Bronwen Wyatt bakes and decorates alone in the dim, studio-like kitchen of a Bywater building, a large, commercial fan pointed at the old wooden table where her cake canvases rest. She tries to keep the spacious kitchen relatively cool — no easy feat during New Orleans summer — so she can successfully ornament cakes for her booming pandemic-born business, Bayou Saint Cake.
Like many chefs and bakers who started a business during the pandemic, Wyatt turned to home baking after losing her job as a pastry chef for a top local restaurant. “I wish I could say it was really well-thought-out,” Wyatt says. “I did not have a vision board. I just knew I needed to bring in money somehow, and I started taking some special orders, and then more and more.”
Along the way, the self-described “goth baker” has found and helped nurture a community online and with other local, homegrown businesses. She has also become more familiar with New Orleans’s queer-owned business community, which she describes as small but growing. “My exposure and connections to queer-owned businesses in New Orleans definitely grew because of the pandemic,” Wyatt says. The growth is partly due, she says, to the fact that she didn’t come out until she was in her 30s. “I was missing out on some of those connections until recently.”
Finding her community — both online and in-real-life — has allowed Wyatt to build Bayou Saint Cake into a successful local business. Her following also points to an obsessive corner of the internet known as “cake Instagram,” where she’s famous for her “squiggles,” the ruffles of buttercream frosting that top many of her organic, small-batch layer cakes. You know you have arrived at cake Instagram after descending a food photography rabbit hole, where you find a mesmerizing world of too-pretty-to-eat cake creations. This is a post-fondant world, to be sure — flavor comes first, and the designs are expressive, dramatic, even imperfect.
Although Wyatt graduated with a degree in visual art from Tulane University, she’s quick to characterize her cake-making as a craft rather than art (though some might disagree). “There’s a real crafting element to it all, making everything fit and work together,” Wyatt says. “I don’t know if I would call it an art, and that’s okay. It doesn’t need to be.” She worked in the culinary worlds of Maine and San Francisco after graduating Tulane in 2005, returning to New Orleans after four years away. She’s since overseen the pastry programs at some of New Orleans’s most-acclaimed restaurants, including La Petite Grocery, Shaya, Willa Jean, and most recently, at hotspot Bacchanal and its sister restaurant, the trendy Elysian Bar.
After losing her job during the pandemic, Wyatt found herself inspired by cake Instagram, both in terms of the community support she saw happening there, as well as by specific accounts, like Korea-based cake maker Yammy Cake. “I was using all these drifting, swoop-y florals on my cakes, but I loved the playful aesthetic I saw on these accounts. They helped me grow into my own,” she says. “It wasn’t until I started developing a more individual style that things really took off.”
The aforementioned squiggle was born from a custom cake request that involved incorporating a plastic chicken nugget Happy Meal figurine — the squiggle was Wyatt’s decorative interpretation of the chicken nugget shape. From there, she gained a following for her surrealist, whimsical designs — sometimes incorporating the squiggle, sometimes not — as well as her ingredients. Recent examples include zucchini and benne seed cake with burnt honey buttercream; olive oil chiffon cake with blueberry and elderflower preserves, fig leaf custard, and creme fraiche buttercream; and chocolate and rye cake with chocolate coriander mousse, salted caramel, and chicory buttercream. Along with a number of other pandemic-born home bakers and pop-up operations, Wyatt created some of the most coveted, unexpected king cakes of Mardi Gras 2021.
The role of online community in her Bayou Saint Cake journey has been almost as important as finding her signature cake design. “We hear so much about how social media is this toxic cesspool, but I found that there were all these people I was seeing on social media that were undergoing the same small-business struggles I was,” Wyatt says. “I was able to connect with people all over the country and world, and share stories and challenges. It’s been the best thing to come out of all of this by far.”
Wyatt has sometimes shared her story through comics she makes and posts to Instagram, original illustrations that incorporate elements of the Bayou Saint Cake logo, designed by New Orleans artist Ashlee Arceneaux Jones (also known as Small Chalk). She shares photos of her creations, of course, and her highs, like making queer elopement cakes, Wyatt’s “favorite thing about 2020.” Her online community has been particularly important during creative lows — those moments often tied to burnout — but also in mobilizing her real-life community of neighbors, friends, and family in support of a cause, of which there has been no shortage in the past 16 months.
“A big thing for me the past year has been learning more about mutual aid. I know I have a lot of inherent privileges and comforts, so it’s important for me to think about distributing any excess resources to the community, and to focus on supporting the organizations doing that work,” Wyatt says. She’s held Instagram cake raffles to benefit New Orleans-based mutual aid group Southern Solidarity and Imagine Water Works, a local queer-led community group, and has directed a portion of profits from sales to a fund for the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe, Red Canary Song, and others.
Wyatt knows building Bayou Saint Cake has had everything to do with the support of her community, despite it technically being a one-woman show. It’s the reason she’s undaunted even when it’s challenging. “I definitely want to keep at it,” Wyatt says. “Even when I’m overwhelmed, I enjoy the work. I’m stretching new parts of my brain, learning about bookkeeping, customer service, marketing. This is my life for the foreseeable future, and I’m so excited about that.”
In what felt like a promise of more good things to come, she married her wife a few months ago in a small backyard affair. She can now offer this firm piece of advice to her peers, online and in real life: No matter your skillset, don’t be in charge of your own wedding cake. “I promise, you would rather be drinking champagne and hanging with your friends and family,” she says.
You can order Bayou Saint Cake for weekly Thursday, Friday, and Saturday pickups in July via the Bayou Saint Cake Minimart website. Email Wyatt directly for custom cake inquiries at [email protected], and follow Bayou Saint Cake on Instagram for cake, pie, and cookie flash sales.