Katie Kimmel's Food Art Is Forever Fun

The artist just launched a new collection of her cool, food-centric clothing, too.

December  7, 2021
Photo by Katie Kimmel

Two hours north of Los Angeles, nestled in the Mojave desert, artist Katie Kimmel makes her magic—most of which involves food. Kimmel has generated something of a cult a following for her charmingly quirky anthropomorphic ceramic snacks and mortadella pool float, and of course, her brightly-colored t-shirts emblazoned with bangers like “Lentil Soup,” “Mozzarella Sticks,” and “I Ate Everything and It Was Good.”

Kimmel’s latest drop of food-themed clothing, which comes out December 8—perfect timing for any December holiday gift-procrastinators—is part of her recycled collection, where Kimmel places her iconic food phrases on thrifted pieces. We caught up with Kimmel to chat about food, art, and food art.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

REBECCA FIRKSER: Why food art? Was the subject always something you were interested in?

KATIE KIMMEL: It’s almost without thinking that I started making food art. I did art pieces in college and then later the t-shirt stuff was kind of a fun accident. I was basically making myself a present, which is usually how all my best ideas come about—it said "Linguini and Clams"—and it turned out really cute. And I just casually posted it on my Instagram and people freaking lost it. So I was like ‘oh, okay!” and it’s truly been half of my business ever since. I never anticipated being somebody who made t-shirts, but I’m definitely not mad about it.

One big piece of feedback I always get is when people are wearing their shirt, that other people get really excited around them if it’s also their favorite food. Like, the deviled eggs, people walk up to them and are like [shouting] ‘deviled eggs!’ It’s like a band t-shirt, but for all the best foods.

I don’t even know how to articulate [how the art pieces started], I always felt a kinship toward food. But the only sad thing about [real] food is that it goes away. I can’t always have a big beautiful cake in my kitchen but my vintage cake cookie jar—that’s forever.

RF: What was the first piece of food art you made?

KK: It was definitely something more sculptural in college. I was using slip [clay slurry], I realized it was like the consistency of frosting. So I bought cake decorating tips and was making myself ceramic deviled eggs. And I think that was the first wholesale order I received, a furniture shop bought a bunch. From that, I was able to buy myself a kiln, so that was a jumping off point.

RF: You make clothing, ceramics, stationary, and more, but your t-shirts have really taken off, especially in the food and fashion community—partnerships with Susan Alexandra, the New York Times store, Seemore Meats & Veggies. I have a "Pancake" shirt from a restaurant collaboration. Why do you think the response has been so positive?

KK: I just think food is something that everyone has in common. Sitting together and eating a meal, going to a fun restaurant—that’s an experience. It’s something everyone enjoys. My favorite commission has to be for a store in San Francisco, Anomie, “Meat Sweats.”

RF: There’s a lot of food-themed art in home spaces, both functional and not, even some made from preserved real food—why do you think that is?

KK: I do a lot of antiquing: I was just in Nashville and bought myself a cookie jar that looks like a basket of eggs and another one that looks like a cake. It’s definitely not new. I know that when I personally make presents for friends I’ll usually take time to think, what's their favorite food, something they don’t even notice, and make them a sculpture of that. People like when you notice something about them. There was a period of time before I was making dog sculptures. I’m really bad at grocery shopping, but I have all these gorgeous platters, I was making myself ceramic lemons and limes, and was like, ‘when I don’t have any fruit, I’ll have them in the bowl. Because I know lemons should be in this bowl.’

Food is so cute. I really love representational art and I think food is a natural direction. It takes out a lot of the back-and-forth, mentally. If I make a [ceramic] steak, I already know what the colors should look like. With the dog stuff, I’ll sit for two hours like, ‘blue or green or yellow or.’ I think it’s really therapeutic and fun. I wouldn’t say it’s easy, but it makes sense.

RF: Do you like to cook? What’s your favorite thing to make?

KK: My husband is really more of the house chef. But if it’s a holiday or my husband’s birthday I get really excited and am like, ‘I’ll spend the whole day cooking and it’ll be so magical and fun.’ Last year during the pandemic my mom was living with us—we had six people there, and I went to Costco and bought a massive thing of crab legs and I was like, [shouting] ‘seafood tower!’ On day four I was like, “I don't think I can eat any more of these,” because I’d made such a massive quantity of food. But it was a beautiful display. Honestly I go back in my phone and look at pictures of the table.

I live in the middle of the desert so there aren’t any restaurants here. I found this website, Island Creek Oysters, and we overnight like a million oysters. Which is always fun because we’ll eat as much as we can and then the next day make Oysters Rockefeller.

RF: What’s the best thing you’ve eaten recently?

KK: I just got married, and we had Martin's Bar-B-Que in Nashville cater. It was was so good. At the rehearsal we had half the menu with a full pig, and then the next night we had the other half of the menu, with rolls and pulled pork and pimento cheese macaroni and cheese, which is freaking unreal. It was so fun. My dad was like, ‘this is the thing we will be eating,’ and I wasn’t going to fight that.

My biggest gripe about my town is that there isn’t anywhere to get a good sandwich. There’s the grocery counter, but we don’t even have Boar’s Head. It’s not ideal. And I absolutely love a sandwich. So there’s this sandwich place in Nashville called Mitchell, and, oh my God, I was in heaven. I swear I had 45 sandwiches in the two weeks we were there, I had the whole menu. It was a dream come true. I’m a hardcore caprese sandwich person. I also love a classic ham and cheese. I’m actually really bad at making sandwiches at my house. I love sprouts, but I go to the grocery store and they sell such a quantity of sprouts that I’m like ‘you don’t need this, it’s going to rot in the fridge.’ But then go home and am like, ‘I have bread and one slice of cheese—why didn’t I get the ingredients?’ Or I’ll shove like, an entire tomato on one sandwich because I’ve already started cutting it. Usually I just end up dropping it on the floor and my dogs are in heaven. At least I have their support.

RF: What are you excited about lately?

KK: This wedding was all-consuming, I think I made 250 vases and a disco ball of my dog’s head. I’ve just been in my hole doing my little crafts. I’m so excited to get back to work. These are usually the best days for me, I think I’m going to make some wedding presents today for friends. My husband’s best friend’s favorite food is porchetta so I’m going to try to make a freaking massive porchetta. That’s going to be very fun and different.

[The new recycled collection is] going up on my site [December 8] and if history repeats itself they’ll all be gone within 15 minutes [laughs]. I’m a big second hand shopper, so the upcycling sweatshirt project came naturally from that. I use it as my excuse to check out the shops everywhere I go and I accumulate a lot throughout the year. It's a lot of fun for me to add a narrative with text to an existing illustration. I often feel like I'm scrapbooking with someone's grandma.

Which ingredient or food phrase would you put on a t-shirt? Let us know in the comments!
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Rebecca Firkser is the assigning editor at Food52. She used to wear many hats in the food media world: food writer, editor, assistant food stylist, recipe tester (sometimes in the F52 test kitchen!), recipe developer. These days, you can keep your eye out for her monthly budget recipe column, Nickel & Dine. Rebecca tests all recipes with Diamond Crystal kosher salt. Follow her on Instagram @rebeccafirkser.