Edible Art

Pastry Chef Caitlin Freeman on Modern Art Desserts, Mondrian cakes and SFMOMA

Pastry chef Caitlin Freeman discusses wild Modern Art Desserts

Mondrian Cake
Mondrian Cake Courtesy of Ten Speed Press, © 2013 Mondrian/Holtzman Trust.
Lichtenstein Cake
Lichtenstein Cake. Courtesy of Ten Speed Press, © 2013 Clay McLachlan
Cartagena dessert
Cartagena Dessert Courtesy of Ten Speed Press, © 2013 Clay McLachlan
Modern art desserts book cover
Modern Art Desserts book cover. Courtesy of Ten Speed Press, © 2013 Mondrian/Holtzman Trust.
Caitlin Freeman
Caitlin Freeman. Courtesy of Ten Speed Press, © 2013 Clay McLachlan
Mondrian Cake
Lichtenstein Cake
Cartagena dessert
Modern art desserts book cover
Caitlin Freeman

The world of pastry and baking has historically been deemed a science, but chefs like Caitlin Freeman, pastry chef at Blue Bottle Coffee Company, have turned this notion completely upside its head.

Freeman and her team of bakers at the Blue Bottle Coffee Company have spent the past few years preparing pastries, treats, confections and desserts inspired by world-famous art featured in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Day in and day out, Freeman and two bakers roam the museum in search of inspiration for new desserts, and what they're able to craft and create with their ideas never ceases to shock and surprise both the art and pastry world. From her trademark Mondrian cake to Richard Avedon parfaits to Warhol gelées, Freeman's creations are nothing short of edible masterpieces.   

This past April, Freeman and her team released their cookbook Modern Art Desserts: Recipes for Cakes, Cookies, Confections, and Frozen Treats Based on Iconic Works of Art, which walks readers through how to create their artistic desserts at home.

Just weeks ahead of the SFMOMA's three-year renovation, Freeman spoke with CultureMap about her unique creations, her new book, how her creative process works, and what she'll be doing during the SFMOMA'S extensive hiatus.   

CultureMap: When you started at Blue Bottle Coffee Company at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) did you know right away you wanted to create these modern art desserts, or was that something that came later?

Caitlin Freeman: When we opened Blue Bottle Coffee Company at the SFMOMA, that wasn't initially the plan. How it all came to be is an interesting story. It started back in college when I was as a photography student and really loved the painter Wayne Thiebaud. He's known for his food paintings.

A few years after college, I decided I wanted to do a photo project inspired by Thiebaud's paintings, so I realized I would need to learn how to make his cakes. I looked into culinary school, but quickly realized I probably couldn't pay for that; instead, I ended up interning with a chef who had just started a pastry shop at a farmers market in San Francisco. It was a great experience because I was able to collaborate and participate in a way that I wouldn't have been able to anywhere else. I eventually became a partner in that business, [which is called] Miette.

At the time, our next-door neighbor at the farmers market happened to be James [Freeman], who had just started Blue Bottle Coffee Company. We started out as friends and then ended up dating, falling in love and getting married. The day of our wedding, I sold my share of Miette and really didn't have a clue what was next for me. Blue Bottle had been using me here and there for various projects, so I figured I'd dive in and start making pastries for the two shops James had. It was supposed to be a temporary job until I figured out what was next, but two months after I started, the SFMOMA asked James if he would open a cafe in their new sculpture garden.

I figured we'd just be featuring the same pastries we were making at the other shops, but when I was standing there in the museum trying to figure out what to make, I realized this was the very place I first saw those Thiebaud paintings I loved. These works of art were essentially the reason I became a pastry chef in the first place, so I decided I could make desserts inspired by art in the museum. When we opened Blue Bottle, we featured three desserts inspired by art in the museum: the Thiebaud cakes, the Mondrian cake, and the French ice cream sandwich.

CM: There is no denying that the Mondrian cake has essentially become your pastry trademark. Even though that's the dessert you're most known for, is there a certain dessert that you have a special connection with?

LL: I might not ever make anything that's as beloved as that Mondrian cake. I feel like that will be the thing on my tombstone. The dessert I'm most proud of though is the Richard Avedon parfait with the bees. That was the first time I realized I had to really push myself in terms of creativity, imagination, and thinking outside the box. With that parfait, I wanted to do a few things that were a little out of my league, so I decided to start teaching myself things I never got to learn since I never went to culinary school.

I called chefs I knew and respected, did research, and really just pushed the bounds of my creativity. That dessert made me realize how far I could really take these desserts, and it's just grown from there.

CM: How does your creative process work when it comes to making these desserts?

CF: There are three of us on the pastry team. The two other girls used to work as counter girls at Miette, and I brought them on at the SFMOMA shop. At first it was just me under the impression that I was just going to walk around the museum and be inspired all the time, but then I got exhausted. As we've gotten more involved in the museum, Leah Rosenberg, our lead pastry chef, has become really close with the curators. Because of her, we're a part of the planning process with all the art that's coming into the museum.

We get checklists, which are these PDF documents with a one-inch square pictures of what's going to be on the museum wall and a description of it. When a traveling exhibition comes through, there could be as many as 300 pieces that are going to be installed. We get these checklists, and it's challenging because we want to make something cool and interesting, but it has to be ready by the time the show opens. We also have started talking to the curators and asking them what they think about the pieces coming in, and we even sneak in during the installation of the shows.

Leah is good about identifying any food you can see in the artwork, or something that at least looks like food. Sometimes it's just about shapes; it's different every time really. Sometimes it's a photography show, and we're up in arms, but we always get through it. We focus on things we like to eat, things we like to look at, and it just goes from there. For us, nothing is off limits. We push the envelope whenever we have the chance.

LL: The SFMOMA is about to close for a three-year renovation. How does that affect your role, and what will you be doing in the meantime?

CF: We have a lot of projects lined up while the museum is on hiatus. We've started a blog so we can give a little window into what we'll be doing while we're away. We want to document what we've done over the past few years and what we will be doing in the meantime. This book was a great way to showcase some of what we've done, but it really only scratches the surface. Leah is going to be archiving all the things we've done over the years through the blog.

The SFMOMA is also going to be doing these pop-up exhibitions with other museums, so we'll definitely participate in those events if we can. The reason why the SFMOMA is closing in the first place is because it's expanding its collection. The museum just bought all this art from the Fisher collection [the GAP founders], so they're essentially tripling the size of the museum to fit in all this new art.

We're hoping to be involved in all of this expansion as its happening, since it will helps us plan for the reopening. We don't want to open up with the same things we closed with. Where's the fun in that? Throughout this process, I've realized there are some things you simply can't plan for. I never would have predicted I'd be making these modern arts desserts years ago, so I'm just letting things happen as they may.

You have to be open to waiting and seeing what comes. The most amazing things that have happened to me are things I didn't push or plan for.