Bakers often display incredible artistic talent in their work. There can be something beautiful about a well-crafted loaf of sourdough, or a freshly made croissant. Josh Pickens, head of production at Ole & Steen (a famed Danish bakery in New York City), has taken this artistry to the next level. Crafting stunning works like giant cheesecakes, massive hot dog buns, and baguettes as long as he is tall, he has put out into the world inspiring works of edible art. We recently spoke with Pickens to learn all about his life’s work and crafty carb-laden creations.

Jenni Spinner: Could you please tell me how you got started in baking—were you in the kitchen playing with flour when you were a kid?

Josh Pickens: I can’t say I baked a whole lot as a kid. Knowing my son now and the amount he bakes at 5, I really wasn’t showing signs of investing the rest of my life in this industry. My intro into the industry hit on two fronts simultaneously. First when I hit high school, I needed to get a job as soon as I could to pay for those things we all need as teenagers, insert dishwashing at my local diner here. Secondly, I took a cooking class in my freshman year of high school in hopes to meet girls. Come to find out the class was full of other freshman trying the same thing. So, I had to focus on what was in front of me, and a huge shoutout to an incredible teacher, Mrs. Wineman. She helped me find a deep love for food , a balance of understanding its necessity but also the beauty when given the proper time. 

JS: How did you decide to get into baking as a career?

JP: Once I started getting into cooking in high school, I quickly moved from a dishwasher to working a grill line. By 10th grade I had finished all the cooking classes our school had so after that I began going back to class during my study halls just to be around food. It was around this time a cooking school came in and did a demo for our class and that set the course. Being an athlete, I didn’t want to go to a Culinary School without a sports program which is how I found the CIA. I initially wanted to go to be a Chef but was struggling with that decision as I didn’t grow up liking seafood and I was allergic to shellfish. My dad got me an opportunity at the local Mennonite bakery to try out that side of the industry and I found my passion when I connected to that community.

There is something special about baking, specifically bread baking. The hours are crazy but there are beautiful moments that happen every day when you’re working on something at every stage of its bake. You somehow have to manage something in the mixer, something in bulk fermentation needing to be folded, something needing to be divided and shaped, while you’re monitoring the proofer for those items ready to go into the oven and ever so expectantly watching those products in the oven coming to fruition. It’s a beautiful harmony, everything works together, it’s all alive and no one day is the same. So yes, it can be tough but at the end of they day you are providing a beautiful service for the world. It’s an honor.

JS: Please tell me a bit about the path that landed you at Ole & Steen, and what your average day looks like as head of production.

JP: Ole & Steen came about after I began looking for my next adventure after my wife and I sold our small micro-mill/bakery. We had created something right before the pandemic that transformed into something incredible, but was much more than we could manage on our own. Ole & Steen was a bakery I had visited a few times and felt a connection to the style of product it offers. The focus is on quality and flavor first, and beauty comes as a response to that commitment. Sometimes, I feel like current bakeries can have products that focus on beauty with flavor being optional, and I really felt a connection to the way Ole & Steen handled this collaboration. So, I met the team and spent some time in Copenhagen and Fredericia with the Danish Team and just got to know what Ole & Steen was all about. 

Josh - inside.jpgJS: Baking is an art, but lately you’ve been taking that concept quite literally. Could you please tell me how you started turning your breads into objects d’art? 

JP: The intro into bread art began in culinary school where we had to create objects for a grand buffet. We learned how to manipulate and create bread decorations but this was at a really basic level. 

Living in NYC, the opportunities for creativity are endless. I remember having a book signing for an artist at the Brooklyn Bread Lab and a big part of the book was different foods created out of plastic to look like obscenely messy and massively portioned. It was during that time at the Brooklyn Bread Lab that I met Laila Gohar and other food focused artists. I helped in the background when I could on a few projects but once my wife and I started our own bakery we were asked to create items for special projects. This really began to open the door for what was possible. It also helps that my wife, Jess Pickens, is an incredible artist in her own right and the best cake designer I know. 

JS: What are some of your favorite pieces? Feel free to tell us all about the mammoth cheesecake for Alexander Wang, or the Friedman Benda bread chair?

JP: My favorite piece would have to be a bread room I created for Snapchats Magazine launch, Bread. Due to some previous collaborations, an incredible furniture designer, Sam Stewart, reached out and asked if I would be able to create a room for a photoshoot to help with a launch. I was sent a digital rendering of what they were thinking but was then left to design, create, and execute. With the help of some incredible bakers, we built something truly special. It involved a lot of trial and error. There is a lot of movement in furniture design that isn’t entirely achievable with straightforward thinking, but that is was makes it all so fun. One of my favorite items was a picture frame we made. We had a silicon mold made and we played with different style of dough and clarity on the final item. We ended up using a set of them that went from clearly unrefined and destroyed all the way to perfectly detailed and precise. It added contrast to the set and wonderful backdrop for a fun shoot.

JS: These are some stunning works of bread art—are they created strictly for their beauty and fun, or is there a larger message?

JP: Every project has been different. There have been some that have focused on sustainability, but others like the chair for Freidman Benda spoke to the how art is often consumed and destroyed far beyond recognition from its original intent.  The perfect balance is a beautiful project that can pull attention from various lifestyles and speak to a greater good. That’s not always possible so in the other moments I enjoy making something just to be beautiful and delicious.

JS: What’s next for you and your career? We’d love to hear about any future bread art you have in the works, or notable, more conventional initiatives at Ole & Steen or elsewhere?

JP: At the moment I just focus on my production team at Ole & Steen here in Queens, making sure we can create beautiful and delicious products on a daily basis. I take the projects as they come. There are always small ones here and there that I will do for Laila Gohar and her team at Gohar world. On the other side there are tv opportunities, a potential Holiday baking competition with my family that we could be filming this summer. 

JS: What’s your favorite baked item?

JP: Depends on the time of day. I love doughnuts, but if I am cornered into baked, I would say a sourdough everything bagel. Huge shoutout to South Portland ME and Scratch Baking Co. I think the definition of a perfect morning is getting there early, waiting in line for a bagel fresh from the oven. Grabbing a coffee, cream cheese to add on and walking to the beach for a stroll. Perfection! 

JS: Is there anything you’d like to add?

JP: I appreciate the questions and the opportunity. I feel like I can express this all so much clearer in an interview and I hope these answers express my love for this industry and what we get to do every day!