When I first met Will Samuels he was operating Pizza Nola, a small Lakeview lunch place on West Harrison Avenue whose fare also included pasta, calzone and specialty ice creams. Then one day he mentioned that he was selling something extra, king cake; not just any brand, but from an eastern New Orleans Vietnamese success story, Dong Phuong Bakery.
At the time it seemed like the king cake would just be a seasonal add on. I did not realize how passionate he was about the delicacy, to the point that on the morning of Twelfth Night each year, he would have a band performing outside his storefront to celebrate the arrival of the Carnival season and a first chance to buy a cake.
Dong Phuong would eventually become very popular in the world of king cakes and for good reason. Its brioches, unitizing Vietnamese baking techniques, which were influenced by the French, were exceptionally crisp and delicate, enhancing the overall sensory experience. The brand became so popular that lines would form outside the home bakery. Soon the Dong Phuong folks realized there was no need to sell their cake retail; not when they could just do it themselves.
Samuels eventually closed Pizza Nola, emboldened by a seemingly crazy notion to establish a hub where the culinary- deprived could buy king cakes of all types in one location. He rented a space on Canal Street at a former funeral home, which had already been sanctified for seasonal frolicking as the site of a Halloween haunted house. Now it would become the King Cake Hub and Samuels would be the world’s first Big Box (well maybe middle-sized box) Multiple Choices King Cake Entrepreneur. Prior to the Hub, each bakery would sell its own product. With the Hub, Gambino’s Bakery could now compete with Randazzo’s and Caluda’s side by side. Eventually Samuels moved his business to the Broad Theater in the heart of the Broad Street revival. There is an outdoor concert stage adjacent to the theater and it was there, this spring, that I talked with Samuels for what would be the last time. The king cake business was doing well, but he said he was moving the Hub a few blocks away to Zony Mash, a microbrewery plus performance and art space. Most of us did not know that beyond entrepreneurship, cancer had created a greater battle in his life. On September 17, 2021, the headline, preceding a NOLA.com article by food writer Ian McNulty, announced:
“Will Samuels, joyfully creative co-founder of King Cake Hub, dies at 52.”
There was a time when king cakes were fairly dry pastries topped with colored sugar and best known for the pursuit of the plastic baby within. But then the bakers became more creative, injecting the innards with various flavorings. That the industry has upgraded was evident last year when even Brennan’s restaurants started creating their own version.
Samuel’s widow, Jennifer, has taken charge of the business, which she and Will were about to bring into another dimension. Just as Bacchus changed the size and scope of parades, the central market king cake concept could make the delicacy accessible to more customers and perhaps stir up more competition among bakers.
It is relevant to this story that Samuels was Jewish. (He had been managing director of the Shir Chadash Conservative Congregation in Metairie.) King cake is Christian. (Originally the baby within was said to represent the Christ child.) And the Vietnamese are skilled bakers. All share common ground over a pastry. Blessed are those peoples who break bread together.