How Two Local Plant-based, Gluten-free Producers Are Reimagining the Art of the Treat
Story and Photos by Gabriella Marks
Left: Planty Sweet cheesecake. Right: Karina Cake of Planty Sweet decorating one of her textured asymmetrical cakes.
It’s funny, how language so determines our perception of a food. Take, for example, the vernacular around vegan cooking or, perhaps even more, gluten-free baking. From the very phrase “gluten-free” to the spectrum of vegan “meatless” options, for many this verbiage connotes a sense of absence and, at worst, of imitation. This is precisely why new producers like Albuquerque’s Planty Sweet and Santa Fe’s Drift and Porter are such innovators: they are the vanguard of the next generation of chefs offering delicious savory and sweet treats that transcend diminutive labels and charm your senses while doing so.
At both of these bakeries, the chefs use gluten-free, plant-based ingredients to create dessert landscapes as diverse—even as epic—as the high deserts of northern New Mexico. Simply put, these aren’t the stale carob chips from the bulk bin at the co-op of your childhood. No well-intentioned but inedible wheatgerm birthday cakes here. Think picture-perfect flower petal designs—nearly too gorgeous to eat—and extravagant winged cake sculptures with joyously generous slices. Add to that an expressive penchant for tattoos and a visual aesthetic influenced by fashion design. Welcome to the new horizon of plant-based delights.
Petite and put together in a unique style that evokes both a delicate femininity and a retro/vintage, almost rockabilly sensibility, chef Karina Cake of Planty Sweet shows equal panache adorning one of her textured asymmetrical cakes or demonstrating with a swift blow and sharp knife how to cut open a coconut. Her floral flourishes and creative use of delicate vegetable design elements are a photographer’s delight. Almost to a fault, in fact. She sometimes needs to encourage her clientele to indulge and consume because of how precious each item looks.
Cake’s visual innovation is heavily influenced by her childhood fascination with European pâtisseries in her native Hong Kong, where jewel-like gâteaux beckoned from window displays. She credits her mother with teaching her, “Don’t waste your time eating bad food,” along with the merits of cooking from scratch and giving attention to detail. But it was really through her travels as a purser with Cathay Pacific airlines, where she was exposed to food culture on a global scale from Morocco to Korea, Iceland to Thailand, that she began to plot her own future in the culinary arts.
Over a period of time, she transitioned from flying to cooking through attending, and then teaching at, Matthew Kenney Culinary Academy, the world’s first classically structured, plant-based living culinary center, based in Los Angeles. Vegetarian since her teen years, Cake transitioned to a vegan diet while in culinary school, intrigued and inspired by the challenges and resulting invention of creating food without traditional ingredients. When her husband was diagnosed with celiac disease, her personal imperative to master gluten-free cooking further drove her curiosity and experimentation.
Top left: Floral flourishes adorn a Planty Sweet cake. Top right: Karina Cake. Bottom: Matthew Spano and John Partazana of Drift and Porter.
Understanding the properties of each ingredient—essentially reverse-engineering familiar dishes by experimenting with the foundational components—sweetness, salt, fat, a touch of acid—she has developed her own constantly evolving approach to tarts, cheesecake, “donuts” (tiny bundt cakes), sticky rice cakes, and more.
Up the road a ways, in Santa Fe, the dynamic duo of Drift and Porter have in the span of just a year become something of a sensation among both vegans and those who simply can’t resist a delicious cookie, regardless of its plant-based bona fides. Matthew Spano and John Partazana both hail from the Jersey Shore, where a chance encounter on the dance floor led to a partnership in life, love, and gluten-free vegan baking.
If there is one constant true to all great cooking, it may well lie in the pursuit of recreating—through one’s own culinary vision and voice—the comfort foods of home. The specialties from Drift and Porter echo influences from their shared Italian heritage (think savory Italian Wedding Soup with vegan “meat” balls) as well as the substantive pastries of New York borough street vendors, inspiration for their bodacious vegetable “sausage” street pie.
Left: Drift and Porter pastries on display at the Artisan Market in Santa Fe. Right: Matthew Spano in the kitchen.
The sheer variety in their weekly booth at the Sunday Railyard Artisan Market (located in the iconic Farmers Market Pavilion) makes for hard decisions: how to choose between three kinds of scones—apricot and pistachio, carob and fig, pumpkin and raisin—or perhaps the deep umami of black bean peanut butter brownies. And yet, what about the pesto pinwheels, lemon curry samosa, or raspberry mint bar?
The booth itself reflects a respect for and celebration of the artifacts of design, with an emphasis on rustic wooden textures and complementary accents, like a rusted vintage can or an Amish doily. The presentation is a perfect vehicle for the pastry, infusing the overall experience with a design sense that is carefully curated and subtly subversive. How else to describe vegan, plant-based moon pies artfully arranged and presented within crates formerly used to store ammunition? Like the iconic sixties image of a flower placed in the barrel of a gun, there is a playful poetry at work here. And it’s delicious to boot.
But of course the heart of the culinary experience that animates Drift and Porter is the duo themselves—their inexhaustible enthusiasm and breathless exuberance is as irresistible as their pastry. Every transaction either begins or ends (often both) in a hug. Their patrons aren’t simply customers; they’re friends, bonded over shared values and meals. “Getting to speak and express and connect—that’s the whole reason we’re doing this.”
There’s an adage that constraints are conducive to creativity. Judging by the sheer bounty and variety in color, texture, and flavor created between these two plant-based, gluten-free producers, Planty Sweet and Drift and Porter give proof to that proverb. Accidental alchemists all, they are continually experimenting with the building blocks of baking to bring forward new inventions. Through the slow process of trial and error (and a lot of enjoyable edible “mistakes” along the way), they are not only formulating new ways to make old favorites, but creating entirely new food that on top of being healthier is environmentally more tenable.
Sipping on a steaming hot cup of Drift and Porter’s chicory latte with whipped coconut cream on a snowy Sunday morning can make a person philosophical. If you were given that mug without being told what it is, you might first think chai. And then, after a second sip, maybe hot chocolate. Because we have a habit of naming things to understand them. But I’d urge you to step back from that temptation. Simply close your eyes, and taste and smell and experience. Let these new creations come into their own, and begin to coin their own language, to be their own point of reference. Let the taste do the talking.
Find Planty Sweet at Zendo, Roastology, and Dig and Serve events.
Find Drift and Porter every Sunday at the Railyard Artisan Market in Santa Fe, and at surprise pop-ups.
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