Vegan Comfort Food

Reine Bayoc of SweetArt Bakeshop & Cafe (Credit: Lawrence Bryant, LB Photography)

Reine Bayoc is a force of baking-and-cooking-from-scratch badassery and an original force of plant-based comfort food that is authentically Southern (and the #ChurchPicnicPlate hashtag is all hers). The woman whose roots began in McKenzie, Tennessee before she came to St. Louis to study English and French at Saint Louis University and later to make SweetArt Bakeshop & Cafe a reality after a dream interview revealed the deep bias (and discrimination) of how the working world often views mothers of young children.

For the past decade Bayoc has breathed life into the bakeshop and cafe where a stunning painting of Edna Lewis watches over the patrons of this charming bakery in the historic Shaw neighborhood of St. Louis (think stately Victorian homes, tree-lined streets, and the international gardens and conservatories of the Missouri Botanical Garden). “SweetArt is off the beaten path,” Bayoc admitted. “You have to search me out to find us.” For those uninitiated to SweetArt’s delights, Bayoc creates decadent vegan and vegetarian goodies that are often better than their animal-fat, dairy-full counterparts (chocolate frosted toasted walnut brownies, anyone?). No, really. They are.

But back to Miss Lewis, the soft-spoken Grand Dame of Southern cooking. Lewis was one of the incredible cooks who showcased how the African-American culinary tradition crafted (and continues to craft) simple delicacies out of everyday ingredients; she was also a daughter born in 1916 to freed slaves. Lewis won the James Beard Award for Cookbook Hall of Fame and the James Beard Award for Magazine Feature with Recipes. Lewis’ painting serves as a visual reminder to Bayoc to stay true to her own roots, to remember the women who came before her and to keep her food fresh, fabulous, and unfussy.

“All of my female ancestors cooked,” Bayoc said. “While my female ancestors did not wear the white chef’s coat, I am sure they trained some of those who wore the white coats. They cooked for their families, out of necessity and love. The women in my family cooked dishes that were delicious and simple and very Southern. Sometimes it gets overly complicated, especially with a James Beard award-winning 18 courses. When I was traveling in Italy this summer with my daughter, what I loved about the meals we ate was they were simply yet expertly prepared with fresh ingredients. This way of cooking should be honored and it is just as good.”

Scrolling through the SweetArt Instagram feed makes a diner feel rapturous and ready for a heavenly Southern vegan conversion: Sweet Potato-Pecan Biscuits, Southern Caramel Cake, Fried Chik’n with Smoked Sausage-Cremini Gravy, Blueberry Slab Pie, and so much more.

Part of the natural tension of maintaining a hospitable atmosphere is also knowing who you are, and who you are not. Bayoc’s mission is not to jump aboard the “clean eating” train so much as to provide plant-based recipes that dazzle the taste buds and show diners what is possible with plants.

“There are such fucking snobs, of course, in the food world,” Bayoc said, reminding the writer that the expletive is necessary because of the frustrating and limiting role of snobbery in the culinary arts. “Snobs about not being a size 0 when you are a plant-based chef, snobs about soy while Japanese culture has been eating this ingredient for centuries, snobs about my cauliflower being fried, but that’s how I want it to be, so if you want to roast it in your own home, please do. What I want others to experience is here’s this food and it’s delicious and it will make you feel good. This all-or-nothing approach to life is just not the way the world should be, and no one is really comfortable with this way of thinking either. Be joyful in what you eat.”

Bayoc also wants us to be joyful when we cook, which is why she is writing a cookbook that stems from some of the recipes she shares on her blog, the Love & Magic Kitchen: Conjuring the Intuitive Cook in You. Evocative subjects from “Porn … And the Almond Errthang Cookie Dough Bites” to “Hot Yoga … And a Mexican Hot Chocolate Tart” combine relatable, humorous writing with hang-up-the-phone-and-put-your-apron-on recipes.

“I’m in the business of selling food, and I still really want people to cook together,” Bayoc said. “I don’t see helping people cook taking away from my business. There are so many memories made in the process of cooking, even if it’s just making a meal for yourself. There is joy in the process.”

While Bayoc’s first cookbook proposal received a personal and kind rejection from her dream publisher (who also seemed very concerned about the number of SweetArt’s social-media followers), she knows the project will eventually find its publishing home.

“I think some people don’t think people buy books anymore,” Bayoc said as we discussed why someone would not snap up her unique approach to cooking and baking. “Publishers want to publish books they know they are going to sell.”

But scouring my bookshelves and the bookshelves of virtual and physical booksellers, I have yet to see a plant-based Southern chef like Reine Bayoc. Bayoc herself appreciates Bryant Terry’s cookbooks, with titles such as Afro-Vegan, The Inspired Vegan, and Vegan Soul Kitchen, among others. She also cites Cheryl Day and Griffith Day’s The Back in the Day Bakery Cookbook as a current influence. But honestly there is no one quite like Bayoc on the market, and that is a damned shame.

Perhaps working as a black vegan chef and baker in the Middle West prevents publishers on the coasts from seeing what a rare gem SweetArt’s creator is. Yet, the customers who live on those coasts and who visit Bayoc’s bakeshop know her worth: “What I hear a lot is, ‘I need you in Los Angeles.’ I had a customer in New York say I served the best vegan fare hands down, but they were in New York and not St. Louis. What can I say? I did my research. I ate for years.”

What Bayoc has also done for years is put her heart and soul into the food she creates, and I swear you can taste it. When you discover Bayoc has a “lovers’ mix” soundtrack (cue Anthony Hamilton’s “The Point of It All”) she listens to while baking and decorating a wedding cake, you taste the intentionality, the attention to detail, and, yes, the ingredient hardest of all to source and cultivate, love.