Food, Know Your NOLA

‘Any slice is a slice from heaven’ from Bywater Bakery

While the Bywater Bakery king cakes appear on just about every “Best Of” list in the city, co-owner Chaya Conrad had a different goal for the business she waited years to open.

Since it opened on Twelfth Night in 2017, Bywater Bakery has been closely associated with king cakes.

“Before we could even operate inside our shop, we were selling king cakes outside of it,” said Chaya Conrad, co-owner of this popular pastry shop on the corner of Dauphine and Independence streets.

While their king cakes appear on just about every “Best Of” list in the city, Conrad had a different goal for the business she waited years to open.

“I wanted this to be a neighborhood bakery,” she said. “I dreamt we’d celebrate our neighbors’ birthdays and anniversaries, and that we’d create a neighborhood gathering place.”

It’s an understatement to say Bywater Bakery has lived up to that vision. At least before COVID-19, it was common to find local musicians performing at or around a piano inside the bakeshop. Through the pandemic, Conrad is still booking musicians but now they’re playing outside — livestreamed to anyone who wants to join in the fun. Art from local artists continues to fill the walls, though the bakery has shut its building to visitors and is now serving food from a side window that can be eaten at home or at one of several outdoor tables.

Josh Haley is a local artist and photographer who lives next door to the bakery. He’s stopped in almost daily since they opened — picking up a cookie for his wife and usually a Cubano sandwich for himself.

“Before coronavirus, Bywater Bakery was like an extra living for me,” he said. “But even today, it’s still a meeting place. Even though we’re not hanging out inside, it’s still a place you can run into neighbors and say hi to their dogs.”

It’s a special place, he said.

“And we’re lucky to have it.”

The Baker

It’s no wonder Chaya Conrad oversees the production of some of the best king cakes in New Orleans. Her credentials stretch back nearly the entire span of her life.

“My first job was in a bakery back when I was 14,” she said. “You had to be 15 to work in Vermont, so I lied about my age because I really wanted the job.”

Conrad said opening her own bakery has been her dream for a very long time. She moved to New Orleans when she was 18 and she’s lived here — with the exception of “a few years here and a few years there” — ever since.

She worked herself up through the ranks of the bakery department at Whole Foods Market, eventually becoming bakery manager at their Austin, Texas, headquarters, and then spent eight years as bakery director at Louisiana’s Rouses Market.

“If you’re managing a bakery in New Orleans, you’re going to make a lot of king cakes,” she said.

And at Rouses, that meant more than 400,000 king cakes each year!

But she yearned to create a recipe of her own at a bakery of her own. And when a Creole Cottage — owned by now-business partner Steve Walkup — became available in the heart of the Bywater, Conrad finally got her chance.

The Bakery

There are two things that really stand out about Bywater Bakery’s king cakes. First is the variety. Conrad’s team has their customary “Carnival Style” cake, as well as other sweet options with traditional brioche dough that include Chantilly, Bouille, Creole Cream Cheese Cake, Azul Dulce Blueberry, Apple with Brown Sugar, Praline and a new-for-2021 Lemon Cream! They also have three beloved savory king cake options: one stuffed with boudin, another with crawfish (think “crawfish bread”), and a third with a kind of spinach and artichoke dip.

But even their standard Carnival-style king cake feels unique from that of other shops. According to Conrad, that’s the second thing that makes a Bywater Bakery king cake stand out.

While other bakers use a cinnamon smear inside their cakes, she explained, her bakery uses an “ooey gooey” butter smear instead.

“I love the taste of the ooey gooey smear,” she said, “but it also makes for a mouthfeel people seem to really like!”

With all of these options, it could feel overwhelming to choose the king cake of your dreams. But Haley assured us there is no wrong choice.

“Pick one? I mean, a slice of any of them is like a slice of heaven,” he said. “But if you’re making me choose one, I’m going with the traditional Carnival Style — it reminds me of Mardi Gras when I was a kid…or the savory Crawfish… I don’t know, maybe I can’t choose one.”

Get Your Bywater Bakery King Cake!

Fortunately, you don’t have to choose just one. And there are plenty of options to get your Bywater Bakery king cakes.

You can swing by the socially distanced “community window” at 3624 Dauphine St. to grab a slice of king cake (or one of their other amazing sweet or savory treats) to eat at one of several outdoor tables. Or you can pick up a whole cake to go.

If you don’t want to head down to the Bywater — maybe you live in, say, Canada — then Bywater Bakery has also made their king cakes available online for shipping for the first time!

Conrad said that with schools and offices closed because of COVID-19 (think about how many king cakes are eaten at work!) and with parades canceled that would normally bring people down to the Bywater for Chewbacchus or Krewe du Vieux, she figured the only way to make up the lost revenue (king cakes can double the shop’s revenue in a normal year) was to begin delivering king cakes — something she once vowed never to do.

Thinking outside the box is something Conrad believes everyone will need to do this year if the city is going to make Mardi Gras a special in the midst of rising COVID-19 numbers. While the pandemic is putting restrictions on many of the season’s most well-known traditions, Conrad is hopeful New Orleanians will rise to the task of creating a new set of traditions that work under the current conditions.

Each Twelfth Night, for example, Bywater Bakery hosts a huge party to commemorate the start of Carnival and king cake season. This year, they decided to hold a virtual event, with performances by local musicians like Charmaine Neville, John Boutte, Leyla McCella, Wendell Brunious and many others. The party can still be viewed online if you’re looking to get into the spirit!

“Mardi Gras isn’t about commerce or tourist counts — it’s about spirit,” Conrad said. “It’s about creativity and pageantry (and king cake!), and I’m excited to see everything that New Orleans comes up with this year. Maybe we’ll dream up new traditions that we’ll be celebrating for years to come.”

Bywater Bakery
$ $$$
Getting there
3624 Dauphine St, New Orleans, LA 70117, USA
Opening Hours
Mon-Tue 8am–2pm
Wed Closed
Thu-Sun 8am–2pm
More Info
Website

 

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WRITER MATT HAINES LIVES IN NEW ORLEANS. FOLLOW HIM FOR ALL THINGS CARNIVAL, KING CAKE AND BEYOND AT MATTHAINESWRITES.COM, AND ON FACEBOOK, INSTAGRAM AND TWITTER.