Proof of concept: New bakeries rise in Lake Charles after hurricanes Laura and Delta

Photo by Brad Bowie
Demi baguettes, fresh from the oven at Helen St. Bakery in Lake Charles

Cary Sole likens breadmaking to mastering golf. Adopting a good swing is only the first step; it will forever need to be fine-tuned. Staring down intently, brow furrowed, Sole goes through his motions: clasping his hands together and massaging down his pre-formed dough, bowing out his arms, then flipping up the desired pirogue-shaped roll, tapered at each end. He lines them up, two by two, on a couche baker’s canvas. Before their final proof, each gets a last press provided by a neat tuck of the sheet along every row. Across the kitchen, Sole’s wife Laurie watches quietly, well familiar with her husband’s constant self-evaluation.

“He’s a perfectionist,” she affirms. “A poor perfectionist,” Cary corrects with a laugh. “What you’re striving for,” he explains, “is in essence an unachievable goal.”

Sole is among a new crop of culinary artisans in Lake Charles focusing their efforts on an often overlooked and underappreciated staple of the food world: the bread.

This renaissance is taking root in an improbable environment. Lake Charles, devastated by Hurricane Laura — and dealt a second blow by Delta last month — remains a city very much in recovery. Blue tarps stripe the roofscape of many shuttered restaurants and other Downtown businesses; access to the basics, like internet and medical care, remains spotty. 

Cary Sole prepares dough for a batch of demi baguettes Photo by Brad Bowie

Sole’s Helen St. Bakehouse has grown over the past two years as its wholesale footprint expanded, augmenting a retail presence at the local farmer’s market and The Wine Store. At The Bekery closer to the lake, Rebekah Hoffpauir’s perfectly flaky croissants have been drawing an increasingly devoted following since first opening in 2016. And with The Pasta Lab, which soft-opened in October, chef-proprietor Michael Gardner has debuted a variety of handspun fresh and dried pastas on McNeese Street next to Crying Eagle Brewery. Propelled by a booming pre-pandemic economy and their own passionate drives, these new businesses are bringing their handcrafted wares to a small town market that has traditionally been lacking in many cosmopolitan amenities. 

“There’s been a huge void,” says restaurateur Ben Herrera. “I have always tried to find someone who was a baker who was gonna go down that road.” Now, he has. Herrera’s flagship restaurant, 121 Artisan Bistro, features Sole’s bolillo rolls (on a decadent shaved ribeye sandwich) and his braided Italian loaf as its house bread. Herrera is also planning to open two more Lake Charles eateries — a re-opening of Calla, which shuttered during the early months of the pandemic, and The James 710, an upscale casual concept. Herrera aims to feature both Sole’s bread and Gardner’s pasta across all three locations.

What sets these new businesses apart is both a throwback to a more traditional bread bakery and a touch of innovation. Helen St. Bakehouse has won rave reviews for rustic sourdoughs and its unique Japanese milk bread, a rich buttery sliced loaf similar to brioche. At The Bekery, Hoffpauir and her team are serving up fantastically creative croissants. There’s a snail-shaped chocolate “escargot” rolled with pastry cream, chocolate and pecans; an open-faced variation is nestled with layers of buttery shrimp and grits. The Pasta Lab will feature an open kitchen and combine wholesale with boutique retail, bringing home a world of traditional straight and shaped pastas alongside flavored and alternative wheat options, select olive oils and Italian hard cheeses.

Traditionally in Lake Charles, the city’s well-regarded bakeries, including Jo’s Party House (open since 1967), Mrs. Johnnie’s Gingerbread House, and Pronia’s Deli and Bakery, have focused on custom cakes and sweets, with limited wholesale throughout town. (Both Helen St. Bakehouse and The Bekery are currently working toward moving to larger facilities with more wholesale capabilities). Herrera notes most Lake Charles restaurants, including his own 121 Artisan Bistro, currently buy much of their sandwich and poboy loaves from out of town providers like Leidenheimers in New Orleans. “Unfortunately most of the locals haven’t been able to keep up with the volume of any restaurant,” Herrera says.  

A lifelong service industry professional and serial entrepreneur (he also recently launched a credit card business and alkaline water company), Herrera remains bullish on the Lake Charles market despite the recent devastation brought on by hurricanes Laura and Delta. He credits billions of dollars in industrial development into Lake Charles from liquified natural gas facilities to South African petrochemical giant Sasol — which built a $13 billion facility in the area about five years ago — as the main drivers of a regional economic boom he expects to overcome all the downturns of 2020. “That’s really what’s surged us forward,” he says. “We have more industrial investment here than probably anywhere in the United States. That’s the reason the economy was growing and will continue to grow even though we’ve had a huge setback.”

It’s hard to overstate the setback of Hurricane Laura. Within the service industry, many Lake Charles restaurants remain closed, overcome by building damage, mired in insurance disputes, and hung up by the scarcity of overwhelmed contractors and construction crews. “It’s rough,” Herrera says. “I feel bad for them all. There’s a lot of restaurants that are taking a long time to [reopen]. And yea, there’s gonna be quite a lot that aren’t gonna open, especially the independents.”

Cary Sole prepares dough for a batch of demi baguettes Photo by Brad Bowie

Those that have managed to bounce back quickly are reaping the benefits — both of their own established success and of fewer market competitors. Because Herrera already had contractors lined up on his other projects, and 121 Artisan Bistro fortunately sustained minimal damage, it was one of the first Lake Charles restaurants to reopen following Hurricane Laura. That was a day after power was restored, still nearly a month after the storm hit. It’s been slammed ever since.  

Right after Delta, Rebekah Hoffpauir reopened The Bekery and quickly had a packed house. By the end of the day, the patisserie had sold out of all of its prepared baked items for the day, including quiche, pastries and approximately 300 of a variety of its specialty croissants. “It was crazy busy,” Hoffpauir says. She believes numbers may have fallen just shy of its busiest to date, though she’s not certain since the restaurant still doesn’t have its phone and internet service working to compare historical sales numbers (Lake Charles main telecom provider, Suddenlink, has faced harsh criticism for lagging the city’s recovery efforts). “I didn’t want to wait,” Hoffpauir says of reopening. “I don’t know how long it will be [before internet is restored].” 

The 27-year-old self-taught baker was inspired to her career by a high school trip to Italy, where she discovered a whole new world of baked creations. “I loved the breads, the croissants and the pastries,” she says, “and there was nothing like that in Lake Charles, and so I wanted to make it myself.” 

In April, while the pandemic had shut down all of the nation’s restaurants, Hoffpauir reached out to famed fourth  generation French pastry chef Francois Brunet, the head baker for all of Chef Daniel Boulud’s restaurants in New York City. He agreed to a week-long consultation with her, during which time Hoffpauir was able to further refine her croissant craft. “I’ve always known how to make croissants and they were delicious and people loved them,” she says. “But I wanted to figure out how to get them perfect like I’ve seen and had before.” 

Not far from The Bekery, at the historic Cash & Carry building Downtown, Cary Sole is seeking his own perfected loaf. Most would be hard-pressed to distinguish the subtle nuanced differences in each loaf and batch. But Sole, a former commercial insurance agent, has honed his sense of all the complex variables in every living, expanding mixture of flour, salt, water and yeast. Today’s bake — a test run — is his first since Hurricane Laura shut him down two months ago.

Sole cuts into a baguette, inspecting the crumb, the size and pattern of the bread’s interior holes. These loaves cooked fast, but he appears satisfied with the result. Adhering to high product standards and time-consuming techniques (the demi baguette dough is made with an 18-hour poolish, or French pre-fermented starter), Sole makes bread that reaches a craveable status many savory chefs fall well short of. “When I was a kid, the only bread I would eat was Evangeline Maid without the crust,” he recalls with a half smile, qualifying that Evangeline Maid is a great bakery in its own right. “I just went down the rabbit hole [with baking],” he says. “Now that I know so much of what good bread can be, it makes all the difference in the world.”

His business has yet to prove very lucrative, and that is somewhat by design. Since taking his baking full time, Sole has been resistant to growing too fast and remains a one-man operation. Helen St. Bakehouse (a nod to the residential home where his business, and baking obsession first started) has also had physical limitations. The small catering kitchen he is operating out of in the back of Cash & Carry is too small for his convection ovens and some other equipment, and was always supposed to be temporary. He had recently reached an agreement to enter into a new building with two other retail tenants, including a nice companion coffeeshop, but he now acknowledges the hurricane may have pushed construction back more than a year. 

A self-professed control freak, Sole is learning to lean into the recent chaos. “I kind of enjoy the challenge,” he says. “Now, how are you going to make a living at this in this new environment? I’ve had to learn to let go of my mild obsessive compulsive disorder in that regard.”