For someone who has lived in New York City for over eighteen years, Jay Kinimaka Muse, the owner of Lulu Cake Boutique, is incredibly modest. Though he’d never use that word. “Isn’t that the least modest thing you could say?” he says, sitting in Lulu Cake’s small storefront in Scarsdale, New York, about a twenty-minute train ride from Manhattan. His is a modesty that approaches self-effacement. Even though he’s the sole founder of Lulu Cake Boutique, Muse shows up second on the website’s list of chefs. He’s rejected numerous pitches from networks to star in reality television shows. And when he turned down an appearance on Rachel Ray to attend his Kamehameha High School reunion in October, he mostly told classmates that he’s been “working at a bakery.”
“I’m not shy,” says Muse, who’s forty years old. “I just don’t think it’s important to talk yourself up. It’s not who I am. I guess if you feel good enough in your heart you don’t have to broadcast it. It’s probably a Hawai‘i thing.”
“Working at a bakery” means being in charge of more than 200 employees who handcraft, package, and sell anywhere from 100 to 200 wedding cakes a week, in addition to creating smaller bites like retro Twinkies and cookies infused with Maui potato chips. When Muse founded Lulu Cake Boutique in 2001, instead of competing with other wedding cake companies he created his own market: unconventional, organic, farm-to-table cakes. It starts at the base; all the flour used is organic, unprocessed, and unbleached. “It’s the taste aspect,” Muse says, while acknowledging that the cakes are still made with all the caloric splendors that compose a mouthwatering dessert. “But if you’re going to have butter, why not have real butter from a farm upstate?”
The results are wedding cakes that look, feel and taste like international productions. Chocolate is sourced from Africa, vanilla from Portland,and honey from a beekeeper on a rooftop in the Bronx. Muse has visited most of the vendors, including the one in Africa, to establish a connection with small business owners. “That’s what it’s all about. There should be a story behind everything we eat,” he says. Hawaii also gets a fair nod. Coffee extract is produced via beans from Waialua Estate, and the coconut custard featured in the Coconut Dream is actually homemade haupia custard. “The Jewish people go crazy over it,” says Muse. Similarly veiled, the fruit in the Passionately Kissed—vanilla cake, passion fruit curd, white chocolate—is actually lilikoi. Another top seller features macadamia nut brittle. (An attempt with li hing mui didn’t go over as well.)
On the business end, Muse maintains a standard of aloha spirit. Even though he is currently the only Hawaiian in the company, he taught the staff “pono,” a concept they employ whenever there are disagreements amongst coworkers or customers A portion of all proceeds are donated to breast cancer foundations, and Muse has personally delivered cakes to children in the Make-A-Wish Foundation. He is currently pushing to get their building solar-powered.
“It’s just part of the culture I grew up in,” says Muse, a ’91 Kamehameha High School graduate. “We care greatly about the soil that we leave behind for future generations. We try our best to eliminate our footprint. We’re not perfect but we try.”
Muse left the islands to attend University of Southern California. Unfulfilled with screenwriting, he moved to New York in 1995 and went to law school at Columbia University. He’s been a New Yorker ever since. “As a hobby,” he and a bunch of friends opened a string of restaurants on a newly gentrified stretch of Amsterdam Avenue. After Columbia, Muse went to culinary school. He opened Lulu Cake Boutique a few months before 9/11.
Running the bakery through that period felt therapeutic to Muse, who watched the towers collapse through the kitchen window of his apartment on Central Park West. “For whatever reason that event was so catastrophic beyond belief that I still haven’t processed it. It was like a movie,” he says. From Scarsdale, where many bankers who work on Wall Street live, business took off. “During wars, during recessions, during hurricanes, people always seek comfort in sweets,” says Muse. A few years later, Lulu Cake thrived through the recession, due in part to its position as a luxury product. (Wedding cakes start at $1,000). Another reason is the dependability of celebration—people will always get married, and what better way to celebrate than sugar? “I can confidently say it’s recession proof,” Muse says.
Lulu Cake Boutique is expanding internationally soon, to Shanghai and Australia. Despite the success Muse knows he wants to settle back home in Hawai‘i. In his twenties, transfixed by the intoxicating nightlife and creative grit of 1990s New York, Muse thought he’d be a New Yorker for life. But the city has changed dramatically since, and a recent trip home crystallized where he wants to spend his life post-retirement.
The realization didn’t arrive in a quiet moment on the beach, but behind the wheel of a car on the traffic choked streets near Ala Moana. After waiting a few seconds behind a truck after the light had turned green, Muse honked his horn. He switched lanes further down the road, and unintentionally pulled up next to the truck at a red light. The guy in the truck had his window down. He gave Muse a bewildered look. Muse rolled his window down to apologize.
“I felt like a foreigner in Hawai‘i,” he says. “Although I knew I belonged and I’m from there, I was hurt at the disconnect I had with the island and felt envious of my classmates who are part of the culture there. I was also awakened by the aloha spirit more than I ever had been.”
At a Local Motion store, while in pursuit of apple butter pies he’d been hearing about, Muse struck up a conversation with the manager. After telling him he was heading back to New York, Muse was handed free stickers and T-shirts. The stranger even offered to deliver the pies to Muse’s house after they arrived later that afternoon.
“You know what? This is something you don’t find anywhere else in the world,” says Muse. “The energy, the spirit, it envelops you. You understand why people move to the islands—it’s the beauty of the land, but it’s also the beauty of the people. It all came to me.”