Jamie Tan’s cakes aren’t meant for eating.
They’re intricate, spectacular sculptures composed entirely of edible ingredients, but her final products exist purely for display. Some are made to look like they’re molten and scorched, while others look like jagged gemstones.
Tan's cake sculptures are currently on display at the Museum of Contemporary Arts Los Angeles, one component of sculptor Adrián Villar Rojas' "Theatre of Disappearance." It's an exhibition concerned with how the artifacts we discard are strewn with nostalgia, and there’s beauty within what we’ve left behind. By reaching into the past, Tan’s cake sculptures slyly play with the maxim that an item of dessert can be “too pretty to eat,” an impulse that’s become especially popular in the Instagram era.
Tan, a native of Kuala Lumpur, attended the California Institute of Arts and began her own design studio at 23, just after graduating. Tan, now 25, uses food as a material quite often in her work, documenting her experiments with culinary sculpture on Instagram. Though Tan's degree is in animation, she began dabbling in sculpture early on in college while she'd begun pursuing baking as an outlet for her stress. Soon, as if by accident, she saw the two practices fusing together.
It's resulted in these 70 cakes she's created for Rojas' exhibition. Tan, as she explains to me over the phone, is about precision, but the means through which she achieves precision involves a lot of experimentation, cycles of trial error, and a lot of spitballing. Failure is a natural part of the process, both in baking and sculpting; in fact, she explains, she welcomes failure.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Jamie. First of all, tell me more about your upbringing in Kuala Lumpur. Did baking play any sort of crucial role in your childhood?
JAMIE TAN: I was born and raised there and moved when I was 16, actually, to England for two years for boarding school. I didn’t have a childhood where we had a lot of desserts. We were the type of family who’d eat fresh fruit after meals, and that was considered a treat. I will say that Malaysian desserts are very different from American foods and other desserts around the world. Even a simple vanilla cake is different in texture and flavor compared to American cakes here.
What kind of desserts did you eat in England?
I was exposed there to French pastries and British pies. It was like freedom—I was so happy to try different foods that I’d never seen before or heard of. That’s probably what sparked my interest [in baking].
I feel like being away from home at such a young age is a perfect prescription for homesickness. How much did you miss the tastes and flavors you knew in Malaysia? Did you have any way to access them once you moved to England?
I think it took a while for me to become homesick for these flavors that my mom makes. She’s a really great cook. I would say it probably wasn’t until I moved to America when I was 17 and I started to teach myself how to cook in college that I would rather be eating what my mom used to make. When I was growing up, she would always try to teach me how to cook and lure me into the kitchen so she could pass on her wise cooking knowledge. I would usually find something else to do. Now, though, I call her almost every weekend to ask, oh, what do you put in this recipe? How do you make this taste like that?
So when you got to college, as you say, you began learning how to cook. What stimulated that?
It was mostly for survival. I spent a lot of time teaching myself how to cook, and follow recipe instructions, as a form of meditation.
What was the first thing you remember baking in this period?
Well, one night my roommate and I were both trying to learn how to cook. We’d come up with very, very basic recipes. We’d make dinner for ourselves, and one day we decided to make ourselves a so-called “fancy dessert.” I don’t know how we came up with this idea, but we made grilled, spiced peaches and chocolate-covered bacon.
Yeah. Very, very unusual combination. We had no technique or prior knowledge for how to actually make it. We didn’t follow any recipe.
I was going to ask if you followed a recipe! So you just did this on the fly.
Pretty much. And we came out thinking, wow, that doesn’t taste very good, but it was really fun to make.
MAKE THIS: Peach Cobbler
Obviously you make these intricate, wonderful sculptures, too. I’d like to know how you began working in that form. Did making sculptures run parallel to your pursuit of baking as a hobby?
I have a sculptural background. I attended CalArts for experimental animation, and I did make a lot of sculptures out of Jell-O that involved a combination of my animations and illustrations as part of the process. Initially, I got started with baking as a way of escaping and detaching myself from my art practice. But it slowly came together. Now, they’ve become intertwined. I really do enjoy treating sculptures as part of [my cooking].
Why do you think you’re attracted to using food as your primary material in sculpture?
Because the possibilities feel way more infinite when I'm dealing with food. It challenges me to adjust recipes based on the ingredients and multiple factors like baking time and temperature, to create very different results. I like to play with my food, so that helps a lot.
These two practices coming into conversation with one another—when did that happen, exactly?
I think it was around the time of one of my earlier works, called Anatta. It was involving my hand-drawn animations that were projected through different gelatin molds that I made. I thought, wow, this is actually something really beautiful. This MOCA project is the peak of all of this culminating.
Talk to me about the genesis of this latest project. All of these cakes are so intricate. And there are 70 of them!
It involved a lot of baking. A lot. I first met with Adrián in August of last year. When he was starting to put the exhibition together, I interviewed with him and I found we shared a lot of similar views about art practice, especially regarding my experimental approach to baking. I honestly told him that I am a partial-perfectionist, which I think is what sold him on hiring me. Even when I’m 80 percent of the way with finishing a piece, I toy with changing something completely to see what will happen. He was very interested in that.
He wasn’t looking for somebody who is technically “perfect” or a high-end pastry chef. He told me that he wanted to experiment with achieving various textures, to kind of mirror the natural formations that were present in his installation. So I started baking probably at least five cakes a day for a couple of months before I got to over 70. When one was in the oven, I’d be starting the next one. On average, it took about maybe two or three hours [per cake].
What kind of kitchen were you working in?
My apartment kitchen. It’s pretty small.
How often do you find yourself encountering failure when you’re undertaking these really labor-intensive projects?
Probably incredibly often. [laughs] I think that’s what makes the process fun, though. You reach a point where you realize that your cake doesn’t turn out anything like how you’d imagined. But I think it’s fun, for me, to do a postmortem on the cake itself. I ask myself, would a certain ingredient, or oven tray, or other factor be to blame? That’s what’s fun for me. I learn by baking and failing, and adjust from there.
What recipes do you usually work from?
I actually like a lot of amateur home bakers. I don’t have a particular baker I follow avidly in terms of recipes. Because my sculptures involve so many textures and layers, and because the flavors are so specific, I tend to scour the internet before making something. I read different recipes to assess whether the ingredients make sense for what I’m trying to achieve. I pay particular attention to ratios. From there, I’ll adapt the recipe if I need to and record everything that I actually make out of it just for future use. I have books and books of different recipes I’ve adjusted.
So you write that these cakes are meant to spark a “conversation between sedimentary forms and textures.” What are you going for, there?
Initially, these cakes in particular were supposed to represent a sense of nostalgia. This installation is a timeless landscape of abandoned and collected artifacts. So the cakes reflected forgotten memories, memories that are hidden in sedimentary layers.
Here's a rudimentary question I was unable to answer myself before talking to you. Are these cakes meant to be eaten?
No! Definitely not. That would create a whole other level of stress for me, just thinking about whether all the different ingredients I used actually tasted good. These sculptures are entirely food-based, but I don’t use chemicals or artificial preservatives. They were also meant to be preserved over the course of the exhibition, only to the degree that it wouldn’t completely start to decompose in the first month or so. He wanted them to change and evolve naturally over the course of the four months, but not too rapidly. It was tricky.
What ingredients do you use to make sure that these cakes maintain structural integrity, at least within their first month?
I experimented a lot with taking deep moisture out of the cakes. Usually, a vanilla white cake recipe has a lot of eggs, butter, milk, et cetera that naturally degrade very quickly. Instead of butter, I would use vegetable shortening or oil. Instead of eggs as a leavening agent, I’d use baking soda or baking powder.
Got it. What purpose do you think that food that’s meant only for display, not consumption, serves?
I would say flavor outweighs visual aesthetics when it comes to food. Whenever my baking experiments go a little south, I usually make up for it in taste and I’m still happy to eat it, even if it is a little sad-looking! They say you eat with your eyes first, but then you actually have to eat it! Imagine being served the most Instagram-worthy dessert and then biting into it and being grossly disappointed. I imagine that happens a lot these days.
When I baked the cake sculptures for MOCA, it was purposeful because every end product presented something of interest to them, so they preserved all of them. When I test a new recipe at home, however, I never try to waste food so I usually adjust the recipe for single servings. I don’t have any pressure to make my creations look incredibly pristine, but it’s almost guaranteed to taste good so I can share it among friends and family.
Thanks for your time, Jamie.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.