Pastry Chef Emily Marks, Of The Bachelor Farmer In Minneapolis

We often think of chefs as creators, conjuring culinary masterpieces from nothing on our nightly cable cooking shows. But for Emily Marks, pastry chef for the Bachelor Farmer in Minneapolis, good food is all about complementing what’s already there—whether that’s a bushel of Beacon apples or the savory special her colleagues are cooking up in the kitchen next door. Her down-to-earth approach belies the fact that her desserts are out of this world, and in a landscape that’s loud with chef-auteurs, Marks’ seasonal, thoughtful and deeply collaborative food is quietly revolutionary.

We spoke with Marks about playing her part in the restoration of Minnesota’s grain belt heritage, the daunting power of our food memories, and how women are changing the game in the kitchen.

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You’re a Minnesota native, and your food is highly connected to that landscape. You’ve also been open about the fact that you were adopted from Korea as an infant, and have been drawn to the culinary traditions of your birth country as well. How has your unique background shaped you as a pastry chef?
For me, it’s always been just about exploring. Because I was adopted from Korea, I didn’t have a direct connection to that country, but I was always interested in exploring my roots and where I came from. Living in Minnesota, I had this great opportunity—in that there’s a huge adoptee community here—so I was able to go to camps growing up and learn about Korean culture, food, language and dancing. I got to see the world from a different perspective, which I don’t think is something everyone has the opportunity to do as a child. From an early age, I think I realized that there were so many types of food and ways that you can travel through food itself.

At the Bachelor Farmer, we do a lot of simple, approachable, down-to-earth desserts, but the root of that is really in our traditions. In the pastry kitchen, we have a lot of conversations. We talk about articles we’ve read, trips we’ve taken and ideas we want to try, as well as food memories we have from when we were kids and what it might take to make the best possible version of those desserts.

Before you became a chef, you trained as a fine artist in college. You’ve said that you were particularly drawn to the kind of work that might seem like it was easy to create, but was actually really technical and challenging. Has that sensibility shaped your approach to your career now?
Definitely. At the Bachelor Farmer, we want a dessert to be approachable and kind of simple, and we all know that’s not an easy thing to do. When you have a piece of cake, or a pie, there’s nothing else to hide behind. When a customer’s eating that, they take their own food history and compare and critique that dessert against all their own experiences. Sometimes that’s hard to compete with.

I think there’s a time and a place for modern desserts, and for a deconstructed, beautiful and thought-provoking pastry. When someone eats that, they’ve never experienced it before. The chef is creating a totally new experience. With us, you come in and eat a brownie from the café with all these preconceived notions of what you hope a brownie will be. We try to distill down to the core of what that dessert is, but also just by being really down to earth and working with what’s on hand, what’s in season and what we’ve preserved.

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The Bachelor Farmer is known for its seasonal, local approach to food; those aren’t words that everyone associates with dessert. What are the challenges of being a baker in a seasonal kitchen, and what are some assets?
Fruit is a big limitation for us. We have such a short growing window in Minnesota, and fresh fruit is so highly perishable that it’s a real challenge. We make a lot of preserves. We have some Howard cherries from Wisconsin that we picked this year, and they were so fleeting. We had to preserve them right away, or they would’ve started to deteriorate. We made some cherry pie fillings, soaked some in liquor and made some of them into jams.

Really, sometimes you just have to take into account that there are times of year when you won’t have fruit at all. When creating the cafe menu, I used a lot of dry fruit. In the winter, we use more spices, nuts and chocolate because we don’t have fresh produce available at all times of the year.

Do you have similarly strong relationships with the suppliers of your bulk and pantry ingredients?
Absolutely. One thing that really excites me is Baker’s Field Flour and Bread, which is our local flour mill. It’s so neat to be a part of taking back the milling scene in Minnesota, because that’s how our state was founded. We work a lot with local creameries and dairy farms, too. We’re in the grain belt and the dairy area of the country, yet so much of what we produce doesn’t get used locally. I love working with producers who are so dedicated to their craft, and are working to change the scene in their community.

Another way you’re changing the scene is by simply being a female chef in a professional kitchen, which are often male-dominated. Do you think women chefs are challenging the stereotypes about what it means to cook professionally?
I feel like it is being challenged more, yeah. With the celebrity chefs on TV and cooking competitions and everything that’s come out of that, I think people have this strange sense of what it’s like to be in the kitchen. Even when I was going to culinary school—it wasn’t a lot of people, but you could tell that some people were there to claim their mark and try to become famous and be on every show. That has just never interested me. I do it because I love baking and I want to make people happy.

But I do think that there are more women chefs who are interested in making cooking and baking more down to earth, more ‘real’ again and more attainable. At the same time, I think cooking shows are great. I think it gets people inspired to be a little more inventive in the kitchen. I get a lot of questions about “The Great British Baking Show” from people, and I think that’s a great competition show because they’re not cutthroat. Everyone’s just really trying to better their skills and cheer each other on. I think there’s something great about that.

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Does being a pastry chef and a baker almost require you to be down to earth in that way you describe? I know that bakers, in particular, work really long hours, and in some ways it is a more sensitive process than making a lot of savory dishes. Is it true that even something like baking a perfect loaf of bread is particularly labor intensive?
It’s different for different types of bread. For the naturally leavened breads, you’re at will to the dough and you have to wait until it wants to be ready. We have to let it rise for a period of time before we shape it, and then we shape it into loaves and let it prove again, and then finally we bake it. It’s up to time and temperature. If it’s too warm or too cold in the kitchen and you’ve got too much product to fit in the proof box, you just have to wait and be patient. For the most part, bread is on its own schedule.

In a job with such strong rhythms, how does it feel to work restaurant environment, rather than a bakery?
This is actually one of the first restaurant jobs that I’ve worked. At the Bachelor Farmer, we’re very connected to different ways of cooking because we’re so many things: we have a more casual cafe as well as a restaurant, and we’re also constantly producing things for our event space and making snacks for our partner business, Marvel Bar. We’ve got our hands in a lot of things. It’s fun, but in some ways it’s challenging. There are so many people to communicate with, to make sure our food is consistent and quality.

But even when it’s challenging, I think it’s great to be able to collaborate with so many people, and to make things that complement things that they’re working on, whether that’s a dish at the restaurant or a specialty coffee they’re making in the café—I love working like that.

Images courtesy of The Bachelor Farmer.

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