Kaitlin Guerin of Lagniappe Baking shares her journey from dancing to baking and settling into her native New Orleans during the pandemic.
Photo: Monwell Frazier
Tell us a little bit about who Kaitlin is and where you've come from.
So I am a pastry chef. Born and raised in New Orleans, but have been living in various parts of the world for the past 10 years so I haven't lived in my hometown in 10 years. I just moved back last year and now I'm here permanently. I was previously a professional modern contemporary dancer and went to undergrad and trained for dance and in general for arts, so I consider myself an artist. I moved to California to pursue my dance career and then ended up a few years later going to culinary school for pastry. Now that I'm back home, I decided to start my own business selling these pastry boxes, and that's kind of who I am, where I am right now.
Nice! What were you doing professionally up until quarantine?
It was interesting because the mindset was very different when I moved here, I only had the intention of staying here for a few months because I thought it was just going to be a time to rest. I had just graduated school, went straight into work and then decided to leave so that I could move back home to spend time with family before there would not be another chance for some years. My initial plan was to work part-time at a bakery or a restaurant or something so that I could have time to get back into dancing, take classes, and spend time with family and friends. So when I moved home in January of 2020, I decided to get a part-time job working at La Boulangerie as a bread baker, just to hone in my bread baking skills. And I was taking dance classes over at Dancing Grounds just trying to recenter back in a place that was comfortable for me. I also started teaching dance classes to toddlers, so that was going to be my balanced career for the few months time. But then the pandemic happened and that shifted the whole course of my being in New Orleans.
“...quarantine happened or rather the lockdown happened in March. I feel like maybe three weeks went by and I was like, this is enough. I can't lay down anymore. It's not in my power to just stay still for that long. So I was stress baking and cooking, and decided to start making treats for family and friends as a way for them to have something to enjoy while they're also in lockdown.”
When did you realize that your plans would have to pivot and how did Lagniappe Baking come about?
Yeah, so quarantine happened or rather the lockdown happened in March. I feel like maybe three weeks went by and I was like, this is enough. I can't lay down anymore. It's not in my power to just stay still for that long. So I was stress baking and cooking, and decided to start making treats for family and friends as a way for them to have something to enjoy while they're also in lockdown and for me to enjoy making it. And then I thought to myself, oh, well why don't I just make this a thing? And I can sell assorted boxes to friends and family, because that's what we all want right now is just eat to a lot of sugar and not feel guilty about ourselves doing that.
So I guess that's where Lagniappe Baking came about, started off pretty small, but the same concept. Four different assorted pastries, like a macaroon, a piece of cake, something chocolate and something else as the fourth item. And then it evolved into what it is now, which is that same sort of concept, a little bit more sophisticated. Standards definitely raised a lot more, but playing on interesting flavor combinations. What's available, what's seasonal, what is interesting to me. So everything that I'm putting in the box, as far as flavor and combinations go is just all my ideas and concepts for the most part. Just playing around, a lot of it is just creativity and playing around and seeing what sticks and what doesn't. Going off of customer feedback, things like that.
Cool. Yeah. So you're kind of getting into it. What has that experience been like growing this business?
It's been a whirlwind. No idea what I was doing. My mom, for example, teaches classes on small businesses starting up so I have people that are resources in my immediate circle, but then I was just so headstrong, like “I'm just going to do it myself”. So it was a lot of making mistakes, but also just trusting my instinct.
And a lot of trial and error. I'm definitely very much in the mindset of giving customers what I think that they want as opposed to giving options. So that's why there's only one item offered on the menu. That's just the box and there's no substitutions. If you have an allergy, you can let me know, but just don’t order this week. It's helped to really keep it clear and defined that this is the only thing that I'm selling in terms of Lagniappe pastry boxes and we also special order cakes. But this is the only actual product that I'm selling. Trying to define it being once a week or twice a week or this number of boxes this time, or if it's going to be at the house or a pop up. All those things have just been trial and error. Seasons affect it too. Christmas time was crazy, but people just wanted holiday boxes. So you'd have to figure out, just do a lot of research on what do people want at that time. It's just kind of playing the game and thinking what would I want right now? Because I'm also going through a lock down. What is it that I want to eat right now? Or how, how would I best enjoy this treat. In the morning or in the afternoon or even stuff like that. So it is a lot of intuitiveness.
“It's just kind of playing the game and thinking what would I want right now? Because I'm also going through a lock down. What is it that I want to eat right now?”
Yeah. And you've been trying so many things in so many different new sections of Lagniappe. What’s been a highlight of the endeavor, like a special collaboration, or opportunity?
Even though they're really stressful for me personally, I really enjoy doing our dinner collaborations with Chef Serigne Mbaya’s Senalgalese creole fusion pop-up Dakar NOLA. I'm really happy with those because before the pandemic started I was in my resting transition phase, trying to figure out where I wanted my career to go with pastry. I was seeing myself being an executive pastry chef at some fine-end restaurant somewhere here, L.A., Denmark, or wherever. Seeing that I really want to work in fine dining, so I think I need this time to work in a fast paced and very particular environment like that. Consistency is important, technique is really important. Creating the same product over and over again with such fine detail. Those are the kinds of things I get excited about! So doing those dinners is a little taste of that world again, that I have to create also within the constraints of a Senegalese meal, because that's what Dakar is, breaking down the Senegalese cuisine which challenges my technique. Chef Serigne is kind of deconstructing that and bringing it to a New Orleans, elevated experience too.
Cool. And so you kind of touched on the challenges of the last year, but how have you flourished in spite of a big challenge in the last year? Is there one in particular that was hard to navigate?
I guess what's really been the biggest challenge is distinguishing myself as not so much a home baker, but that I went to school for this. I'm a trained chef and studied pastry at the Culinary Institute of America, so distinguishing myself in that mix of things because I did move back home is really just kind of breaking that line because as people from New Orleans, we cherish anyone who's from here and we really take that to heart. I felt very displaced moving back home and then having everything shaken up with the pandemic because I'm trying to create a voice here and a name, but no one knows who I am and they're like, "Oh, that girl, I think she's from here"... The article Eater.com wrote on me in January brought a lot of clarity to myself and to the business, because where I've even been feeling some imposter syndrome, I have to check myself like, "No, Kaitlin, this is real." That kind of helps me feel better and build my confidence back up about what I’m doing.
“The biggest challenge is distinguishing myself as not so much a home baker, but that I went to school for this. I'm a trained chef and studied pastry at the Culinary Institute of America, so distinguishing myself in that mix of things because I did move back home is really just kind of breaking that line...I felt very displaced moving back home and then having everything shaken up with the pandemic because I'm trying to create a voice here and a name.”
What's your advice for anyone who has to change course with the events of the last year?
I guess the advice, speaking from a career changer prior to a pandemic, is just really own it. I, myself, am a very indecisive person and I'm a Gemini, so I like doing a lot of things and trying out a lot of hobbies and whatever sticks, sticks, but I know myself — that I can move on. I can juggle a lot of hats and wear them really well, so my advice would be just be confident that where you're going is the right move and to really trust your intuition! Those are two really cliche things, but I think that the more I put that energy out. Speaking on it - speaking your truths and doing all your research as best as possible, talking to people in that field and just trying to find the similarities between what you were doing before and where it is you're trying to build now.
We're all just playing this game, it's like another version of life, right? We'll just figure it out.
While we're here, I noticed you have a small tattoo and it's inspired by the DNO pelican. Could you tell us the story behind that?
Yeah. I'd been wanting to get a small tattoo for a long time and had been living away from New Orleans for so many years since I left at 18, so a few years ago I'd been obviously really homesick and everyone from New Orleans has some sort of tattoo from their home. I wanted to get a memorable tattoo that was not a fleur-de-lis or a Magnolia or something a little bit more expected. I love birds, I think they're super majestic and a pelican is a super underdog of a bird. They're obviously very graceful birds, but a brown pelican, they're not a dove or a swan. I got my boyfriend the DNO pelican hat, probably because I liked the pelican myself. Then I'm in California and I was like, "Wow, this is actually the one. This is such a cute pelican" and I was really attached to that design. It was just such a simple, nice outline. I took that hat to the tattoo artist and he drew it for me. His name is Chocatolous, Chochoc for short.
“My advice would be just be confident that where you're going is the right move and to really trust your intuition!”