As for initiatives like YBF and FOOD XX, Jones believes that every little bit helps in terms of improving the status of the food industry. 

‘When it comes to empowering young people and women in the food and drinks industry, as long as someone is telling these stories, it is enough. One platform is enough to start a conversation and create an ethos around it.”

In a series inspired by the inaugural FOOD XX Symposium and Awards, House and Leisure tells the stories of five remarkable women who are disrupting and improving the food industry.