Portrait Series: Lexie Smith
Meet Lexie, this baker and artist has redefined our approach on what it means to be a creative. New York native, Lexie tells us how she got into baking and how she integrates her food with her art and visa versa. After opening up her own wholesale bakery this past June, Lexie sits down with us to discuss some of her thoughts on kitchen wardrobes as well as her creative perspective. The following portrait series was shot by Lexie in her Brooklyn studio.
Can you tell us a bit about your background culture? Where are you and your family from? Did your culture influence the way you learned to cook?
I’m a New York Jew. My family comes from Lithuania and Ukraine, but not for a long time now. My background has had essentially zero influence on the way I make food, and when it comes to the kitchen, my family had no part in teaching me. If anything, my lack of specific regional influence drove me to purposefully seek out others.
We know you’re an artist and a baker. Which came first and what influenced you to integrate the two?
When I was younger I was always writing, not making much visual art. I started baking when I was about 15, and making art in college. I’ve been hopscotching between those three for the last 7 years or so. I was never committing, always running from one to the other. I finally realized I needed to be doing both or I was going to resent both. My brain is not compartmentalized enough to differentiate- I just work through what I need to work through, one informs the other. Once I realized that you tell people how to define you by doing, I just did.
Did you ever attend culinary school? What was your first baking job?
I did not attend culinary school. My first baking job was on a farm in the jungle on Maui. It was technically for trade- I got an outdoor shower, lots of lectures about “vibes” and “manifestation”, and a garden full of food in exchange.
As someone who obviously loves art and food, how do you feel art influences food and vice versa?
I don’t think art influences food. I think that materials influence food, as does necessity and tradition, restrictions and resources. I think many of the same things can be said about art, however I don’t like to ride the “Food is Art” ticket. I like food precisely because it’s not art. It’s utilitarian, it’s critical, it’s fuel, and then it disappears. When I use food in my art is a prop or a medium- it is no longer food in the way it once was.
Congratulations on opening up your new wholesale bakery, Reluctance! Can you tell us a bit about the bakery and the journey it took to open up shop?
The bakery is really just a way for me to keep making the things I want to make without having to fit into guidelines, because I’m rarely successful at that. I’m very stubborn, and very independent. So it was a natural, if not entirely unavoidable, transition for me. I’ll be doing mostly events, recipe development and writing, and temporary installation bakeries, wherever I can find homes for them. The wholesale will come only when necessary- the demand is there but the logistical side of it is a headache. The first pop-up is at Cassette in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, happening right now. The goods tend to focus on methods that encourage patience and intention (a sign of my masochism), with flavors that would not normally be found mingling with one another.
It’s awesome how you physically integrate food into your art—where was this idea inspired from and do you have a few favorite go-to foods regarding texture and color that you like to use as materials?
At this point its convenience- I need to be making food constantly in order to pay the rent. If my art practice (whatever exists of it) includes food too then I can make more of it. I also find bread to be the most poetic thing on the planet, and it sneaks into everything that I do. The crossover was initially inspired by an attempt to visualize indigestion, as a way of accepting its omnipresence in my gut. I feel so in tune with materials used in baking: starches, eggs, sugars, acids- so they naturally find their way into a lot of what I make, even if it’s not edible in the end.
Besides art and food do you have any other hobbies or interest that you enjoy spending time doing? You used to write a lot—including poetry. Is this something you’re still interested in and do in your down time?
Words and writing are still a big, big love of mine, and drive a lot of my ambitions for down the line. I read a lot about regional culinary history, and am developing a column based around this with recipes created in tandem. I used to blacksmith and love hand carving objects from wood, which both potentially fall under the umbrella of “art” but feel more like craft to me, and they’re activities I wish I had more time for. I also like staring at old books and walking miles and miles by myself- or just generally massaging my social anxiety. I’m interested in doing more scholarly, anthropological research too, but that might need to wait for a while.
How would you define your own personal style?
Do you have a favorite visual artist? How about culinary artists?
I’d be lying if I said yes. I’ve never in my life had a genuine answer for this question. Magnus Nilsson and Francis Mallman are two easy favorite chefs, because they’re such wild outliers. They’re both totally nuts and ended up famous because of it. Magnus’ brain makes connections it ought not to and doesn’t question them, and Mallman is an epitomizing romantic, whose life is a bold exclamation point. The rest of us lie somewhere between them.
You’re such a creative person with so many creative outlets—baking, design, writing. Is there anything else you’d like to explore or perhaps integrate together in your future career?
I’m trying to teach myself to take film photos, because unlike the rest of Brooklyn, I missed that boat. I’m doing it to purely be able to document the still lifes I’ve been making, which has become a favorite way to waste time as of late. I’ve always been interested in publishing, and worked in the industry for a time when I was younger. That hasn’t totally left me yet. I founded and edited an illustrated food journal last year that came to a production halt for a thousand reasons, but hopefully will someday see the light of day. I’m also slowly designing some work wear with my sister, a residual impulse from teenage years when we were convinced fashion design was our chosen destiny, took classes at FIT, and filled notebooks with garment sketches. And I would like to explore just about everything else- social anthropology, chiropractics, oven construction from the Ottoman Empire, food policy, time travel, lamp design…
What is something that people would be surprised to learn about you?
I’m 27 and I can’t drive. And, generally, I’m totally convinced I have no idea what I’m doing.
What are three things you always carry with you in the kitchen?
Good miso, a sharp knife (mine is by Brian Raquin, a brilliant French blacksmith), and a digital kitchen scale.
Do you have a favorite restaurant and/or bakery in New York City?
I’m a horribly inconsistent patron in general, but: Arcade Bakery and She Wolf for baked things, Achilles Heel for all else.
What’s your go-to place for a night off?
Achilles Heel- wine and blood toast.
What are your top 5 tracks?
No particular order: Clay Pigeons, by Blaze Foley; anything on Ram, by Paul McCartney; same with Africa, Amanaz; Untitled, D’angelo, duh; Ripple, Max Cooper.
We might be pushing it—care to share one of your favorite quick and easy go-to recipes with us?
My Gold Sauce, approximate ratio:
2 hard boiled yolks: 3-5 anchovies: 1 scant Tbsp good miso, emulsify with olive oil until runny. Add a little lemon, and a little more salt if necessary. Put on everything.
What was the last thing you did out of your comfort zone?
A toast at my twin sister’s wedding.
Do you have a go-to outfit for the kitchen? How about a night out? What’s one thing in your closet you appreciate the most and couldn’t go without?
In the kitchen I’m in Wranglers, an old tee, and too many braids. Out it’s maybe the same, but there’s also the chance of a belly button appearance. Lots of gold things and vintage button downs and those crappy chinese slip ons the old ladies wear to smoke their cigarettes. I’d be lying, though, if I said there was any real routine, other than most things being the color of sand.
Your style is impeccable. How has your style developed over the past decade?
I still wear a lot of the same clothes I did in high school. I was always a tomboy, sometimes more embracing of femininity than others. The difference is that I finally like myself for the most part, because I know myself better. It means I know what I want, I know my tendencies and my comforts. That’s the only quantifiable change. I’ve gone through phases of being more subdued, and more wily in my dress and my lifestyle, though they don’t always align. I think I’ve landed somewhere in the middle. I like to wear clothes that are worn in, that look like they’re supposed to be on my body.
Where do you hope to see yourself in a few years?
Somewhere taking no prisoners. Hopefully writing more and with access to an outdoor clay oven. Also, a few many more mistakes deep, and humbled by them.