“A party without cake is just a meeting” –Julia Child
It started as a whim. It ended as a quest. A quest that probably added five percent to my total body mass index, an inch to my waistline, and almost put me in a diabetic coma. But it’s what I do. I eat for a living. When it comes to king cake, I took one for the home team.
We are a few weeks away from opening a bakery in Hattiesburg. It’s a project I’ve been working on for six years. It typically doesn’t take six years to develop a new concept, but I spent five and a half of those years begging pastry chef, and James Beard Award winner, Martha Foose, and her baker husband, Donald Bender, to move from the Delta down to my hometown of Hattiesburg to head up what will soon be known as Loblolly Bakery.
Foose and Bender have finally pulled up longstanding roots in the Mississippi Delta and are now firmly ensconced in the Pine Belt of South Mississippi and ready to start baking. They’ve traded the rich Delta soil for the taproot of Loblolly Pine.
We have been developing menus, laying out kitchen equipment, and battling with city planners, which has pushed us back from our December 2022 target opening date. We hoped to be neck deep in king cake sales at this point of the game, but fate pushed our target date a little farther down the road.
Nevertheless, Foose and Bender are baking trial-run king cakes and when we feel we’re ready we’ll start selling them out of our Creole concept Crescent City Grill. In the meantime, I wanted to grab a few king cakes in New Orleans to bring back as examples and to jump start the creative process. Seriously, that’s how it started. A simple task. I was just going to grab a couple of king cakes. But, as my wife often accuses, I overdid it, took it too far, chose excess over austerity and 32 king cakes later, I sit here writing this column with a sugar hangover of the first order.
I’m not sure when it switched from grabbing a couple king cakes, to sampling a several king cakes, to all-out competition of who makes the best king cake in New Orleans, but it did. It probably had something to do with the popularity of the much-lauded New Orleans East mainstay Dong Phuong Bakery, the feverish love and adoration poured out for their king cakes— and the frustration that came from trying to get my hands on one of them— that led me to buy as many king cakes as I could in one day to see if the Dong Phuong product lived up to the hype. Though there’s a slight chance that the entire exercise morphed into a mission to prove the masses wrong.
A few weeks ago I called the Dong Phuong Bakery to place an order for a couple of king cakes but was told they were sold out for the season. Not for the day, or the week, or even the month, but they had sold out every king cake they had made and were going to make this year in advance, before Twelfth Night! I am told that Goldbelly had them marked as sold out as early as October. That hardened my resolve. While talking to Justin Ferguson, our executive chef at Enzo in Ridgeland, he told me that Dong Phuong delivers to a handful of small stores in the area, and that the Adams Street Grocery was one of them.
I called Adams Street and was told that they get a Dong Phuong delivery five days a week. But that the cakes go quickly so I should get there early. I drove down from Hattiesburg last week and didn’t get there early enough.
This past weekend I decided to sample 30 king cakes to find the best king cake in New Orleans. My job was made easier by a place called the King Cake Hub. It’s a brilliant idea in its fourth year. King Cake Hub is a seasonal pop-up set up in a craft beer brewery that sells over two dozen varieties of king cakes by 15 local bakeries who deliver to that location every morning. It’s like a roadside fireworks stand for king cake.
I arrived at the King Cake Hub 30 minutes early and was third in line. By the time they opened the line stretched down the sidewalk past the beer garden. I had a list already prepared and asked a nice lady named Rachel to help me knock the list of 20 cakes, which we did in a matter of minutes. She also gave some “You want this one instead of that” advice along the way. After loading the backseat of my truck with the initial load I headed to Adams Street Grocery to wait in line for the elusive great white whale of king cakes— the Dong Phuong.
I passed Laurel Street Bakery on the way and popped in for one of their cakes.
I arrived at the tiny Adams Street Grocery 30 minutes before opening and was fourth in line. There is a certain comradery that develops between people standing in line in a light drizzle waiting for king cakes. It’s akin to being at a sperm bank— everyone is a little embarred about why they are there and what’s about to happen, but after all everyone is there for the same reason. There is also a nervous energy that is almost palpable the farther one is back in the line as the farther back one is, the less chance he or she will have to score the ultimate Mardi Gras score, a Dong Phong king cake.
There were more than 20 in line when the door opened and it was almost like the Soup Nazi episode of Seinfeld as we all proceeded, in a straight line— and with great reverence and caution— to the register. They had four varieties of Dong Phuong king cake behind the counter but were only allowing two per customer. The owner was gracious, and nothing like the Seinfeld character. I tried to pull the I-drove-all-of-the-way-from-Hattiesburg plea to see if I could get more than two, but my appeal fell flat and I didn’t want to upset the cream-cheese filled apple cart, so I paid my tab and considered myself fortunate to have scored two of the most sought-after, holy grail, toppermost of the poppermost king cakes to be found. But how could they ever live up to the prebilling?
I stopped by a few other bakeries in town and even drove over to the West Bank where I met Hope Liberto, a wonderful lady who owns Bae’s Bakery in Gretna and stopped by Antoine’s Bakery for one of their much-lauded king cakes. My truck smelled like a candy factory all the way home to Hattiesburg.
Which of the 32 king cakes would win the day? The list of king cakes, the results of the tasting, and the video accounts of the process can all be found on my social media accounts and at robertstjohn.com.
It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to chew it.