Field Note: Sweet Inspirations

May 29th, 2013

What now seems like ages ago we visited our friend Leah Rosenberg, a painter, sculptor and cake-maker at her home studio on Bernal Hill. Besides making art, Leah has been working as a pastry chef at Blue Bottle Coffee rooftop garden café at SFMOMA for close to four years, creating delicious desserts based on artworks of rotating museum exhibitions. Leah works alongside Caitlin Freeman and Tess Wilson, and together the three of them take inspiration from the art at SFMOMA and run wild with recipe ideas to bring visitors an ever-changing selection of treats that reference specifc works of art on view in the museum. Everything is made on-site in the kitchen tucked away behind the coffee bar and it’s plain to see, even before taking a bite, just how much thought and love is put into each dessert.

With SFMOMA’s temporary closure just a short while away, the café’s trio invited Klea and I to come visit, taste a few treats, and learn a little more about the work they do. Not long into our visit they were giving us milky tea and giant yummy slabs of Rothko toast and Damien Hirst cake. As we watched Tess build a Thiebaud cake, smearing it with rich buttercream, and listened to Caitlin and Leah discuss options for upcoming projects, it was obvious that central to their work is the sentiment of sharing. But they aren’t just offering an assortment of lovely confections; they are also inviting museum visitors to experience art in a new way. Food is such familiar and comforting territory to us all, and unfortunately modern art often isn’t, but in the creation of art-inspired desserts there is an opportunity for visitors to engage with works in a more intimate way, a way that so easily delights the senses. Much like what we are trying to do with IN THE MAKE, I think these ladies are ultimately hoping to open up the access points to contemporary works and encourage a very personal connection with art.

Hurry up and visit the Blue Bottle Coffee rooftop garden café at SFMOMA before the museum’s big remodeling plans begin and their doors temporary close. The café will be open until June 2, 2013…. I highly recommend ordering the Rothko toast— the combination of apricot butter and blueberry jam is ridiculously good! Construction of the expansion will go on through early 2016, but SFMOMA will present new art experiences around the Bay Area as the building is transformed. And if a real bad craving comes on while the café is closed, you can always grab a copy of Caitlin’s Modern Art Desserts recipe book and make your own art-inspired treat at home.

What is your role at the Blue Bottle Coffee rooftop garden café at SFMOMA and how long have you been working there?
Caitlin: Blue Bottle Executive Pastry Chef, and I’ve been there since opening the café in May 2009.
Leah: SFMOMA Blue Bottle Pastry Chef, and I came on in August of 2009.
Tess: SFMOMA Blue Bottle Assistant Pastry Chef, since June 2010.

Do you all three of you have both culinary and art backgrounds?
Caitlin: I was a photography student at UC Santa Cruz, and fell in love with Display Cakes by Wayne Thiebaud on a class trip to SFMOMA in 1995. I started working as a counter girl at a fancy French pastry shop in Santa Cruz, but didn’t know how that would relate to my art. A few years after graduation, with not a piece of art made since school, I went to a retrospective of Thiebaud’s work at the Legion of Honor in 2000. Standing there in front of Cakes, I declared, “This is what I want to do with my life.” I thought I just wanted to learn to decorate cakes so I could take pictures of them, but the cake making turned into my profession by way of a cake shop I owned with another woman (which I sold in 2008) called Miette. My husband owns Blue Bottle Coffee Company, and shortly after selling Miette, he was approached by SFMOMA to open a café in their brand new sculpture garden. When standing in the space, I realized that we were about to build a café in the exact place that had started my big adventure in cake, and decided that I would make Thiebaud cakes in honor of the painting I loved enough to turn me into a baker. Ten years after first seeing the painting, I was setting up a tiny pastry station inside the gallery of sculptures and making desserts inspired by art. It’s been a grand adventure!

Leah: I went to CCA for my MFA in Painting and Sculpture. I started taking cake decorating classes on the weekends to try to get good at something (my paintings were sort of not going anywhere). I was interested in the intersection of art and food and the cross over of techniques and tools used in baking and painting (piping paint, layering, color). I would bring the cakes from my classes to my critiques at school and loved the response. My peers in my critiques were delighted, enthusiastic, engaged. I wondered why my paintings on the wall couldn’t elicit this kind of response so I started making cakes that looked like paintings and paintings that were more sculptural and cake-like. I learned so much of what I know now on the job. Caitlin has taught me the value of a pound of butter, the right (the only) way to crack an egg, that “vertical confidence” and repetition is the key to a stately Thiebaud cake. Tess has taught me the importance of a proper list and that it is possible to enjoy making an excel spreadsheet. She is a vision. And she is tall.

Tess: I have a BFA in Photography from the University of Illinois— I picked photography because I wanted to do something in the arts, but I can’t draw! I don’t know if I’ll ever be a proper photographer but I think my arts education has served me well every single day. Whether you’re decorating a cake, setting up a display, designing signage, or organizing the pastry kitchen’s refrigerator, the same principles of beauty, elegance, efficiency, line, balance, and zest apply. As for the culinary side, my mom started teaching me to bake when I was three, and I’ve loved it ever since. I tend towards more country-style baking when I’m at home— pies, biscuits, cakes, yeast breads, cornbread, that sort of thing.

You make artwork-inspired pastries, how do you decide which art works to translate into desserts? What is the criteria?
Leah: Typically if we love it, we are drawn to make a dessert about it. This whole project started out of Caitlin’s love for Thiebaud’s paintings of cakes. If the artwork delights one of us, chances are we want to see it delight others by making it into something edible.
In some instances we are familiar with the work or the artist and want to pay tribute to them or work with them in a way, like local artist Ruth Laskey who we were able to do a studio visit with around the time the SECA show and make a quite elaborate selection of sodas.

Caitlin: I really respond to things I just love to look at. I love to focus on tiny details (Kahlo, for example), and I respond to colors that correspond to flavors that can be extracted from real life. I’m not the biggest fan of relying on food coloring (Mondrian as an exception, of course, because there are no natural ways to make those primary colors), so I like to find pieces that can work well with seasonal fruit and natural colors.

Tess: It often seems like it goes like this— we get the checklists of an upcoming show, and all go through them independently. We each make note of the pieces we are drawn to and the ones we have edible ideas for. Then we get together, compare notes, and end up choosing a work of art that wasn’t on any of our lists. It’s almost as if all those immediate ideas are a good warm-up exercise, getting us ready for something a little deeper and more challenging. Always a fun surprise.

Has your pastry work changed how you appreciate/look at art and how so?
Leah: Everything was inspiring when I first started at SFMOMA kitchen. I had never gone through a museum with such intention before. I have always loved visiting galleries and museums, finding paintings I loved and try to figure out how they were made, what color went down first, spending time with them and figuring how they would inspire my own artwork. Now I was going through the museum paying close attention to artists and works I never considered before, curious how they might translate into a dessert. Having this job has enabled a new access point to work that I might otherwise pass by.

Caitlin: It’s funny because as our jobs have changed from just wandering around the museum looking for inspiration to very purposeful analysis of upcoming exhibitions long before they appear in the museum, I’ve found that sometimes I don’t even seethe exhibitions once they open! It’s really distressing! But we have such familiarity and intimacy with the artwork by way of our work that I forget to go and experience the art on the walls of the museum. It’s almost easier for me to just go and appreciate art outside of my workplace because I can enjoy it without the pressure to produce. But, still, it’s hard not to walk in and exclaim: “my god, those look like nachos!”

Tess: Looking at a work of art and figuring out how to interpret it as pastry is one of the most fun things to do ever, whether you spend a minute or a month working on it, and even if you never actually make the pastry. It’s just a ridiculously entertaining exercise. I think working with Caitlin has encouraged me to appreciate the tiniest details in a work of art— she has a knack for spotting them, teasing them out, and celebrating them via pastry. Working with Leah has made me more aware of processes, what the artist went through to make a piece.

How closely do you work with the museum staff and what’s this process like?
Leah: It has been important to us over the years that we develop a relationship with local artists and museum staff in order to create desserts that accurately depict the artwork, in some cases the artist’s process and that the desserts translate as clever, beautiful, delicious and sometimes funny. It was a goal of ours from the beginning to try to release desserts inspired by the larger exhibitions alongside their openings. We were able to acquire checklists with thumbnail images ahead of time, and when convenient get a sneak peak at some of the pieces in the show. It has been helpful for us to get to talk to the curators to get a sense of what the artist is like to work with, the design and layout of the show, what works are hung where. All of these things end up informing what we decide to make, how to execute and serve it.

I imagine brainstorming and experimentation is key to your process— how long does it take to work out a recipe?
Leah: It varies from one show to another. Sometimes no time at all, over the years as we have added to our repertoire, we have been able to refer back to recipes and adapt them to suit another artwork. Other times, it’s a bit tough to come up with something that does everything we want it to do. Anything Jell-O has a tendency to hold us up.

Caitlin: We will occasionally spend a lot of time on something that is frustrating and not really coming together. But often, that’s the best way for us to get started and really delve into the work. It’s hard to give up on something we’ve worked really hard on, but we often find clarity and great ideas by stepping back and re-assessing the work in a show. More often than not, we will start fresh with a new piece of art and it’ll come together really quickly.

Do all three of you work together every step of the way?
Leah: We make a good trio. And as an artist who has been accustomed to working independently in a basement studio, they have both taught me the amazing things that can come from a good collaboration in a rooftop kitchen. As we were preparing for Frieze Art Fair (we just came back from New York) as well as the last month at the museum, Tess has come on full time, which has worked out splendidly (and not just because she can reach things I need on the high shelf so I don’t have to climb up on the counter!).

Caitlin: Since I run the three Blue Bottle kitchens and have spent the last two years sitting at home in my pajamas writing books, I am usually only involved in the brainstorming and planning of the desserts. Over the years, leah has really internalized the things I love (and the things I’m not crazy about) and is able to research and develop desserts that are exactly what I am hoping for. Or that exceed my hopes for how delicious they can be. The one place we can’t see eye-to-eye is on the subject of poppy seeds. I think they’re annoying and rife with potential dental humiliation, but Leah loves the color and texture (and probably doesn’t have the same dental vanity as I do). Tess’s other life is as a writer for Apartment Therapy, so she always seems to know the latest trends and cool gadgets or accessories in the baking world (edible disco glitter, for instance) that are great for adding pizzaz to our desserts.

Tess: The three of us are definitely a great combination, and balance each other well. We all love all aspects of our project here at SFMOMA, but Caitlin and Leah get to meet more often to work on the concept and design end of things while I often work on the day-to-day end. How will we store the dessert? Will we need to plate it or can the baristas, and if so, what type of tools will they need? How can we set things up so that putting together this elaborate & delicate cheese plate takes 45 seconds each time, instead of two minutes? I not-so-secretly love figuring out stuff like that.

After June 2, 2013, the museum’s current building will be temporarily closed to the public until it reopens in early 2016— what are your plans over the course of the closure?
Tess: I’ll actually be joining my darlings- my boyfriend and his little boy- on the prairies of Illinois, but Caitlin and Leah know that I am more-than-eager to fly out to help them on any future art-pastry projects. Plus I’ll be missing them terribly!

Leah: It’s hard to know for sure. With the release of Modern Art Desserts and some traveling to other art institutions in New York and LA for the promotion of the book, we have learned a lot about setting up shop in different spaces and climates, for different events and audiences. Here are some things coming up:
Ellsworth Kelly will be celebrating his 90th birthday at the end of this month. The Chatman series will be up at MOMA and a special selection of his paintings will be on view at SFMOMA. So while we were in New York we were working on something with chefs, Sandra Mennino and Lynn Bound, to celebrate his birthday at MOMA, and we will celebrate in our own sweet way at SFMOMA, too.
We are also working on a collaboration with MOMA in New York to establish an Oldenburg Café for the last month of the Claes Oldenburg show. We have proposed a menu inspired by the works in the show referencing food.
You can visit which is a blog we released with the book as a way to keep people up-to-date on special projects and also a way of sharing desserts/events that didn’t make it into the book.
Also in an effort to keep the pulse of Modern Art Desserts going until the museum reopens, SFMOMA is launching the On-The-Go program, which will enable the public and SFMOMA members to view exhibitions at various venues around the Bay Area. We are hoping to take our sweet show on the road along with some of these off-site venues.
And, on June 13th we will be teaching a class focusing on how to make a Mondrian cake at San Francisco Cooking School!

Nikki got to try her hand at decorating her very own version of a Damien Hirst cake!