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3-course interview: Chaya Conrad of Bywater Bakery 

On the business of baking (and king cakes)

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Chaya Conrad opened Bywater Bakery (3624 Dauphine St., 504-336-3336; www.bywaterbakery.com) last month and has been selling creative king cakes. The bakery will add breakfast and lunch service this month. Conrad previously worked at Whole Foods Market and was the bakery director for Rouses Markets. Conrad spoke with Gambit about her business and some how to make king cake.

How did you get into the large-scale bakery business?

Conrad: I got my first job in a bakery when I was 14. It was a little pastry shop in Vermont. I learned how to ice cakes and tarts, and my main job was to make fruit tarts.

  From there I went to culinary school. I went to the (Culinary Institute of America) and ended up doing my externship at Arnaud's. I didn't focus strictly on pastry until after I got out. ... Then I was the pastry chef at Arnaud's and then went and worked for Dickie Brennan. Eventually I got into the grocery business. I started out at Whole Foods and worked my way up, until I was regional — in Austin. I was dying to come home after the storm, and I came back and worked for Rouses as the bakery director.

  There was so much administration. I enjoy that part too, and I like to see how the decisions you make impact the bottom line. It's very (instantaneous) in that scale of business, but I missed just baking. I missed being in the butter. It's a lot of buying decisions and making sure there is enough stock for 45 stores; creating recipes; training, but not training directly, training people to train (others).

  Running this scale of business, there are a lot of new things I'm learning. This was my goal, this was my dream. I wanted to get back into baking again. It's what I started out loving, and it's my passion. It's great to have my hands smelling like sugar again.

  I'm definitely utilizing my skill sets from working in bigger corporations. What I like better is having control over the quality, where I'm not forced to be in to a specific price point and where I can focus better on what's going to get me the best product. That's my favorite part. We make all our fillings from scratch. But coming from the grocery store end, I still bring the need for value.

What's unique about your king cakes?

C: I know how important a king cake is to a bakery business in New Orleans. So it was really important to me that I developed king cake that would put us on the map. I tried a lot of different things. I wanted to get away from a cinnamon king cake. We're using an old-school, traditional brioche, but since brioche can be kind of boring, instead of a cinnamon smear we're using an ooey-gooey butter smear that melts into the dough. It adds that extra bit of love that you need in a dough that makes it a step above bread.

  We do a strawberry-Creole cream cheese, pecan-praline, apple, strawberry, but our number one seller are the bouille, which is a Cajun custard — we call it the Bavarian of the bayou. It's not very well known in New Orleans, but we're teaching people about it. It's like stirred custard, like a pastry cream. Usually you'll find it in the tarte au la bouille pie, which is popular for the holidays down in the bayou. Bouille custard is a traditional Cajun recipe.

What tips do you have for home bakers attempting to make their own king cake?

C: Not a lot of people make brioche at home. I think that is a really specific skill set that's typically above (that of) a home baker, so immediately it intimidates people. But if you are, you should refrigerate the dough before you shape it. It will be easier to handle.

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