My niece Isabelle began showing signs of creativity and innovation at an early age. In other words, she liked to color and build.
One Christmas, when she was almost 4, her dad—my brother Zach—and I decided that it would be fun to build a gingerbread house with her. So we went to the grocery store and bought a kit that included all the supplies—icing mix, pre-baked house pieces, assorted candles, gumdrops, a decorating bag and tip, and a cardboard base. We just had to assemble it.
We sat down at my parents’ kitchen table and started reading the instructions. Within a minute, though, Isabelle was bored and left to go play with her toys. It turned out that she was more interested in eating the house than in building it. But Zach and I were committed. So we pressed on.
What should have been an easy process, though, was not. At all. Since the pre-baked gingerbread pieces were tough and heavy, the icing couldn’t hold them together. We tried to use a hairdryer to quicken the cementing of the icing, but that just made it worse.
The end result looked more like a haunted house than a gingerbread house—icing streaks were running down it, random candy was protruding from it, and its foundation was far from stable. After four hours, even though it looked nothing like the idyllic image on the box that it came in, we finally finished it.
Crown of Baking
For the most part, Zach and I had fun making our gingerbread house. Yet we would hardly say that our process was “creative” or “innovative.” After all, we used a kit with pre-baked pieces of gingerbread. On the complete opposite side of the baking spectrum, however, is fine pastry. In the documentary Kings of Pastry, several pastry chefs compete for France’s most prestigious award of its kind: the Meilleur Ouvrier de France (MOF). In 2008, the year in which the documentary is set, the theme was marriage, and each candidate had to create a wedding buffet that included pastry puffs, a wedding cake, chocolate candies, a plated dessert, a brioche, mini afternoon creations, a chocolate sculpture, and a sugar showpiece. “All items,” writes chef Jacquy Pfeiffer, who competed that year, “had to be produced from scratch in front of the judges in 24 hours, spread out over three days.”
You might be surprised at how creative and innovate chefs can be with pastry. In The Supper of the Lamb, Robert Capon writes, “I take pastry as the crown of baking. Nowhere is process more essential to success; in no other act of cooking is the cook more an agent than a spectator.” Similarly, my friend Magdalena Wong, a pastry chef in Hong Kong, said, “Whether we’re talking about sweet or savory foods, we always eat with our eyes first. And this is especially true for desserts because there are so many ingredients that chefs can manipulate to create a beautiful dessert.”
Creation and Fall
In Genesis, we see that we were created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). Part of our role as image-bearers, then, is to create. (See Exodus 35:31 and Proverbs 22:29, for example.) Abraham Kuyper wrote:
As God creates, so too man creates, by means of creativity in human terms. God creates in reality; people create in semblance. God created the living person in the individual of Adam, the artist creates the human image out of marble.
Yet we have fallen. Our glorious, image-bearing ability to create for the glory of God and love of others has been marred by pride, selfishness, and all kinds of sinful brokenness. Instead of creating to glorify God and love others, we create to exalt ourselves. We see this aspect of the fall most clearly in the story of the tower of Babel, where the people say to one another, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves” (Gen. 11:4)
My friend Kelly, a pastry chef in Grand Rapids, told me:
I think there’s a lot of room for this type of pride in the pastry industry, especially for celebrity or international chefs. After all, we have so much free rein and expression in our creations that we’re tempted to think that our creativity originated in us, not God. We can feel like we’ve done it ourselves.
Redemption and Re-Creation
In Christ, however, God has begun the work of redemption. Instead of being bound by “confinement and contractedness,” the gospel brings us back to “those noble and divine principles” of selflessness, service, and love. In the Spirit, we once again have the power to create or bake as a means to glorify God and serve others. As an artist, the pastry chef can delight in the beauty of his creation because, as Kuyper says, “it is beauty, worshiping God’s glory therein and giving thanks to God for having equipped his fingers.”
Our present creativity, of course, ultimately points to our future destiny. That destiny, however, is not a return to initial creation, but a re-creation. For there is a significant difference from the image we see in Genesis and the vision we see in Revelation. InCulture Making, Andy Crouch writes, “Revelation 21:2 is the last thing a careful reader of Genesis 1-11 would expect: in the remade world, the center of God’s creative delight is not a garden but a city. And a city is, almost by definition, a place where culture reaches critical mass—a place where culture eclipses the natural world as the most important feature we must make something of.”
In other words, the main difference between creation and re-creation is culture—that is, human creativity and innovation applied to the raw materials of creation. It is apple pies, not just apples. Peach cobblers, not just peaches. Honey bread, not just honey and wheat. When we bake these things to give him glory or to love others, we are co-creators with God.
Raw Materials and Innovation
The raw materials of creation that the pastry chef uses are fairly basic at their core. Pastries are made from flour (usually wheat), water or liquids, salt, eggs, butter or other fats, and sugar. Fruits, vegetables, and spices are often used, too—blueberries, golden flax, apricots, star anise, pumpkin, maca, and coconuts. Pastry chefs take these raw materials and imagine what many of us cannot see; they explore what might engage our senses through colors, shapes, flavors, textures, and aromas.
Each year, pastry chefs watch for the newest dessert trends to see how raw materials are being used. This year, one of the top trends is forecasted to be gourmet donuts, which started to make a splash in the market a few years ago. Places like Glazed & Infused opened its flagship store in Chicago in May 2012. It sells specialty flavors like apple caramel, crème brûlée, and maple bacon long john.
But the real innovation in donuts came in May 2013, when Dominique Ansel unveiled The Cronut®, which is a hybrid croissant-donut pastry made by frying laminated dough in grape seed oil, which is then sugared, filled, and glazed. In December, Time magazinehonored The Cronut® as one of the “25 Best Inventions” of 2013. (By the way, Ansel hasn’t stopped innovating; a few weeks ago, at SXSW, he unveiled his latest creation, the Milk-and-Cookie Shot.)
There are, of course, limitations that pastry chefs must observe. God’s sovereignty over the natural world is a strong constraint in baking. As King Arthur Flour began saying in 1967, “Cooking is an art; baking is a science.” Humidity, altitude, and temperature—all of these affect baking.
Money is another constraint. The more complicated and decorative a pastry is, the more its ingredients cost. “The main limitation I have is money,” Kelly told me. “So many of the pastries that I want to create call for expensive materials. The best ingredients are usually the fanciest and the most costly.”
Professional pastry chefs are also limited by the constraint of service—that is, they serve and love their neighbors by making what is ordered (Matt. 22:39; Phil. 2:3-4). On the television show Cake Boss, Buddy Valastro frequently talks about how he wants to make his customers happy. Sure, he may go over the top for the ratings or the money. But he seems to find genuine joy in serving his customers.
Finally, for bakers seeking to integrate their faith and work, there is another limitation to their creativity—namely, the greatest commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37). Some art honors God and serves others. But another kind of art is offered for the pure joy of the Creator.
In creation, we know that there are some things we will never discover—certain fish, some stars, and more. But whether or not we ever see them, God delights in them. In the same way, artists may make art for their own purposes. Kuyper says that such art—“creations that in general [have] no significance to the populace”—bring forth “its greatest creations in society.”
These types of pastries are made for the same reason that God made stars and fish that we may never discover or see—that is, a creator cannot seal off his creative expression from his very being. He explodes with creativity and innovation for the sheer joy of the work.
Of course, when making artisanal pastries, we may be tempted to overestimate “one’s own domain” or look “down with conceit upon every lower area of life,” as Kuyper warns. But in the end, when we bake, we have the opportunity to image God as Creator, taking the raw materials of his creation and innovating new pastries with interesting textures, tastes, and flavors. We become co-creators with him, not creating and innovating to express self-value, but looking to him as the source of all that is new, beautiful, and pleasing.