Clara Polito is the young baker and cook behind Clara Cakes, a Los Angeles-based vegan bakery. With a DIY spirit and a sense of humor, Clara makes everything from stuffed shells to banana cream pie. She works pop-ups, creates custom birthday cakes, and shares recipes and stunning food photos on her Instagram. Her cookbook, Clara Cakes, is out now.
Gina Piersanti: Do you see art and food as overlapping categories?
Clara Polito: For a long time I didn’t, but the idea of starting a recipe from scratch and letting your creative instincts fly and seeing where it takes you is very similar to any art project. I think food is more functional, which I enjoy. I’d be too impatient to be an artist because of the lack of an instant purpose. I really enjoy the simplicity of providing a service/product and it being put to use almost immediately.
GP: Your Instagram is full of the most amazing food photos. I sent the video of you stuffing cannolis to at least three people. How do photographing and documenting your cooking process figure into your art? Do you think about the presentation from the beginning?
CP: Oh, wow! Glad the cannoli vid is entertaining! I never have a clear plan for how I want to photograph the stages of a recipe, I just make sure I have that entire day free. I’m not super organized with it. Photographing and documenting cooking for a recipe could take a solid day. There are so many different options with plating, what kind of tea towels to use, etc., that it could easily take me all day, which doesn’t even include editing the photos and recipe.
GP: What’s your favorite thing to make?
CP: Brownies. They seem so simple, but there’s literally millions of different ways I could make them and they’d all be completely different! To this day I’m chasing after the perfect 75% fudge, 25% cake brownie.
GP: What is something that you think people don’t realize goes into baking/cooking professionally?
CP: I would say people don’t realize the amount of time and thought that goes into it. I think because food is a necessity, it’s easy to overlook the work that was put into it. Whereas, if you’re admiring someone’s visual art, you can take it apart and acknowledge the work a bit more.
GP: Do you get the same kind of enthusiasm from non-vegans as you do vegans? It’s clear you focus on making good food, period, not just good vegan food. But how does that aspect play into your art and your life?
CP: I’d say a big majority of my clients aren’t vegan. At events, people don’t even realize my food is vegan unless they ask. From the start of me becoming vegan and experimenting with baking and cooking, I’ve always strived to make food that challenges non-vegan food. I think vegan cooking is more challenging (having to source and make certain products yourself, e.g. ricotta cheese) but it also has the potential to make food taste better, period. You aren’t so reliant on using some fancy cheese to complete a dish, you have to open your palette up more than that. If I can pack in some political and ethical beliefs into a dish, that blows non-vegans and vegans away, then that’s part of me doing my job.
GP: For me, I often feel like my life revolves around food. When I travel, for example, the first thing I do is think about where I want to eat and I plan the trip around that. Does food function in a similar way for you? Has your relationship with food and cooking changed since you made it into a career?
CP: Definitely. Any time I’m traveling to a new city, one of the first things I’m researching is the best places to eat! I think experiencing other people’s ways of cooking and entertaining is something I can always learn from. I definitely analyze and compare food a bit more now that it’s a career of mine.
GP: What are your inspirations and interests outside of food and cooking?
CP: I like… political podcasts and books. That motivates me to be more passionate about my work and educating people about veganism. I also like going for runs, most of the time. Love dancing, too! I’ve always loved fashion and interior design, so I love reading up on blogs and getting inspired. Writing is a nice outlet as well.
GP: Who are your favorite chefs and bakers, and where is the best food in your city?
CP: So many! I love Pomodoro e Basilico. She’s an incredible Italian chef based out of London. Brooks Headley who owns Superiority Burger. My favorite food in LA is Elf Cafe, Plant Food for People, and Shojin.
GP: Your cookbook came out a year ago. What has it been like to share what you do on such a large scale? How has the feedback been, and what’s been your favorite part of the experience?
CP: It’s been so exciting to see people use the book and hear about their favorite recipes and see that they’ve become dessert staples! So many people send messages saying the recipes were crowd-pleasers and won over non-vegans. Hearing this feedback has been one of the coolest parts of this experience. I think the cookbook process has taught me a lot about my own style and how to [manifest] it [as] a tangible thing, so that’s been one of the best parts about the book so far.
GP: What’s your favorite recipe in the cookbook?
CP: Oh, boy. I would say the banana cream pie. It’s a dessert I grew up eating, so to recreate and love the final result was very exciting to me!
GP: To the best of my knowledge, cooking has historically been thought of as “women’s work,” but at the same time, the culinary industry is so dominated by men. Has this been your experience during your career? How do you feel your experience as a woman has shaped your art, if at all?
CP: This hasn’t been completely my experience, maybe because I work in isolation most of the time. That being said, I’ve been in plenty of public settings where there are bougie chef dudes who take pride in their farm-to-table meat while literally being offended by a vegan pie. You gotta laugh at them sometimes for it.
As far as my womanhood shaping my art, it quite literally shapes it because I definitely experiment with more chocolate-y desserts when I’m PMsing. Is that TMI?
GP: How can people in Los Angeles find your food? How can everyone else find you on social media?
CP: You can find my cupcakes at Azla Vegan, Pizzanista, and Cruzer Pizza any day of the week. You can place an order with me by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. My website is claracakes.com, and you can keep with the latest creations and events by following me on IG @claracakes, Twitter @claracakes, and facebook.com/helloclaracakes.
GP: Favorite color?
GP: What’s next for you?
CP: Cooking videos!
This set was published under Adolescent's collaboration with Speciwomen. You can check them out here.