The Pastry Chef's Wild Imagination
Author: Eric Newill
Since 2009, visitors to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art have taken a break from perusing the Rauschenbergs, Riveras and Rothkos to stop by the Blue Bottle Coffee Bar in the institution’s Rooftop Garden. A java institution in Fog City, Blue Bottle also boasts one of the city’s sweet signatures: desserts inspired by artwork displayed at SFMOMA, from either the permanent collection or temporary exhibits. The creation of pastry chef Caitlin Freeman, these cultural confections are now showcased in Modern Art Desserts, to be published next month by Ten Speed Press. The book not only details how to make these memorable dishes, but also discusses the art itself and features anecdotes from Freeman about their creation. Here, she talks about the book in an exclusive interview with In Season.
How did the concept for the book come about?
Well, we’ve been making desserts based on art at our cafe at the SFMOMA since 2009. Our rule is that we only make things inspired by art on display at the museum, which changes quite often, so over the years we have accumulated quite a collection of different interesting desserts. I co-wrote The Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee with my husband, James Freeman, which was a good introduction to what it takes to write a book, so I just used that momentum to write about our desserts at the SFMOMA. The timing was a little sped up, though, because we wanted the book to come out before the museum closes for their big three-year renovation.
I’m not a naturally talented writer, but I certainly had a lot of stories I wanted to tell about our time at the museum, so it took much more effort and toil than it would have for most people writing books. But I’ve never been more proud of anything I’ve ever done!
You’ve said the Wayne Thiebaud cakes started it all. Could you describe your inspiration?
In the mid 1990s I was an art student at UC Santa Cruz and we spent a lot of time at the SFMOMA. It was on one of my college trips that I first saw Display Cakes by Thiebaud. I loved that painting so much that I started working as a counter girl at a pastry shop in Santa Cruz. By the time I finished school, I got swept up in office job life and wasn’t doing any art, but at the 2000 retrospective of Thiebaud’s work at the Legion of Honor, I became re-acquainted with his paintings and declared that that was what I was going to do with my life. I learned how to make cakes in order to create some sort of art with them, but that turned into a business, Miette, that I co-owned for seven years. After selling it, I started to work with my husband at his business, Blue Bottle Coffee, and shortly thereafter he was offered a cafe space at the SFMOMA. When I realized that we would have a cafe in the building where I first saw Thiebaud’s paintings, I decided I would make Thiebaud cakes to sell. That turned into all sorts of other desserts inspired by art.
Another iconic dessert of yours is the Mondrian cake. How was it received when it was first unveiled?
The Mondrian cake was something I was so excited to have worked out, but I had no idea it would become as popular as it has. The thing that has made it so well known is that it definitely looks like cake and it also definitely looks like very famous art, even to non-art aficionados.
We had a couple of weeks to come up with desserts before our cafe opened, and I was working with Leah Rosenberg, my pastry chef at the SFMOMA, on our first round of offerings. We figured out the Mondrian cake just before the big press preview for the opening of the sculpture garden, where our cafe is located. I stayed up for two days straight making enough for the preview. Nobody knew what I was up to—not even my husband, who didn’t really see me at all for those few days—so when I showed up for the opening with a car full of cakes, everyone was pretty surprised.
What are some of the most memorable reactions you have seen, from guests, curators or even the artists themselves?
The Lichtenstein cake, which is in my book, was kind of my white whale for a few years. It is a red velvet cake, which I wasn’t sure that I wanted to make for the cafe because of all of the food coloring and my mixed feelings about that cake. During my only attempt to make it for the cafe, I put out the first display piece and a teenage boy declared, ‘Hey, that’s based on my grandfather’s art!’ It was Roy Lichtenstein’s grandson! Which is fortuitous, because that was the only day we ever sold the Lichtenstein cake.
Richard Serra made us stop selling our cookie plate based on one of his sculptures, and Luc Tuymans declared the Mondrian cake ‘shit’ before we sweet-talked him into being excited about having us make something based on his painting St. Valentine. It turned out to be a crème fraîche parfait with crème de violette coulis.
A few artists—John Zurier, Rosana Castrillo Diaz, Alejandro Cartagena, Ruth Laskey and Cindy Sherman—have been incredibly excited about our project. Cindy Sherman taking an iPhone picture of our ice cream float inspired by one of her clown photos was truly a highlight of my career.
Do you prefer to create a more representational dessert, like the Mondrian, or a more conceptual one, like the Warhol?
I like to keep a balance between the representational and the conceptual. For us, the conceptual is really fun and challenging, but we know that pieces like the Mondrian, Thiebaud or Lichtenstein are really great for connecting with the general public. As much as we would love to do only wacky conceptual pieces that fulfill our own artistic needs, we are a cafe and we do have to sell things to stay in business. Plus, I love that my parents get really excited when they can immediately connect with something I’m doing.
What has been your most difficult challenge?
I don’t know if it’s our most difficult, but we are currently developing a dessert for the last big show before the SFMOMA closes for three years for renovations, a retrospective of Garry Winogrand photographs. Leah and I fell in love with a 1977 photo of two people dancing on a big concrete block: The couple looks so joyous and happy, and the thing they are dancing on looks just like a big ice cream cake. So we’re working on this kind of insane and totally delightful ice cream cake that is presented atop a box, with acrylic toppers of the two dancers that have been laser-cut out of plastic. The box contains an MP3 player and speakers that will play Stevie Wonder’s 1977 hit ‘Sir Duke.’ It’s completely crazy, but it looks like we’re pulling it off. Our staff and security guards are going to want to kill us during these last four months that the museum is open, but I have never been more excited about a dessert.
How does working alongside your husband impact your work?
My husband is great and says he loves everything I do. I’m not sure that’s the case, but he knows how to keep me happy! But as long as what I do is profitable and a good part of the business, he kind of lets me do what I want. Thankfully, I’m able to figure out a way to make these sometimes preposterous ideas financially viable, so it all works out. He appreciates my creativity and taste, and I appreciate what a truly great businessman he is, which is something I wasn’t terrific at. I feel very lucky.
As a famous food town, San Francisco must provide enormous inspiration. How does it affect you most?
I feel grateful to have so many talented and inspiring friends around San Francisco. I feel like I’m always roping someone in to help with some crazy project of mine. Whether it’s Nicole Krasinski, pastry chef at State Bird Provisions, filling in shifts at the SFMOMA, learning chocolate work from Boris Portnoy (now of Satellite Republic fame), learning citrus tuiles from Amy Brown—formerly of Nopa, now of Marla Bakery—having the great sommelier Paul Einbund work on sodas with us, or picking Harold McGee’s brain about red velvet cake, people have been so generous with their time and enthusiasm.
Do you feel you’re inspiring others to look to art for pastry ideas?
I hope so! Even less specifically, I just hope that people see that we’re being inspired by something and try to do the same. I want everyone to be inspired and then do something about it.
You have started to create some savory items, such as the Bradford cheese plate, which is also in the book.
Well, again, as much as we want this to be our own little art project, we do have to keep our customers in mind. We were making people pretty mad at us for only having sweets, so we’ve tried to incorporate some savory into our menu. It definitely doesn’t come naturally to me, but we’ve come up with some pretty great little things that have made customers a little less mad at us.
Whose art would you still love to create something from?
I know he hates us, but Richard Serra’s work is so compelling! Or maybe it’s just especially compelling because I know I’m not allowed to be inspired by it.
Is there an artist whom you feel would be impossible to translate?
Nothing is impossible! I have had more failed Warhol attempts than any other. The Bloody Mary jello we first tried was, quite literally, one of the most disgusting things I ever put in my mouth.
What dessert innovations are you most inspired by now?
I’m fascinated by molecular gastronomy. My good friend Fany Setiyo of Le Sanctuaire is so great with all of those techniques, and she’s always trying to get us into the modern food world, but we’ve yet to find the right application. There will be something, I’m sure.
You can pre-order the book at www.amazon.com or pick up your copy from SFMOMA, www.sfmoma.org. http://www.randomhouse.com/book/219789/modern-art-desserts-by-caitlin-freeman