Lucie Monk Carter
Hospitality drew Christina Balzebre to the kitchen first. In her hometown of Miami, her mother runs a temporary staffing agency and is well versed in the city’s restaurants and hotels. “But she did not want me to be a chef or a baker, anything. She said, ‘It’s backbreaking work,’” recalled Balzebre while carving me a fresh slice of mustard-greens quiche moments after we met on the sloping porch of the Dryades Street house in New Orleans where she now vends her baked goods. Sure enough, cramped knees, calluses, and sleepless nights have dogged Balzebre since she graduated from Loyola University and took her first kitchen job at Surrey’s Café and Juice Bar, hopping from the line there to baking at the Satsuma Café, in the commissary kitchen for the Link Restaurant Group, and now at the Besh Restaurant Group’s Willa Jean. Her weekends are given up to her own venture, Levee Baking Company, with sold-out pop-ups on Dryades Street every Saturday morning.
Still, she stands by her first response to her mother’s warnings away from the kitchen: “Yeah, but if you love it and if you grow to love it a lot, it’s totally worth it. At least for me.” We sat down over chocolate buttermilk pie and lemon rosemary biscuits to talk about working with your hands, the perfect crust, and forging real connections through Instagram. Find excerpts below.
On how she learned to bake:
My grandmother was like, “You’re in New Orleans. Go learn how to cook. This is the best place to do it. Don’t go to culinary school. Go and be somebody’s apprentice or just figure it out there. This is the best city to do it in.” I took her advice, and every time I said I was going to move back to Miami for a little while, my grandmother was like, “Don’t you dare! Stay in New Orleans.”
I wanted to learn how to make bread. At a certain point, I was like, “I can’t teach myself everything. I need to work under somebody, and I want a pastry chef to kick my ass.” I started working for Donald Link [the Link Restaurant Group]. The head bread baker there [Mike Carmody] became my mentor, and he taught me everything about bread.
On working with her hands:
Every day’s different with bread. Every single time that you make bread or pastries … you can follow certain rules and it will come out a certain way, but there are certain factors in temperature and timing that will always be different. So sometimes you might not get the same result, especially with sourdough bread. It’s just really exciting when you work with your hands and you make something from scratch. I don’t use any machines. I don’t use a mixer to do any of the bread. It’s all done by hand. It’s a really transformative process.
On baking styles:
I think every baker has their own signature and their own style to what they’re doing. You can totally see the contrast between [New Orleans-based] Bellegarde Bakery’s bread, which is really dark and very California-style tartine bread. He’s using a lot of whole-wheat flour. It’s all freshly milled; so not only is it nutritional, but the flavor’s totally different than what you’d see with white loaves.
Ideally with bread, I want to have holes like this [gesturing to a fresh-cut boule of sourdough], but I want more whole-wheat flavor. I like really dark, caramelized crust. That’s my favorite kind of bread, but not so much that you can’t bite into it. For pies, I love an all-butter crust. It has to be flaky. No soggy bottoms. It drives me crazy when there’s a soggy bottom. I use whole-wheat flour, so half the flour I use is fresh whole wheat from Bellegarde. I really like it when it’s super crispy. For sweet pies like this [chocolate buttermilk pie], I like putting sugar on top. It’s funny because whenever I use pie scraps, it comes out so much flakier and fluffier because you’re basically laminating dough when you put all your scraps together. I love how it comes out puffy and rustic like that.
[You might like: Chef Manny Augello preaches from the church of Neapolitan pizza.]
I’m not trying to achieve pristine, beautiful things. I want flavor to be the most important thing. And the rustic aesthetic I really love. That comes after, though. I love the imperfection of things like that. I love galettes because they’re free form and you don’t really have to worry about it. You don’t have to stay within these strict guidelines. It’s a freeform galette, so you just let it do its thing. The same with bread. I feel like bread is just in itself a rustic form of art.
Lucie Monk Carter
"For pies, I love an all-butter crust. It has to be flaky. No soggy bottoms," said Levee Baking Co.'s Christina Balzebre. "It drives me crazy when there’s a soggy bottom."
On her dream oven:
At this point I will take any deck oven. It’s kind of like a pizza oven but there’s a steam injector in it, so it makes everything rise. That was my favorite part [of working at the Link Group] was using that oven. It took me a while to get the strength for it. I literally thought I wasn’t going to be strong enough. I said, “I don’t know if I can do this!” But then you get used to it. It’s so high that it’s like a head taller than I am. I had to get up on a ladder to try to get bread out of there.
On growing Levee Baking Company through Instagram:
It’s kind of amazing. It’s just purely free advertising. You can connect with so many people just through social media. The reason why I wanted to do photography is that in my experience, whenever I see a really good photo of someone’s food, it makes me want to go there. It makes me want to eat it. And that’s the kind of experience I wanted to give people, which is why I wanted to learn how to set up a good photograph and what makes the best image. It was like an experiment in marketing. How can I get people to notice what I’m trying to do? Or just get people to connect with me?
I don’t use any machines. I don’t use a mixer to do any of the bread. It’s all done by hand. It’s a really transformative process.
Yesterday, this home baker, who makes beautiful sourdough bread in Baton Rouge, came to New Orleans just to come to the pop-up, and she came with her whole family. It was so sweet. She posted something later about how lovely it was coming here, and I cried. That’s exactly the kind of connection that I want to make with people. Sometimes it’s really hard and you can get lost in your head a little bit. It’s really challenging to wake up at four and try to get everything done by a certain point. It’s anxiety and it’s stress, but on top of all that, you actually make these great connections with people. But it’s worth it at the end of the day for something like that.
On the New Orleans food scene:
New Orleans is such a small city that it actually made me wonder if there was room for something like Levee. I’ve gotten a great response from it for a while, but there are so many options here. You wonder how all these restaurants are getting filled up. How are all these places making money if there are so many to choose from? It doesn’t make any sense to me. But I think people gravitate toward something when you put your heart and soul into it.
Balzebre shares her Dryades Street workspace with Chef Melissa Martin’s weekly Mosquito Supper Club. Beginning in April, Levee Baking Company goods will be available daily at 3824 Dryades Street. Balzebre will also lead baking workshops at the house and collaborate on Sunday brunches with Martin. Visit leveebakingco.com or instagram.com/leveebaker to stay current.