Thiebaud cake
Thiebaud Chocolate Cake, influenced by Wayne Thiebaud’s Chocolate Cake (1971): Thiebaud’s paintings have had a significant impact on Freeman’s work. Photo: Modern Art Desserts

Caitlin Freeman’s new book, Modern Art Desserts, is the culmination of her work making whimsical, clever, delicious treats at the Blue Bottle Café at SFMOMA. In the book, Caitlin, a self-taught baker and former owner of Miette pastry shop, details not just the creative process behind each artistic treat; she also provides engaging insights into her life and her approach to her craft.

When Berkeleyside NOSH caught up with Caitlin recently, we found her to be in a reflective mood.

Your career path and life almost feel like a series of serendipitous encounters — with people you end up becoming partners with in business, meeting your husband James Freeman at the Farmers Market, your “epiphany” about creating art desserts while at SFMOMA. Do you think you’ve been blessed in that way, or is there more of a gameplan than is apparent?

I was just thinking about this today; feeling like so much of my life has been these amazing encounters and chance events. On one hand makes me feel like kind of a loser, like maybe I haven’t worked hard to make things happen for myself. But then I realized that what I’ve done is to throw myself into projects with absolute and complete intensity and with no abandon, and then to work my tail off to execute things well. So, I guess I’ve been lucky and my world has certainly been about serendipitous encounters, but I’ve also willed my life into being what I want it to be. I guess it’s a pretty lucky combination of being in the right places at the right time and following up with my extreme Type A behavior!

Lichtenstein Cake
Lichtenstein Cake, influenced by Rouen Cathedral Set V (detail) (1969) by Roy Lichtenstein. Photo: Modern Art Desserts

You seem to surround yourself with people you like as much as seeking out proven experts. Can you elaborate on why that is?

My working style at Miette was to try to dig deep and truly try to express my very essence of being. To express myself in my work as if you were using a microscope to see the very make-up of my cells (which, I guess, is a shade of pink with just enough brown not to be too girly, scalloped edges that aren’t to fussy, clean lines and perfect execution with just the right amount of breezy imperfection). I really didn’t think I had anything else in me for this business after I sold my shares of the company and considered being an FBI agent or a doula.

When I realized that working for Blue Bottle didn’t have to be about me, it was an incredibly refreshing change. My first directive was to make things that paired well with coffee for our non-SFMOMA shops. I could just focus on flavor and price point, and every single symbol didn’t have to be an embodiment of my core.

When the SFMOMA project came up, I was able to focus on my reaction to art, but I wanted it to be about community, working with people, and, most importantly, to push my skills forward. I don’t know even a fraction of what there is to know about art or pastry, and I’m okay with that. It gives me an excuse to meet and talk to people who are amazing and want to share their worlds with me!

Caitlin Freeman: “I … enjoy being an entrepreneur, and I feel a giddy sense of incredible joy about what I get to do every day.” Photo: Charles Villyard/Modern Art Desserts

You say at one point, after you left Miette, that you were relieved not to be running your own business for a while. You are now, independently and as part of your husband’s growing coffee empire. Do you enjoy being an entrepreneur?

I do enjoy being an entrepreneur, and I feel a giddy sense of incredible joy about what I get to do every day. I feel like every day I shout out “I CAN’T BELIEVE THIS IS MY WORK!”

I am so lucky to be in the position where I can have these preposterous and creative ideas, that these incredible girls (Leah Rosenberg and Tess Wilson) get to be paid to help me do it, and that Blue Bottle is thriving in spite of it.

I really hated the responsibility of keeping a business afloat and the anguish of having to have serious talks with employees who didn’t seem just fine hanging out with me, making cakes, singing along to the radio and just getting along. That’s a really childish way to behave when you’re the boss, and most of the time employees want more structure than that. We have amazing people at Blue Bottle who are great managers and are amazing at doing all of the things I’m terrible at or hate. And I get to live in this wacky place where I dream big and work with incredible people, yet they get what they need as employees.

Build Your Own Newman
Build Your Own Newman, influenced by Zim Zum I (1969) by Barnett Newman. Photo: Modern Art Desserts

Many of the recipes in Modern Art Desserts require huge blocks of time — from several hours up to a full day. Do you think about the types of occasions for which readers might make them?

Nothing in this book is impossible, and each of the recipes are actually easy and great on their own. We just take everything a bit further and deconstruct, reconstruct, combine and add lots of elements to make them work with the art. Originally I had hoped to make this a cookbook of easy and great components, and then show how they could be put together to make artistic desserts. Perhaps that would have made people more comfortable and gripe less about how the recipes are impossible.

The artist Richard Serra would not allow you to make a cookie plate version of his piece, Right Angle Plus One for the coffee shop. What did your run-in with him, which you address amusingly in the book, teach you?

That sometimes the story of an artist becoming your nemesis (if only in your own head) is way better than a stupid cookie plate!

Fuller Hot Chocolate
Fuller Hot Chocolate with marshmallows and sea salt, influenced by Proposed Tetrahedral City (1965) by Buckminster Fuller. Photo: Modern Art Desserts

For the Fuller Hot Chocolate, inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s Proposed Tetrahedral City (1965), you make your own sea salt. What led you to embark on such a location-specific ingredient idea?

The site-specific salt idea came from a collaboration I did with an artist named Zoe Crosher, who took these beautiful photographs around LA where famous people (real or in movies) had died in the Pacific. I harvested water from the same locations, made salt, and then concocted desserts for each photograph, using the site-specific salt.

Wayne Thiebaud’ painting, Display Cakes has played a significant role in your life and work. Do you think SFMOMA should take the painting out of storage and display it when the museum reopens?

I think they should put it in my bedroom while they’re closed, but I haven’t been able to convince anyone that that’s a truly good idea. Yes, of course! I can’t believe that they have such a treasure in their possession and it’s not in the most important place in the museum; set up like the Mona Lisa in the Louvre!

Free_Modern Art Desserts

SFMOMA is closing on June 3 for three years in order to build an extension which will double its overall space. What are your plans for the next few years? Will you be back at SFMOMA when they reopen?

We’re going to be wherever they want to put us when the SFMOMA re-opens. We assume that we’ll still have our spot in the rooftop garden, but that hasn’t stopped us from dreaming about all of the incredible Snøhetta-designed spaces that might might might have a slight chance of occupying when they re-open.

For the next few years, I’ll be working away at plenty of new Blue Bottle projects that are happening. Leah will stay focused on the SFMOMA project, working on archiving all of what we did in our first three years there (the book is only about a quarter of the things we’ve done).

We have a blog, where Leah will going to continue to tell the fun and entertaining stories of our life in the museum, and it will be a little portal into our life coming up with new desserts for the re-opening.

We’re planning to stay in close contact with the curators, archivists and conservationists at SFMOMA to see all of the new art they’ve acquired (for which the expansion is being done) and to come up with some amazing new things to unveil in 2016.

I’ve started to think about another book, which I can’t really believe, because I think it was only a few months ago that I declared that I was never writing a book ever again.

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Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...