Unplated: An interview with Rose McAdoo
Using art and dessert to transform our relationship to the earth
This conversation is part of the Unplated series, a collection of interviews with folks whose work intersects with food, but who work outside culinary spheres. My hope is that these conversations not only spark your curiosity, but help you think about how what you eat is connected to the world well beyond your plate.
Rose McAdoo is one of my culinary heroes. As I talked about earlier this month, discovery and play are powerful agents for promoting change, and Rose's work is a great example of this in action.
This is probably the most in-depth interview I’ve done so far, and I love it because it encompasses the scope of Rose’s work, but also helps us consider the wide range of possibilities present when we approach serious work through the lens of play.
Rose is a visual artist using desserts to raise awareness around global issues. Her unique edible art centers around human stories and the environment, leading her to make cakes with remote populations in some of the world’s most extreme environments.
One thing I find powerful about using desserts in particular is that she not only asks us to rethink our relationship to environment, but to the food itself. Desserts, served at the end of a meal, can feel frivolous or perhaps adjacent to the meal's main components.
But those ingredients that make up our desserts, like sugar and vanilla, have a history that is anything but frivolous: Their history is at different points beautiful and powerful, and abusive and harmful.
By acknowledging that desserts themselves are important, Rose's work connects to the importance of these foods in history and their importance to those voices often overlooked in their production. In other words, Rose's work connects us to the land, and helps us consider how we can reflect our foods' human importance into the modern world.
J: Can you tell me a little bit about your background? How did you come into baking, and how did you transition towards your work in Antarctica?
R: I'd love to say I'm self-taught — and there's some truth to that — but I've been fortunate enough to be connected with and learn under some amazing bold creatives and business owners. I graduated from a dual-enrollment 2-year culinary/pastry program in high school, worked my way from Panera Bread to Outback Steakhouse to Olive Garden (the small-town trifecta!), and then — with nothing more than a hesitant verbal assurance that I could execute — I was given a one-year contract and the reigns to develop a pastry program at Arizona's Lake Powell Resort.
I purchased pastry textbooks from the Culinary Institute of America that I couldn't afford to attend, and poured over those pages every night before showing up to work and managing my team with fake-it-til-you-make-it exterior confidence (terrified and feeling like a fraud on the inside). This was 2010, and I remember being eager to incorporate the flavors of Navajo culture and the local desert landscape — both generously introduced to me by some of our Diné kitchen staff.
At 22, I became the Head Chef and Catering Director of a farm-to-table restaurant in Ithaca, NY, developing menus and running the back-of-house, catering in-house events for Cornell, and executing off-site 200-person weddings. Somehow I was simultaneously working as a pastry chef at a patisserie in town, which I was suddenly fired from after being offered a large promotion the day before. This huge blow to my confidence sent me spiraling, fortuitously landing me a stage at Beverly Hills Bouchon Bakery under Chef Carolyn Nugent. She introduced me to the glamours of the high-end culinary industry and gave me advice that changed my life: "Move to a big city, and work for a big name."
I moved to Brooklyn and worked my way through Mast Brothers Chocolate during their company's high point. Six years in New York opened my eyes to worlds that I had never considered growing up in a small-town — and forced me to reckon with and reverse so many of my taught values. I started working at Brooklyn Grange Rooftop Farm, making desserts that incorporated the beautiful vegetables that we harvested off our 1.5 acres of rooftop and volunteering with the Refugee + Immigrant Fund, designing and installing humble dessert bars that told the stories of refugee plights and migration statistics in the U.S.
My city career peak landed me at Nine Cakes, where I ran production for Betsy Thorleifson as she grew the business by almost three times. As we hand-crafted gorgeous wedding cakes for celebrity clients and high-end venues, I found myself longing to make cakes about the refugee crisis, about Trump's impending presidency, about gun violence, and about our planet's future.
I wanted the attention that pretty white cakes received to be redirected toward issues that mattered deeply to me. At a certain point, I realized that I would only leave New York for a bigger adventure. Antarctica was the only place that fit the bill for me at that time, and after learning about the opportunity ten years prior when I was working up in Alaska at the ripe young age of 19, I was ready. I accepted a position as a sous chef at McMurdo Station, passed approximately one billion medical tests, and headed down for the experience of a lifetime.
J: Living in Antarctica had to be such an incredible experience! I know it's probably hard to describe it meaningfully to anyone who hasn't been, but are there particular moments, or aspects of the environment, that especially stuck with you after you left?
R: I was assigned a unique contract my first season. Instead of October to February (the typical summer season in the Southern Hemisphere), I deployed from Christmas Eve through April. This meant that I flew in on a tiny military cargo plane with only a few scientists (forming friendships that were rare for "townies" to get in on), and I got to stay long after the majority of employees left. A few memories are cemented in my mind, easily re-lived with no effort; celebrating my friends' scientific team return after being stranded on the ice shelf due to bad weather — the wine and whiskey and jokes and laughter all flowing fast under a dark wood-paneled domed roof; snowmobiling across the ice runway to help check the landing light systems; visiting Sir Edmund Hillary's kitchen at New Zealand's Scott Base before we all wandered outside to watch ~200 emperor penguins dive in and out of the open water (for perspective, it's typical to see 0-5 emperors in a season); making a cake replica of the world's southernmost active volcano to send off our March flight; and living in a month-long sunset as Antarctica started its transition to winter silence.
My following season was triple the length as I spent a full year on the ice, and to try listing my favorite moments would result in a book. In short, I was unbelievably lucky to be the sous chef at a NASA field camp — making immensely close friendships with brilliant space scientists and engineers, filming from the launch pad on Christmas Day, re-visualizing that team's thermal image as a 3-D fondant sugar map, and fat-tire biking around the ice shelf under the midnight sun on an overnight launch attempt. I also got to transition into the hazardous waste department for the winter — learning how to forklift a shipping container and move it backwards 1/4 mile down a icy hill, how to bulldoze our hazardous storage yard, and how to process scientific waste from the South Pole and remote field camps as we labeled, packaged, and stored it for shipment over international waters.
Lastly, I was invited to be the only woman on the U.S. Winter Search and Rescue Team. Not only did I learn new technical rope skills, become proficient in navigating blind over crevasse fields while relying on radar systems, and practice rescue drills; but I also made close friendships with strong outdoorsmen which were a mirror for my own competencies and decision-making abilities in challenging environments. Those moments all shaped my confidence in my pastry endeavors and my fortitude as a creative. More than any other experience, Antarctica rapidly made me into the type of woman that I've most admired in others.
J: I remember us having a conversation where you described some of the challenges of trying to make creative desserts in a place where supplies were hard to come by and where you had to work within research station regulations.
How did you navigate baking in a place where getting more butter and sugar in any sort of timely manner wasn't possible? How did you improvise?
R: Turns out that recipes are a lot more fluid than cookbooks make them out to be. I understand that this is a luxury and skill after working in the culinary industry for so long, but I see recipes as suggestions. Need to make a chocolate cake but not allowed to use any butter, eggs, or chocolate? Substitute canola oil, frozen applesauce, and unsweetened cocoa while making up for the loss of sweetness in other ways! Need to make pesto for 1000 people without any basil, pine nuts, oil or salt? All you need is buckets of dehydrated parsley, a 50# sack of skim milk powder, and to chip the ice buildup away from a bag of frozen parmesan cheese (True story.)
That being said, the biggest challenge was not being able to use any materials on station "for personal gain". To be respectful of program protocols on a government base, I used 60 pounds of my 85 pound weight allowance to bring fondant, a pasta roller, and other cake decorating supplies down to the ice with me from New York. One of the artists-in-residence even took some of my chef uniforms in his luggage so my bags wouldn't be overweight.
Instead of bringing styrofoam cake dummies (styrofoam isn't allowed on the continent), I brainstormed a better alternative and carefully packed four kraft paper hat boxes that tucked inside each other, saving space, and when turned upside down, could be covered with fondant and stacked to resemble a tiered cake. The challenges of creating edible art in Antarctica prepared me for similar challenges in remote Alaska and similar challenges still inside prison walls. Hardship tracks — and I've found that the overwhelming frustrations eventually give way to the greatest euphoria and personal pride.
J: I'd like to explore these ideas in relation to some of your other work. Can you tell me about the Bakepacker project? How do you capture the taste or feeling of a place in this project, and what do you hope to convey in doing so?
R: The Bakepacker was born in Alaska, after longing to bring cakes into the mountains while I looked out over the Statue of Liberty from my shop in Brooklyn. While I had doubts whether it would work, I felt my edible art would have greater impact if it was crafted on the glaciers and in the forests that are most affected by climate change. When I bake-pack, I bring all my tools and base ingredients into the field with me (on my back) and make desserts in the wild that communicate the stories of our world's most at-risk environments.
When doing so, it's vital to me to use the place as ingredient. If I'm in a biodiverse temperate rainforest, I'm going to forage for berries and edible plants to showcase the flavors of a location. I'm going to use stumps as 'charcuterie' boards and mosses as platters, just like I do when I'm camping with my partner. If I'm on a glacier, then I'm using freshwater runoff and powdered algae, turning the desserts out directly onto the ice that crafted it. I may also use the wildflowers that grow in the footprint of retreating glaciers to tell a larger story of that ice and its changing environment.
With this project, I hope to bring deeper awareness to our natural spaces — to show how they're shifting, to highlight the species we should be appreciating while they're still around, and to connect a wider audience to ecosystems that they may not feel comfortable in or have the opportunity to engage with.
And one more thing about cooking in the backcountry: I hold high respect for kitchen food safety practices, but reject the notion that food must only be produced in a sterile environment with the proverbial pair of tweezers and black gloves. I believe that outside, "a little dirt don't hurt". I believe in changing the ways we engage with our meals. I believe in eating outdoors. I believe in sharing meals in the wild. I believe in eating food off the ground (not that I'll serve that food to you at an event...but by god, I'll eat it myself). I want this for everyone.
So please, take your meals outside every now and then. Put your sandwich directly on the grass and look around. Find a big rock and make a banging meat and cheese platter. Think about how your outdoor spaces were made — from the slate in your backyard to the forests at the end of the road. Engage. And use desserts to make your observations all the richer.
J: Tell me about Dessert Stories: How did the idea emerge, and what do you hope people take away from the experience?
R: I've never been able to afford college. I apply almost every year, get accepted, and then financial aid awards (or the lack thereof) crush the reality of my attendance. As a difficult, stubborn woman, I've tried to find unorthodox ways to create (what I feel has been) an incredible education for myself. Committed to experiential learning, I've sought out hands-on learning opportunities — starting in kitchens as an alternative to the culinary school degree that eluded me, and then expanding outside of classic walls.
My travels abroad have been far more dynamic lessons in history, international politics, and global humanity than a structured classroom. 500 days in Antarctica allowed me to connect with science teams, tour lab facilities, volunteer with other departments, and ask questions when interacting with something new. Working as a glacier guide in Alaska taught me more about ice and snow science, provided space to practice film and photography, strengthened my planning and decision-making skills, and — most importantly — gave me the chance to lead interpretive discussions with new clients every single day.
Dessert Stories are curated limited-edition collections of desserts that not only communicate information, but create a new space to engage and enjoy the science and stories behind less accessible places. As I continue to seek first-hand learning opportunities, I also want to make those moments and learning experiences tangible for others.
I've felt stuck for years, unsure of how to share my experiences, which previously felt so disconnected. Building "anthologies" of Dessert Stories feels like I've hit the nail on the head, and seeing the success of my first 200-box run of the Glacier Collection served to me as proof of concept.
The stories of glacier science — of crevasses and moss balls, algae colonies, ice crystals, and snow accumulation — are now available to be munched on, to play with, and to engage on a unique new level for the first time ever. I hope that we blew people's minds a little. I hope that the utter amazement I feel as I learn about our planet's bizarre secrets come through in these boxes. I hope people of all ages feel excitement and wonder. I hope that people learn. I hope that people care. I hope that people get curious. I hope that people choose to engage further. I hope that people fight for our planet and open their minds and hearts to its people. I hope that people reconsider what they choose to celebrate, and never forget to throw a party for our earth and its astonishing ability to show up for us every damn day. And I hope people are excited for the next collection of Dessert Stories.
J: Dessert Stories is especially striking to me because it helps us think about our planet through the lens of play and discovery. What are the advantages of this approach? How might it impact environmental stewardship?
R: Albeit necessary, the “doom and gloom” messaging of climate change can feel overwhelming: numbing us, discouraging us, leaving us confused about how to interact with our home. It can damage our cause even as it rallies hopeful support.
What if we use frivolity to change the conversation? What if we utilize cake, something globally trusted and widely loved, to introduce new information? It is now a fundamental practice of my art to use the sweetest things in the world to dig deeper and celebrate those working the hardest to protect the places we need most. Cakes get everyone excited and they draw so much attention! I want to push that attention toward something powerful.
Through desserts, we can literally consume science and information – and redirect our fears about climate change toward joy. Providing people with a safe, accessible and FUN way to engage with the hard stuff reactivates something in us. Becoming depressed about the rapid melting of glaciers is an appropriate response. But celebrating glaciers is the antidote. And eating glaciers makes it possible to re-engage.
J: In the booklet for the Glacier Collection you note that "as a maker, I want to hold onto everything I am--utilizing each bizarre, seemingly unrelated piece of myself--and turn it into something that more people can relate to, can get excited by, and can get curious alongside as we explore the world together."
I love this perspective of showing up to your work as your whole self, all experiences included. What do you think are the benefits of doing this? What do the people you work with learn or experience from your interdisciplinary approach that they might otherwise miss?
R: This one’s best answered from my favorite online date — at the Bronx Zoo in 2016. I showed up to meet Ben Mirin while he was performing as the zoo’s first artist in residence: a “Wildlife DJ” blasting the sounds of ecosystems and beatboxing over them while inner-city kids danced to clicking shrimp and screeching cheetahs. Our date progressed to eating raw sugarcane on the side of the road in Queens and watching hundreds of coordinated pigeons in flight from a rooftop winery in Brooklyn — and we discussed our bizarre, multidisciplinary goals for our respective creative projects until long after dark.
As instantly close friends over the last six years, we’ve seen each other off (and celebrated upon return) for international expeditions, residencies, job opportunities, professional affiliations, and now, his current doctoral research. So much of our stories have mirrored each other. He was a journalist and competitive beatboxer that ran off to Central Park every weekend to tag birds with octogenarians. I was a cake decorator running off to the mountains and the climbing wall. We both wanted to combine our work with our unrelated passions.
We both saw a place for ourselves in a more scientific space. We both wanted to drive awareness and impact on a global scale. I believe that what makes Ben successful in his work is the fact that he uses seemingly disconnected tools to tell larger stories. By beatboxing over bird calls on stage, he’s brought urgent stories of biodiversity loss and wildlife exploitation to elementary and high school students, television viewers, dance halls, and the eardrums of our world’s leading scientists. THAT is the power of showing up as your whole self.
By standing proudly behind my interdisciplinary approach — instead of worrying about my lack of an “expert” status in one microcosm — I’ve been able to achieve so much more. In the same way that seeing Ben pursue his fullest creative life has deeply inspired my own, I know that my commitment to my art and my curiosities has pushed those around me to do more of the same. Our hyper-fascinations drive others’ hyper-fascinations. And what our world needs most is more people being absolutely hyper-fascinated by it.
J: Several years ago, you went into two prisons and taught baking classes to the inmates there. Can you tell me about that project? Like we talked about with my bringing rare books into the prison classroom, and your bringing in baking materials, there are a lot of restrictions from the prison system that you have to navigate to teach in those spaces! What restrictions did you come up against, and how did you navigate them?
R: The thing that you'll learn most from working in prisons is how to confront restrictions and challenges head-on. In LA County State Prison, everything seemed super smooth…until we showed up and the facility was closed to programming events for two weeks (which they “forgot” to mention), my background check and security clearance had gone M.I.A. in their system, and the guards were refusing to allow my materials through. The warden — a friendly and warm woman of color, to my surprise and awe — heroically approved our entrance but we showed up two hours late to our own two-hour workshop and had to speed-decorate four cakes with twenty men in thirteen minutes.
At Rikers Island in New York City, the restrictions came earlier: no real cake, styrofoam dummies only, no camera, no charger for the laptop, transparent bags for all tools and materials, ballpoint pens as rolling pins, etc…all of which I agreed to. Then, while my Uber full of fake cakes was crossing the bridge, I received a text from my contact that the facility was on lock-down after an attempted escape.
I sat alone in a parking lot with my clear bags and cardboard boxes and waited for what seemed like forever. Eventually, a van showed up and we headed in. Once inside, more challenges yet. The classroom space I was promised was instead a cold echoey gymnasium. The incarcerated participants strolled in late with their individual escorts over the course of thirty minutes — and even then, it was clear they didn’t care to be there. Then, as I slowly started to gain some sort of rapport with the group, a host of correctional officers joined in at their own table, hoarding the majority of our cake decorating materials and making too much noise for me to communicate with the women. Fortunately, my harsh words with the C.O.’s gained me more respect with the women I was there to serve and the workshop turned out far better than I had hoped.
These workshops were paused by my return to Antarctica and the ensuing pandemic, but I’m unbelievably excited to resurrect them. They’re not actually baking classes, per se, but interactive demonstrations in the power of individual stories. These Storytelling Through Cake workshops are a showcase of the many ways jailed men and women can share their truest self with a seemingly closed-off world. So many formerly incarcerated folks enter the foodservice industry, and I want to use my work to give others a blank canvas and show them alternatives to traditional foodservice rules — inviting them to play and use food as communicative art.
Leading workshops in carceral facilities serves as a constant reminder for me to be headstrong and relentlessly stubborn in the pursuit of my creative goals. When I get frustrated about my lack of a commercial kitchen space or access to ingredients and tools, thoughts of the men in L.A. overcoming all odds to create food and art flood my mind and immediately put me in my place. Upon reflection, I think I was able to succeed in those two environments to date because of my extreme flexibility, eager persistence, and unyielding desire — the traits I try to nurture most as a creative.
J: What, to you, is most powerful about storytelling through cake? How did working with cake facilitate sharing and healing with the inmates in a way other approaches might not?
R: I’ll let the incarcerated gentlemen in the honors program of LA Country State Prison answer this one themselves, from a collection of hand-written letters I received a few months after the workshop. (Note: Two of these men, who were serving life without parole, have since been released due to an incredible and rare shift in the California legal system that allows a very small subset of folks to apply for the possibility of parole.)
“Dear Miss Rose McAdoo. Thank you. You took the one thing in this life that you can’t get anymore of and gave it to us men here for free. And in doing so, you encouraged growth and helped us each develop just a little bit more than we had before. I will never forget what you taught me…when you said ‘you can make a social statement with your food’, when you went on to explain how everyone loves cake and how food can get you in the door even when they initially didn’t want to let you in…it hit me like one of the dopest lyrics I’ve ever heard. It made me say ‘DAYYYUMMM! That’s deep.’” - Dontay Hayes
“We had such a wonderful time that we could not help but share our experience with the other men on the facility and now dozens more have asked to be part of the next workshop. Rose, I believe that social justice comes in many different forms and different people. I think the work you are doing is important, powerful, and so inspiring. You are changing people’s lives and I am honored to have had an opportunity to be part of what you are doing. Hopefully you will visit us again. You are always welcomed.” - Allen Burnett
“Thank you for coming to a prison and spending time with us. Thank you for not giving up when faced with the challenge of getting into prison (Wish I had that problem!). Thank you for teaching us to decorate those delicious cakes. Thank you for taking me back to such a wonderful childhood memory. Thank you for your support of the group, your time, wisdom, and patience.” - Donnell R. Campbell
“What I wanted you to know [was] that you gave me a gift that will live on for time to come…I also learned that cake is more than a dessert. It can also be a statement for change. It can be a statement that lasts long after the sugar rush is gone. You taught us that the cake is only but a canvas but the vision in my heart is the design. So when you are in far exotic places, Antarctica, Alaska, the Bronx or Brooklyn, please remember the bakers of Lancaster.” - Anonymous
J: Is there anything else you'd like to tell me?
R: With the start of this new year, I’m excited to continue forming new connections and pursuing new opportunities. In the practice of manifesting, I’m interested in writing more articles or a book, collaborating with folks who are equally inspired and committed to their multidisciplinary art, building museum or gallery installations (either my own or others’), and creating more video work in the form of a film short or feature-length documentary.
In summary, looking for bigger ways to share bigger stories. My website is WhiskMeAwayCakes.com, my Instagram is @rosemcadoo, and my email is email@example.com. Please say hello!
And Julia, thank you for inviting me to share my work with your people. I’m a huge fan of all you do and of your overall joy in rootedness, and I’m grateful to be in your circle.
P.S. I’m doing an event with Sandor Katz on The Hidden Cosmos: A Fermentation Oracle + Recipe Deck and his latest book, Fermentation Journeys.
The event is virtual, free, and hosted by our amazing local bookseller Charis Books on Saturday, January 29th at 3:00 EST. Sign up here!