It’s the classic case of tart imitating life imitating art. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is getting called out for hawking what appear to be knock-off cakes. As Paolo Lucchesi of the San Francisco Chronicle reports, the newly renovated SFMOMA reopened with a brand new fifth-floor eatery – the matter-of-factly named Café 5 – selling art-inspired sweet treats. The only problem is, another pastry chef created strikingly similar desserts in that exact same location a few years previous.
The cakes do sound pretty fun:
There, right on the Cafe 5 menu, was an entire section dedicated to “art-inspired cakes,” with sweets mimicking individual art pieces, such as a peanut-butter-and-banana cake named after Andy Warhol’s “Triple Elvis” and a slab of layered fruit creams based on Ellsworth Kelly’s “Gaza.”
Except that pastry chef Caitlin Williams Freeman (and wife of Blue Bottle Coffee owner James Freeman) created at SFMOMA six years ago:
Blue Bottle Coffee opened a cafe in the space in 2009, and Freeman quickly gained national attention there for her playful and innovative desserts, which were visually and thematically inspired by the adjacent art pieces. There was a Thiebaud cake — a yellow layer cake with raspberry buttercream frosting — and a trifle based on Richard Diebenkorn’s “Ocean Park” series. Most notable, perhaps, was the Mondrian cake, each slice interspersed with squares of yellow, white, blue and yellow, separated by dark chocolate lines. It turned into an online viral sensation — and graced the cover of Freeman’s 2013 cookbook, “Modern Art Desserts.”
Back in 2012, we hosted a public cupping at what was then the Blue Bottle café, which we counted as quite possibly the larges public cupping in human history! NBD
In 2013, the SFMOMA closed to being the aforementioned remodel, which meant Blue Bottle’s spot in that café space was now going back out to bid:
…it forced Blue Bottle to reapply for the cafe position. [The Freemans] wanted desperately to stay, and they estimate they spent roughly $20,000 going through the proposal process, given architectural renderings, labor costs and menu tastings.
In the end, SFMOMA declined to have Blue Bottle return, opting instead to give a third-floor coffee bar to a fellow local coffee roaster, Sightglass.
The operation of the fifth-floor cafe, meanwhile, went to McCalls Catering, which had previously run the now-defunct ground-floor cafe, Caffe Museo.
But it seemed that while the vendors changed, the inspiration stayed the same:
As of Friday, three art-inspired cakes remained on the Cafe 5 menu. None is an exact replica of Freeman’s creations — there is no Mondrian cake, for example — but the lineage remains clear, said Freeman. For example, a chocolate-studded simulacrum of the museum’s iconic turret is a dessert that bears a striking, if markedly less elegant, resemblance to a layered dessert created by Freeman for a press event announcing SFMOMA’s expansion plans several years ago.
The SF Chronicle notes that recreation of another chef’s dish is not uncommon in culinary circles:
In the food world, copying dishes is a given, and usually one with little legal recourse. That said, it is often professional courtesy to credit the creator of a dish — a conceit that will, coincidentally, fuel the new museum’s new ground-floor restaurant, due to open next month, where noted local chef Corey Lee will re-create, and directly credit, dishes from famous chefs around the world.
But Chef Freeman seems to have a sense of humor about the whole situation, all things considered:
“It’s so tacky and so gross, but there’s kind of nothing I can do about it,” said Freeman, with a laugh. “I guess I just have to feel good that I wrote the goddamn book on art desserts.”
You can buy the goddamn book of art desserts here.
Zac Cadwalader is the news editor at Sprudge Media Network.
*top image by Connor Radnovich for the SF Chronicle