Perhaps the only child in Louisiana history to be born to a mother with absolutely no culinary skills at all, Jyl Benson began cooking in self-defense at the age of six. She is 13 years younger than her closest sibling so her parents were tired and paid little attention as she use the household kitchen as per personal laboratory, sometimes with disastrous outcomes. Her skills have improved greatly over the years and kitchen fires are a thing of the past.
She began her editorial career in 1990 with The Times Picayune and served as a regional reporter covering the southeastern United States for both The New York Times and Time magazine. She wrote "Galatoire's Cookbook: Recipes & Family History from the Time-Honored New Orleans Restaurant" (Random House 2005), as well as several cultural, historical and architectural guides to New Orleans. She served as editor-in-chief of Louisiana Cookin’ magazine from 2009 to 2011 and founded Louisiana Kitchen & Culture magazine in 2012. Sheis a dining columnist for St. Charles Avenue, Acadiana Profile and Louisiana Life magazines, a frequent contributor to New Orleans Magazine, and the author of "Fun Funky, Fabulous: New Orleans Casual Restaurant Recipes" (2015, Pelican Publishing) and "Louisiana's Tables" (2017, Savory House Press).
The realization of a shared dream, Chef Chaya Conrad opened Bywater Bakery in 2017 with her husband, Alton Osborne, a native of the Seventh Ward and a clothing designer who’s a familiar face in New Orleans’ art and music communities. Osborne maintained a presence in the craft area at Jazz Fest for 20 years and has outfitted numerous notable musicians and personalities.
Together they have created so much more than a place to score exceptional pastries, top-notch bagels, stunning cakes or something delicious and savory for lunch. The space also serves as a gallery featuring a rotating roster of local artists, an informal community center, a live music venue, an incubator for other chefs and a place to celebrate world cultural traditions.
“We support all of the things we love,” says Conrad, 49. “This has become what we dreamed it would be.”
The couple amassed the money needed to open the bakery by building a small cottage behind their Bywater home then renting it out via Airbnb with Osborne, then working from home, serving as host. The money allowed Conrad to quit her corporate job and focus on the dream.
Born and raised in upstate New York near the Culinary Institute of America, from which she obtained her degree, Conrad did her externship in New Orleans. After working around the country she returned, ultimately to head the Pastry Department for Whole Foods at Arabella Station. While there she created the Berry Chantilly Cake, which is now sold nationwide across the Whole Foods brand. At Bywater Bakery she offers several incarnations of the celebrated, often replicated confection.
“Chaya is the bakery,” says Osborne, 59. “I’m the vibe and the energy. The element of curated music is part of the role I play best here, to pull people into this space.”
Celebrations of diverse culinary and cultural traditions are a crucial part of the couple’s vision. Every year on January 6, a King’s Day King Cake block party launches the bakery’s growing roster of both sweet and savory King Cakes with an all-day celebration that spreads into a parking lot across the street. This year’s celebration included performances by a “super group” comprised of such illustrious greats as trombonists Freddie Lonzo and Corey Henry, pianist David Torkanowsky, drummer Herlin Riley; Al “Carnival Time” Johnson and the Pinettes Brass Band.
In March, St. Joseph’s Day brought a day of Sicilian food and music and performances by several brass bands and Mardi Gras Indian tribes. A food-leaden altar, created in collaboration with Chef Gina Montalbano of Mama Giovanna’s Sicilian Specialties, was ultimately broken down to feed the community. On that day Chef Conrad turned her kitchen over to Chef Montalbano to host a Sicilian pop-up. Opening her kitchen to others is a common practice for Conrad.
“As people we know are trying to launch new food businesses, it’s an easy thing for us to be able to do for people,” she says. “It gives them a leg up. We didn’t get to where we are without the support of others. As we grow it’s our job to support people coming up too.”
In addition to the bakery’s standing menu (Crabmeat au Gratin sandwiches!) the week spanning the beginning of Passover and Easter brought dual specialty menus and live music celebrating the culinary and musical traditions associated with both faith-based holidays.
“Cultural traditions are important. They shouldn’t be watered down,” Osborn says.
The mission is to bring people together, Conrad says. “It’s (obviously) not for the wealth we’re amassing. It’s because it’s fun; it breaks up routine; it keeps things interesting. For Alton it’s the music, for Chaya it’s the food.”Try This:A & W Catering of Gretna, a go-to source since 1968, has opened a grab and go spot Uptown. On the menu are fresh, budget-friendly options for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Perfect for our current picnic season, the chicken salad (available in five varieties) is particularly good.
Bywater Bakery, 3624 Dauphine St., 336-3336, BywaterBakery.com
Grab-N-Geaux, 4409 Magazine St., 571-5281, GrabAndGeaux.com