Emilie Baltz’s Food Utopia

Emilie Baltz’s Food Utopia

Let Them Eat Travel Cake!

Interview by Mackenzie Lowry

Emilie Baltz is everything. She is a well seasoned traveling Food Designer, with a multitude of former professional lives that includes being the Creative Director for The Museum of Sex, Founder of the Food Design Studio at the Pratt Institute, a dancer, and photographer.

Whether it’s a meal celebrated together or spent with a book, that is the focus of Emilie Baltz. Her passion for food is the center of our early morning meeting as we sit and sip on green, foamy Matcha Lattes. This unusual drink is made of a very finely ground powder of a particular strain of green tea, and is often the center of Japanese tea ceremonies. It is the perfect elixir for listening to her tales about an eclectic life.

The first thing I saw when I went on your website is that you believe in unicorns, so I’m wondering where that came from?
Emilie Baltz: Well, the truth of it is, it comes from a couple places. One, I’ve always felt like I didn’t fit anywhere and there always is a belief and disbelief. Can you have a life that you make of your own that’s of your own magic? And that’s basically what the question is. For most of existence, it’s like, do dreams come true and are fantasies real? So, believing in unicorns is kind of what that’s about. I would rather choose to believe than not – so I would rather choose to believe that dreams can come true and that myths are real.
I also had a moment when I started a new corporation for myself a couple years ago. I sent my accountant three possible business names to register:  Baltz Inc, Baltz Works, and Unicorns Exist.  He replied, “Great, you have a new company registered –  Unicorn Exists.”  So, that’s why I have to believe unicorns. I want  to believe in a space of possibility.

What inspired you to combine food with art?

I grew up with a French mom and American dad outside of Chicago in Joliette, Illinois, which is very much like a Midwestern-strip mall kind of town. My mom cooked like a French person which meant that we had dinner at 8 PM when all my friends ate at 5 PM. We had cutlery and china and crystal glasses. To the outside world it looked really fancy, and to us, it was home and it was life. There was an art to that home life because of the way that we ate and the way we decided to celebrate food. I was in love with going to beautiful restaurants and setting beautiful tables. I always found that there was magic in it. This thing (eating) that happened 2 to 3 times a day could actually become something that was an expression of beauty that created joy, delight and happiness in people. It was something that really resonated with me.
I didn’t find the same eating practices in the outside world because the local culture that we lived in didn’t embrace food the same way. They would watch TV while eating or eat things that came out of a box. So, I turned within and started creating it.  When it came time for me to make my own work, that experience was so fundamental to who I was, my values and beliefs. I wanted to see more celebration of food in the world because it brings people together and it allows us to talk to each other.

Do you believe that how people eat influences how they behave?

In college I danced with a modern dance company and was struck by a lot of eating disorders and had one myself at a certain point. I realized the power of food was not just about pleasure, but it could also be about great pain. So I had these two experiences of seeing food as something that can stitch people together or literally tear them apart.  I realized that food was a powerful medicine. It totally affects the way that we feel physically and emotionally. It can give us longer life or it can shorten our life. If we don’t eat together, then humans feel alone. Food is also interesting because it is at the epicenter of culture. It intersects business, agriculture, politics, history, beauty, and science.

You created a travel cake workshop? 

There is a phrase in French called the gâteau de Voyage that’s literally translated as a “travel cake.” That could mean anything like a pack of crackers, a Twinkie, or a power bar. It is any food that travels with you. I was specifically interested in being able to show people how other cultures develop through food. The workshop series takes about 15 students over to France, just outside of Paris, and tours them through Reims, the capital of Champagne, and they go to see meat production facilities, champagne caves, pastry shops, chocolatiers, small sale cookie factories, all these things to show how a local economy is built.  France is interesting because their food industry is at a smaller scale. You can actually go in and get a pretty good snapshot of all these industries working together. 
The participants had a whole tour of the French countryside, looked at different histories, and then designed their own travel cakes. They got to eat all of the food, drink a lot of champagne and reflect on what it means to travel. It was so much fun. On one level it is a metaphor for how you want to eat while traveling and on another level it’s a really great culinary exercise for people to express their creativity in food and think more creatively about how you feed yourself. 

Do the places you travel to influence your work? 

For sure, all the time. Traveling is the best thing you can do. Spain is really interesting because they have so many wonderful little finger foods in the form of tapas for snacking. You go to Northern Spain and there’s such a wonderful culture of drinking a bubbly white wine called Chacolli with thinly sliced Geronimo ham. You can just wander around enjoying a little bit of wine, a little bit of ham. It’s like a strolling afternoon. It’s a nomad cocktail hour. It’s awesome! 

What was your favorite meal that you ever had while traveling? 

One was at this restaurant called 41 Degrees in Barcelona that chef Albert Adrià owns.  He also owns El Bulli, the very famous mecca of gastronomy in Spain.  41 Degrees is a black box kind of experience: 14 seats, 14 courses, and they’re all just mind-blowing. Each course is paired with visuals and sounds. You’re served an edible forest in the dark with spot lighting. There are little leaves that you can eat and tiny berries that have all been crafted by hand out of some edible material. It’s like recreating nature. You go on a mini trip around the world – that’s the goal of that meal.

What has been your most memorable travel experience?

In 2001 I got a job before I started doing anything in food.  I got this random job description that said, “managing the development of a medieval French chateau.”  I sent in my resume and four interviews later, on September 13, 2001, I got a job with a British businessman who bought a medieval chateau in south-east France.  He needed somebody to project manage the restoration who could speak French, work with an architect, and help organize stuff.
So off I went. I was half personal assistant, half project manager. I got really excited hunting for techniques for the place. I was asking, “How can we tell a story in this space?” At one point, we decided that this guesthouse would have medieval doors, intricately carved and very, very beautiful.  The owner of the chateau knew about a man in Spain who had 10,000 doors.  As I learned to drive stick shift, we drove to this place in Toledo and picked up a U-Haul truck.  We arrive and meet with these men who are really looking like the Spanish mafia. They had tens of thousands of  very old doors, just pillaged from the countryside.  We picked out nine doors and then my boss headed back to Toledo, leaving me with the U-Haul to return.
I got up the next day and was driving away. I had a cell phone at the time and it was like a huge box with a chord and antennae. It rang and it was my boss who said, “Hello Baltz. I think we’ve spent too much money. You’ll have to go back. I know you can do it. Goodbye.”  He wanted to bargain 7,000 francs off the price.  He wanted me to go back to the super Spanish mob men and say, “We need money off the price.” 
I was so mad I threw my bag against the windshield. Why I agreed to go back, I still to this day do not know. It was like I had something to prove. By the way, I didn’t speak Spanish, but I had read a book on the plane and was getting by with phrases. The Spanish mafia men didn’t speak English.
I turned around and went back to those guys, and they were totally surprised to see me. In broken half-Spanish and half-French, I tell them that we paid too much money and that we need 9,000 francs off the price. In my negotiator mind you always start high and bid lower.  The Spanish mafia men looked at each other and said, “OK.”  They gave me the money back. I think they were so tickled by this skinny 20-something-year- old girl who showed up and was very firmly asking for money back. Then they put me in a car and we drove to a neighbor’s house.  Because I had loved the manchego cheese they gave me they day before, they said, “Before you leave, manchego!” and they brought me a half-eaten wheel of manchego cheese. That’s one of my favorite travel experiences because it was so weird.

Do you think that you can make your dreams happen?

I think part of it is a mindset and intention and steering yourself on as good of a path as you can.  The other part is up to the world. It is kind of like a ship: you set sail, you point your rudder in the right direction, and you can learn to navigate and steer really well, but you never know if an easterly wind may blow you off course. I think that there are some things that we can control and some things that we can’t.

Do you have any parting words of wisdom? 

There’s one thing to add because this comes up a lot, especially in food. There’s a huge environmental and sustainable issue in the food industry. Our environment is in great despair. Our agricultural practices have been horrible. There’s a lot of finger wagging in the world about what is bad, but I fundamentally don’t believe that people change when they’re being criticized. I believe they change when they’re being celebrated, when there’s joy around these things. Everywhere around the world I go, the cultures that change are the cultures that are happy in their present tense, celebrate together and eat together.
There’s always a question of what does sustainability mean.  Sustainability does mean a robust understanding of science, chemistry, or systems. However, if these systems are not pleasurable, they will never work. That’s where food comes in. Food is super pleasurable. We need to eat to live, but gastronomy was created for pleasure purposes, to keep us going, to keep us talking to each other.  That would probably be my lasting thought on why food is important beyond just the basic sustenance. It is sustainable on a whole other level, it’s what makes us civilized or else we’re animals. That’s why I eat the way I do.  I always feel this tension between being an animal and being this thing we call a human. That tension keeps us moving forward, so It might as well be fun. That’s one thing I will leave you with. 

Photos courtesy of Emilie Baltz

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