As both a fine art painter and an artisan baker/small business owner, Ken Garcia Olaes is having his proverbial cake and eating it too. But instead of cake, it’s ensaymada—a fluffy, swirly cloud of Filipino-style brioche slathered with butter and coated in sugar.
The 39-year-old husband and father of three is the owner of Angie’s Bakery—a beloved community staple, known for its pandesal (Filipino dinner rolls) and pepperoni bread for almost as long as Olaes has been alive.
“My biggest fear when I took on the family business,” said Olaes, “was that my artwork would start to fall off.” To the contrary, Olaes recently produced a prolific number of classical portrait paintings, which are currently on view at Virginia MOCA in the food-inspired art exhibition, Nourish.
As a student at Virginia Commonwealth University, Olaes studied medical illustration. His interest in anatomy and the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo speak to Olaes’ professed obsession with understanding how things work—an obsession that influences his approach to baking.
Upon taking on the business, Olaes dedicated himself to understanding its processes, mechanics and recipes, then experimenting and tweaking until the products were exactly just so. The results are puffier pandesal, caramelized pan de coco that’s moist instead of dry, and hopia like how Olaes’ lola made it.
But baking is both an art and a science. Besides being a technician, Olaes takes a chef-driven approach in the kitchen and lets his personal tastes, flavor memories and artistic sensibilities inspire some of the bakery’s most exciting offerings.
“I feel like I should have fun doing this,” said Olaes. “I came from a corporate environment and now I’m in a kitchen full-time, so I want to bring my creativity into it somehow. That’s my goal.”
Never is that creativity more apparent than in the eye-popping swirl loaves made with ube (purple yam) and pandan (a green juice derived from a fragrant tropical plant) that have foodies fawning on the bakery’s Instagram page. Inspired by his childhood in Germany, where his father was stationed in the army and he grew to love artisan bread, Olaes was experimenting with crusty breads like brotchen.
At first he tried incorporating ube jam, which produced something like a cinnamon loaf. But, “I thought, I need more color in there.” So instead he took the dough from his ube-infused pandesal and intertwined it with his white pandesal dough so that, when sliced, reveals a rich violet wave swirled with soft white; dramatic as a Hokusai print, and dynamic as an Art Nouveau whiplash.
“The in-between process of creating is where I find inspiration,” explained Olaes. “I’m fascinated by sketches over the final painting, and the trials and mistakes during a baking process.”
As an artist and as a baker, it’s his own unique perspective that Olaes brings to the table.
“I tell people this about art, and now I can tell people this about bread,” concluded Olaes. “The question I used to always get was, why do you paint? And my best answer to that was, well, when you see a painting for the first time in a museum, every painting that you’ve seen in your life comes into that moment.
“That dialogue that you have with the artist is their testimony, what they believed is beautiful to them. And now I bring it to baking. So when someone tries pandesal for the first time—they’ve had brioche, they’ve had potato rolls, all their experiences will come to that moment, too—they take a bite and relate to everything else they’ve had. That would be my testimony, what I believe is delicious. That’s my ‘why’.”