Caitlin Freeman, Blue Bottle Coffee, Pastry Chef, San Francisco, SFMoMA Blue Bottle Cafe, Cookbook, Author, Where to eat, Bakeries, Recipe, Summer Recipe, Kelly Fudge Pop Recipe, CA, California, Chocolate, Mondrian Cake, Dijkstra Icebox Cake, Fuller Hot Chocolate, Artwork, Modern Art




San Francisco, CA

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Modern Art Desserts



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San Francisco, CA 94103

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Reprinted with permission from Modern Art Desserts, by Caitlin Freeman, copyright © 2013 | Photo Credit: Clay McLachlan © 2013

Q & A with Caitlin Freeman

Q. How did you decide to pursue making cakes based on art and who was the gateway artist you started with?

A. I first saw the painting Display Cakes by Wayne Thiebaud at the SFMOMA while I was in college. I fell in love with the modest painting of three simple cakes; I loved that they were perfect and sweet, but not saccharine or girlie. The brown toned pastel colors temper the dainty subject matter and the brightly colored shadowing gives a subtle and unexpected toughness. They felt like the cake embodiment of me; girlie without being precious, sweet but simple, if cakes could have dirt under their nails, these would be those.

Anyways, I co-owned a cake shop called Miette where we tried very hard to embody these same aesthetics, without ever copying a Thiebaud cake directly. I was very concerned that the pink had just enough brown in it, that the brown had just enough warmth in it, and the scallops were just shallow enough not to be to fussy. The spaces we created were beautiful and elegant and made from solid materials and the cakes were very simple, iconic and perfectly executed. After selling the business in 2008, I started working for my husband [James Freeman] at his business, Blue Bottle Coffee, where I made sweets that pair well with coffee. Soon after, the SFMOMA offered him a space in their new Rooftop Garden, a sculpture garden on the 5th floor. When we were looking at the space, it hit me, ‘This is where I first saw Display Cakes ten years ago, I'm going to make Thiebaud cakes in the building where this whole adventure started ten years ago!’ 

Dijkstra Icebox Cake | Rineke Dijkstra’s Portrait from Croatia

Photo Credit: Clay McLachlan © 2013 | Reprinted with permission from Modern Art Desserts, by Caitlin Freeman, copyright © 2013

Q. Was it the space within SFMOMA that dictated Modernism and would you consider other movements to fit within other museums?

A. We have a cafe inside the SFMOMA and it's my objective to use the building and its contents as inspiration for what I do (pastry). It just so happens that I'm a big Modern art enthusiast, so it works well to be inspired by what I love. I think you're asking about whether or not I could be inspired at other museums? Sure! What we do would definitely be different, but still be in response to the world around us.

Fuller Hot Chocolate

Photo Credit: Clay McLachlan © 2013

Q. Are you ever required to get permission from the artist or their estate to represent their works and is there ever a collaboration involved?

A. I've always operated at the museum with the philosophy that it's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. There has only been one episode where an artist made us stop making a dessert, and that was the now semi-infamous Richard Serra episode (maybe better to link to the blog posting we recently wrote about it so that I don't have to repeat and take a lot of space). And, frankly, it's much more exciting to have my own Richard Serra as a nemesis story than it is to serve that cookie plate.

Many times the artists don't have any idea that we've made anything inspired by their art, and on the occasion that they have found out have been really charmed and delighted. I can't believe that this job has given me the opportunity to meet some incredible artists who I admire so much, and a backstage pass into the art world. I feel lucky, lucky, lucky.

Once the SFMOMA closes (for the big three year renovation), we're looking forward to enmeshing ourselves in the behind-the-scenes goings on at the museum. We're hoping to have a bird's eye view of all of the new art coming in and the chance to do studio visits to start planning for our new desserts for the re-opening in 2016.

Q. Is there an artist whom you love / inspires you, but you’ve been unable to represent in cake-form?

A. I have a home filled with art by Camille Rose Garcia and Mark Ryden, with a fun collection of two headed creatures that fill a cabinet of curiosities in my office. It's not that I wouldn't love to be inspired by these artists, but that I haven't had the time or venue for which to do anything. 

In terms of art that I love which may have stumped me, I think that I feel the most bad about never having worked with a Thiebaud other than cakes. I love his city / landscapes and figurative paintings, and would love to have the chance to delve into work beyond the obvious.

Mondrian | Mondrian Cake

Reprinted with permission from Modern Art Desserts, by Caitlin Freeman, copyright © 2013 | Photo Credit: Clay McLachlan © 2013

Q. Your most “famous” cake seems to be the Mondrian cake, but do you have a Modern art dessert you are most proud of creating?

A. Technically, the Avedon parfait. With this dessert, I realized that I could use this SFMOMA project for my own education and collaboration with friends, making things that are beyond my own abilities. I had a vision for that dessert, but didn't know how, technically, I would execute it. I called on friends, who collaborated and taught me, and together we figured out how to make just what I had imagined.

For our final dessert before the closure, Leah Rosenberg (my pastry chef at the museum) and I came up with a multi-media ice cream cake that, literally, gave me a migraine from excitement the day we put it together. Inspired by a Garry Winogrand photo called Kerrville, Texas, 1977, we made an ice cream cake atop a custom box (built for us by the SFMOMA install team) that contains an mp3 player that loops Sir Duke by Stevie Wonder. We pulled the images of a dancing man and woman from the original photo and had a friend make laser cut acrylic cake toppers, silhouettes of the subjects, that dance atop the cake. It's preposterous and clever and delicious! Really, how is this my job? I feel like we've been pushing the boundaries of a typical cafe experience and it is so fun.

Q. Pairing with Blue Bottle coffee - are there flavors that you need to avoid and are there ones that just work beautifully?

A. I almost never make anything with coffee in it. I respect that people come into our cafes for coffee and have a treat as an afterthought, and know that eating coffee while drinking coffee is probably not the most interesting, clever, or delicious thing I could be doing. I particularly love pairing alcohols and spices with coffee, but never with a heavy hand!

Q. Which other pastry chefs do you think are putting out creative pastries / cakes / cookies?

A. I can't imagine what's going on in Nicole Krasinski's (State Bird Provisions) brain. She has such an amazing way with crazy and perfect flavor combinations and desserts that verge on savory. I just had an amazing dessert experience at Del Posto in the hands of Brooks Headley - I couldn't have imagined that Italian desserts could be so innovative and incredibly delicious. I am in awe of Wendy Kromer's technical abilities - I wish I had the time to devote a year of interning in her kitchen and learning the secrets of her piping and gum paste skills. I dream of learning French and somehow finding my way into Christine Ferber's confiture kitchen in France, and I'd happily spend a few months learning the perfect pastries at Laduree and Pierre Herme. If it was only that easy!


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Video of Modern Art Desserts by m Clay McLachlan.