“Don’t Call It A Cookbook”—Oxheart Co-Founder Wraps Experiences In Limited, Handmade Book
Karen Man has been called many things, including “pastry chef,” which isn’t accurate as far as she is concerned. “I feel like the term puts you in a box where you can only make sweet things,” she explained. Man prefers to be called a baker and says the training she received as such included what she needed to know for pastries. Her repertoire includes a banana cream pie and the pretzel rolls served at Oxheart, the restaurant she co-founded, that deserve to become the stuff of legend.
Now, add “author,” “designer,” “layout artist,” “illustrator” and “bookbinder” to her titles. In advance of Oxheart closing on March 15, Man has created a phenomenally limited edition book entitled The Art of Baking: Oxheart from scratch, much as she crafts her baked goods. Only 300 prints total of the approximately 130-page book will be produced, and while Man won’t rule out never making more, right now she has no intention of doing so. “If I put it out there that I’m only selling 300 copies, it would be totally unfair to everyone who purchased those to make more,” she said. Each copy will be numbered.
Oxheart is closing. Its last night of service is March 15. In light of that, Man wanted to capture her journey with the critically acclaimed restaurant. “This book is a reflection of my time with Oxheart in a form that shows off the restaurant in a creative light through prose and art in different mediums,” she explained.
There are recipes in The Art of Baking (including for the aforementioned banana cream pie, as well as desserts and breads served at Oxheart), but Man considers them supporting elements to the art.
“The idea wasn’t to share recipes of Oxheart. It was really to share memories that floated in my head that I had no way of expressing and processing at the time,” said Man. “The first few years of Oxheart were busy and overwhelming sometimes. I never had time to reflect and enjoy those moments and when I finally had a chance to, the only way I had to do it justice was to put those images down on paper, canvas or use recycled ribbon—whatever my medium was—and use that color to paint this greater image of my experience at Oxheart.”
Man says that she did the vast majority of the illustrations herself, but to borrow a Beatles lyric, she also got a little help from her friends. Four were done by Marcella Arreaga, who studied at the San Francisco Art Institute and School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. (In Houston, she’s a wine professional at Public Services Wine & Whisky.) Sarah Belfort, a former Oxheart cook who challenged Man to getting the book done in the first place, contributed another and helped edit. Ceci Norman and Debora Smail contributed photography. Siobhan Battye, a London-based graphic artist, finessed the layout and contributed the vibrant, pop art cover illustration of kitchen tools. Finally, Melissa Kwan handcrafted stamps and made other contributions to the artwork.
Creating dozens of artworks, documenting recipes, printing thousands of pages and binding a book sounds like a Sisyphean task, but Man believes she’s gained a great deal from the process. “It’s been such an incredible journey. I have learned how to make a space to create and where my mindset and head needs to be so I can just let things go. To be creative, I need to retreat and not look too much to other people for inspiration. A lot of this book was just me putting something on paper, moving pieces around and seeing how they fit.”
The book can be pre-purchased online for $68 and includes an invitation to a private launch party at Public Services Wine & Whisky on March 5. The celebration runs from 4 to 6 p.m. and includes light bites, art installations and specialty ceramics by local craftswomen Ellen Cline and Sierra Estes.
With the restaurant closing, what’s next for Man? It might be having her own bakery. “I definitely still have a passion for baking in Houston and it will be on my timeline, otherwise it already would have been open by now,” she said. “I definitely want to spend a lot of this year on self-growth. I’m taking a yoga teaching course, not to have a career in teaching yoga, but it’s a journey I want to take for myself and use in ways to add to people’s lives. I want to do a lot of reading. I made a goal of reading 50 books this year. I’m trying to find a balance. How do I do what I love, which is baking, but how do I also go home and do what I love? What does that relationship look like? Because I spent so much of my life working so hard and building my professional skill sets, I think it’s nice to be able to take some time off to build this other skill set which allows me to appreciate the smaller things in life that every human gets to experience as well.”
Disclaimer: author is a small percentage partner in Oxheart but has no involvement with Man’s book whatsoever.