Joy the Baker Talks Food Blogging, Yoga, and Drake on Cake
Joy Wilson found a path to her authentic self through writing Drake lyrics on cake. And other stuff, too.
At age six, Joy Wilson, best known by her eponymous blog name Joy the Baker, longed to be a writer—in the same burning way that all writers long to be what they already are. When she told her family her career ambition, the responses were much less enthusiastic than those given to her younger sister, Lauren, who at the time wanted to be a veterinarian (fast forward to now, though, and Lauren Wilson happily helms her own ice cream company in Seattle). Joy Wilson’s urge to write impelled her to an English major and curriculum in college, but there, she began working in the food industry, using her hands in restaurants and bakeries to make edible texts, line breaks for the palate, and a thesis to eat, not read.
Wilson’s food blog writing is singular and something all its own: a style that straddles the line between poetry and passive fiction, one that allows her ingredients to be actors in their own stories and for her to be the invisible orchestrator of their lives. Born to a black father and white mother, Wilson grew up in Los Angeles in the 1980s, where her mix was less an anomaly and more a casual feature of the region. This is the Los Angeles in which Meghan Markle grew up, where being black and white afforded not an entry key into two separate worlds, but the ability to create a new one entirely.
The Southern California region in which Wilson grew up and the Gulf Coast one in which she lives now both influence her cooking and baking, which she still shares, although in smaller doses, on her blog. With three cookbooks under her belt and a business called The Bakehouse in New Orleans that offers classes, workshops, and private parties, Joy, 37, is not slowing down. Unless she’s breathing in yoga—Wilson is elevating her practice by training to be an instructor—or writing Drake lyrics on cake, that is.
We caught Wilson, a food blogging pioneer if ever there was one, on the phone in New Orleans, where she lives with her cat Tron in the Bywater neighborhood, a Brooklyn-esque pocket of the city with multicolored duplexes, a diffuse scent of praline-coated bacon, and residents who actually sit on their porches and watch honeyed Louisiana afternoons float by.
HelloGiggles (HG): How did you pave a way into food blogging, and how has entering this world changed the trajectory of your career?
Joy Wilson (JW): Gosh, it feels so crazy now. So, I’ve been blogging for 10 years. I started in 2008, and back when I started my blog I can remember maybe like six other food blogs that were around.
HG: It was you, Smitten Kitchen, and Pioneer Woman.
JW: Yes, exactly. And none of us were making a living through our blogs, or even thinking about making a living through our blogs really. I mean, maybe Ree was thinking about it because she’s a mogul, but it wasn’t feasible for other people. It wasn’t monetized, there was not even language around building a career out of having a blog. So those of us that started way back in the day were doing it because we were extreme dorks, just extreme, with not the greatest social skills…okay, I speak for myself only. I started my blog when I was working in a bakery in Los Angeles, and it started as a way to launch my baking business. I was foolishly thinking I could make and sell wedding cakes, and I was dabbling in wholesale baking for coffee shops around Los Angeles. And so having an online presence and talking about my food and recipes was sort of way for me to be like, hey, look—I’m trying to do this thing.
So that’s where it started and the trajectory of it, I could not have anticipated. I’ve gotten to write three cookbooks and move across the country to a city that I love. And I call myself “Joy the Baker” and sometimes people know what I’m talking about, which is crazy because I remember sitting on my ex-boyfriend’s couch thinking what should I call this blog? Not thinking that it would define my career this far.
HG: It really has become not just a name or a pseudonym. Your brand is Joy the Baker.
JW: I wasn’t thinking anything about branding, or building an online business, or an online career at all when I started my blog. And it took probably five years or so into it to feel real. I was like, okay, I think this is a thing, I think the train has left the station.
HG: Can you tell me more about your start in baking, whether that’s in early childhood or when you were older?
JW: I started baking with my dad. You know, it’s a very homespun story and how a lot of people start in the kitchen because they’re in the kitchen around their families most of the time. So I started baking with my dad when I was little. And my dad, I call him an enthusiastic home baker. He’s also a Virgo, so he’s very meticulous. And it makes him a great baker: he loves experimenting and getting to the very best iteration of some of his recipes. So he’s always in the kitchen tinkering with things, and that’s where I picked it up.
My aunt, my dad’s sister, is also an amazing baker. But she lost her sight to a brain tumor in her in 30s. She couldn’t see anymore but she didn’t stop baking. I actually learned a lot about baking from her because I’d help her in the kitchen. And then she had a different sense of things—she would touch things with her hands, and her sense of smell was out of this world, so she would be able to tell when a cake was done by the smell.
HG: Is baking something that has always been endemic to that side of the family?
JW: I think it really started with my aunt, who was 18 years older than my dad. And so it was like his big sister, or his, you know, they were years and years apart—she was like his second mom. So she really started it in the family, and she was the one who really held true to making traditions. Baking was a big part of that for her, and she made that a big part of life for our family. And my dad carried that on to us.
HG: Do you have any specific food memories from childhood in which you felt “This is what I want to do,” or food struck you in such a way that felt different from anything else?
JW: I don’t know if my sense of food as career happened in childhood. When I was a kid I had a little sister, she’s two years younger than me and she is very cute. If we’re talking about when we were kids, she was the cuter one.
HG: Oh, no.
JW: No, trust me, trust me, she was the cute one. Which is great for her, it’s all good. But I say that because when we were little I remember getting the question, what do you want to be when you grow up? And I would always say, very proudly, “I want to be a writer.” And people would be like…okay. And my little sister would say “I want to be a veterinarian,” and they would fawn all over her. So I would think, well, I don’t want to be a veterinarian. But I really had this sense that I want to be a writer. And that is kind of what I’m doing now, if you count incomplete sentences and run-ons as writing.
HG: But those sentences actually define your style. You have a lyrical way of writing and it’s lyricism punctuated with humor. I’m looking at a black and white baked donuts post, and I love the way in which you let the ingredients act on their own: “Brown butter is mixed, brown bits and all, with buttermilk, eggs, and vanilla extract. Dry ingredients are fluffed together and whisked. Wet ingredients are whisked just right and mixed with dry ingredients. Wet plus dry, simple cooking math.” It’s poetry.
JW: Wow, that’s very generous.
HG: Is this how you’ve always written, or is it a certain style you developed for the food blog?
JW: I think it’s a style I developed with the food blog. I went to school for English literature and playwriting, and as I was putting myself through college, I was always working in food service, front of house, back of house, and then baking, professionally and on my own. So I was always in a restaurant kitchen. I could always get a job in food, and I loved it too. I don’t know if you’ve ever worked in a restaurant, but it’s like a really difficult summer camp experiment but also rewarding and fun. So I was always working in food, and when I finished my degree it just made sense that I would keep doing what I was already doing, which was baking in a restaurant. And I didn’t feel like, okay, I’m done with school now, I have to find a real job. It felt like I was already in the place I wanted to be for the most part, which is around food. I finished school while I was working at this bakery, and it was like, well, okay, I have way less homework now, thank God.
HG: More time to play with frosting.
JW: Yes, more time to play with frosting. And I was going to just try to build this website and have a blog on it, and try to sell my cakes and muffins to coffee shops. And it was just very small, just kind of a small dream.
HG: Do you remember your first baking success, like the first time you made a pie crust right, or the first time the cake was actually as spongy as it needed to be?
JW: My parents were health food addicts, like early health food adopters in the early 1980s. And health food in the early ‘80s was disgusting, especially if you were a kid. So we didn’t get sweet store-bought treats in the house. The loophole was that if you could make it, it would pass in the house. I remember finding a box of unsweetened chocolate, like baking chocolate in the cabinet. And low and behold, on the back of that box is a recipe for brownies. And I was like, okay, I think I can figure this out, I think I can get this, guys. I must have been like eight years old. And the first thing I made was brownies, and it was a success, and I felt like I had unlocked a very important tool to my happiness, to the happiness of those around me. It was like magic.
HG: And that’s probably one of those enduring memories.
JW: It is. And don’t get me wrong, when I un-packaged the chocolate I was like, well, this is chocolate, I’m going to try to eat it like it is. But it was bitter. So I thought, okay, no, that’s why my parents freely have this in the house, because we won’t devour it. But if I add some sugar and bake it, yes.
HG: Do you have any recipes, or something that you create now, that makes you feel emotional when you cook or bake it?
JW: Definitely. When I make my dad’s sweet potato pie, just the smell of that pie, I can feel my chest go tender. Even just thinking about it. My dad developed this recipe for sweet potato pie years ago. He was perfecting it for years, but he finally got to a place where he was into it, probably when I was 10 or so. We’ve had this sweet potato pie almost at every gathering ever since. He adds a lot of coriander, which is cilantro seed, to it, and so it has a lot of this savory spice. But in this sweet potato pie—it transforms the whole pie. And you don’t even recognize it as coriander, but it’s very distinct, very fragrant, and my dad’s signature. His cologne might as well be this. So yes, that makes me feel very connected to my family when I make it. And as an adult I think I’ve made a point of it to not live near my family. Love them, but you know, we gotta move around and see some things. But when I make that pie, it definitely feels like my feet are on the ground, and it feels really connected to home.
HG: What does coriander do to the flavor?
JW: I feel like it really rounds out the flavor in a way. Sometimes in sweet potato pies you have that sweet potato flavor and then it feels like someone has taken a paint brush and brushed cinnamon on, brushed nutmeg on. But coriander comes in and makes all of those spices indistinguishable but intertwined. So it’s not like, mmm, this sweet potato pie has coriander in it. Like you can’t really distinguish coriander from the other spices. But it really just brings such a roundness to the flavor. And it’s not especially herby or especially savory, but it is very spiced.
HG: How does now living in New Orleans inspire or inform the flavors you cook and bake with, and conversely how did living in California, and even growing up in California, inform what you made and what you baked?
JW: Living in California is, well, you have such a bounty of fresh food and diverse food, which I feel is unique but easy to take for granted. I took it for granted until I left. But I really loved growing up in Los Angeles and being able to eat everywhere there, and also just to get loads of fresh produce. And so how did that inform my cooking? I think I was health conscious in California. And that was kind of my family roots also—my parents were health conscious eaters, so we were eating tofu before most people were eating tofu. Granted it had cheese on it because they still thought cheese was healthy, but things like that. I carried that into my California cooking. But in my family, we will eat real foods. Like we’re not afraid of real butter or cream, there is absolutely a place for that. So I feel like now that I live in New Orleans, I’m leaning into things like butter and fats, and just indulgence and richness a little more than I would when I lived in California, because I live in this magical place where that richness and decadence is celebrated. I think I try to infuse that in my food. A little bit of irreverence and a lot of celebration.
HG: New Orleans is very much a town that celebrates its own culture. It’s celebrating not only Creole culture, but it’s celebrating American blackness and European culture and the various ethnic blends that comprise the city. Are you finding yourself using more cajun spices, or spices in general, in your cooking?
JW: I love spicy food. I love spicy food and I feel like I am slowly learning how to cook more Creole, Cajun-style, New Orleans food. It takes a long time and the best way to learn is by being at the right house at the right time when someone’s making their gumbo. It’s not about going to a particular restaurant and having their shrimp étouffée. It’s very much about being in people’s homes and watching how they do things. It’s slower to learn in that way. It’s not like you can go to a cooking school and really get it. I remember someone explained how to make a roux to me by saying you had to stand by the stove with flour and butter whisking consistently, and it will be brown enough when you have finished drinking your beer. And it’s true. What’s crazy about it is that it’s true—I made this gumbo for my parents when they came to visit me last fall. I cracked a beer open and I was standing next to the stove, whisking my roux, and my dad’s like, “Oh, I didn’t know the roux had beer in it.” And I said, “No, Dad, I have to drink this.” He’s like, “You have to drink this?” And I have to drink this.
HG: When the beer goes off, it’s ready. Do you think you’ll ever move back to California or have you found a home in New Orleans?
JW: I found a home in New Orleans, for sure, and I just don’t think I can afford California anymore. What I do love is that my family still lives in California and I get to go back very often. So I don’t have to say goodbye to California, and I feel very lucky for that. But I think New Orleans will be my home.
HG: What makes you love New Orleans?
JW: Whenever people ask me why I love New Orleans, I ask them if they’ve been to New Orleans. I feel like if you’ve been, then you understand.
HG: I do. There’s a feeling there where, and I’m sure people can say this about anywhere, about New York, about Los Angeles, but there’s a vibration to that city. You feel it when you arrive.
JW: Yes. And I really love what a diverse city it is. I love that all different kinds of people live together in just about every neighborhood. The culture is really strong; the pride in the culture is evident. Part of that culture is a sense of looking out for each other and I guess I wanted that feeling when I moved here. There is a sense of we have to help each other through this and through everything that you really feel more when you live here than even when you visit. I also have that sense in New York a little bit. It’s not as friendly as it is down here, but there is a sense in New York that you kind of have to, like if the shit hits the fan, New Yorkers are going to help each other. That feeling is really important to me and something that I treasure, and a big reason why I live down here.
HG: Segueing a little bit, I do want to know more about your parents’ backgrounds. I obviously know you’re half-black and half-white, but there’s probably more to that in terms of culture and ethnicity.
JW: Let’s see. My mom’s family has been from California for generations. They’re just white folks.
HG: White Californians.
JW: White Californians. I don’t know and also they don’t know. They’re just like “we’re white people…that’s it.” I know a little more about my dad’s side. My grandfather on my dad’s side moved from St. Louis to California in the early 1900s with his mom to be a butler for some silent film star in L.A. And his mom was one of the housekeepers.
HG: Wow. Sounds like there’s a longer story there to tell.
JW: Yes. So he’s from St. Louis and then my grandmother was from the South.
HG: How did your parents meet?
JW: This is not romantic, but they both worked the graveyard shift at the main post office in Downtown L.A. So they met at the post office in 1977. My mom was going to move to Alaska when she met my dad. She was like, “I’m going to go on an adventure. I’m out of here. I don’t really love working at the post office. I want to go see some things.” My mom is a very adventurous soul, so she was on her way out of town and then she met my dad. So she thought, well, that’s a good one. She wrote a pro and con list, would add to it, and take things away about whether she should stay in Los Angeles or move to Alaska, and she kept that list in the pocket of her blue jacket. There was this jacket she would wear all the time, this blue puffy jacket, and my dad says that he would look out for that jacket because the post office was a busy, bustling place. So he would look for this blue jacket because he wanted to see Patty. My dad was on the pro list and my dad won out. She still has the jacket and she still has the list in the jacket. It’s all very sweet.
HG: That is very sweet. Your dad is better than Alaska.
JW: I guess so. No, he definitely is. But like me, now, as a 37-year-old person, I’m like never change your life for a man.
HG: Go to Alaska.
JW: Go to Alaska. Get out there.
HG: If he wants you, he will follow. Thinking about this, and your parents, I know you said they were early into the 1980s health food trend and you were eating tofu with cheese as a kid. What other foods stand out to you from childhood?
JW: Oh man. It wasn’t really a romantic thing. I feel like my parents were working really hard to support a family but we did have dinner together every night. My dad was still working the night shift so we would have dinner at 4 p.m., right before my dad went to work. Because of that, it was always kind of a hodgepodge situation of everyone helping to just get some kind of dinner on the table. But the goal of it all was that we could sit together and be together for a little bit because my parents worked opposite schedules. There wasn’t a lot of emphasis on this grand meal that we’re having together, but more an emphasis on, okay, we’re together. “Joy and Lauren, you guys have fish sticks. It’s fine.” My parents would have a grilled piece of fish or something. So there was a lot of those moments.
When we would get together for family, you know, for bigger events, my dad had recipes that he learned from his mom or sister that he would make, but nothing too crazy. Like collard greens or these tacos that my aunt learned to make when she worked at the dime store. Dad soup, spaghetti and meatballs. But my dad, he loves to spend some time, if he has it, doing something even more elaborate than the recipe calls for. He says, “I simmered this sauce for eight hours.” And I’m like, you don’t really need to do that, but it’s great.
HG: It’s interesting because usually you find that attention to detail more in a matriarch, that love for process and for making things.
JW: My mom’s not really a cook. We used to give her such a hard time about how bad of a cook she is and she was like, you know what, I’m not doing this. The good thing is that my dad really liked to cook so she didn’t have to. But she is an amazing cake decorator. When I really little, when I was probably up to four years old, she would decorate cakes and sell them at the post office. The designs were so elaborate, like a building or a giraffe. I remember one cake she made for someone moving into a new apartment—she made them a housewarming cake and the cake was shaped like a couch. Not just a couch, but their couch, with a specific upholstery design that she made with frosting.
HG: That’s rad. I want to know, for you, have there ever been moments in life in which you felt uncertain about your identity? What has your journey or sense of being black and white been like?
JW: I feel like maybe I have a unique experience because I grew up in a city that was so, so diverse. And also my parents didn’t put a very strong emphasis on the fact that they had different skin tones and that it should be a thing that we think about. I really wasn’t very conscious of it growing up. Also, probably part of the reason why I wasn’t very conscious of it is because to white people, to people who aren’t black, I look white.
HG: So you enter situations in which people assume you are white, because you have blue eyes and lighter skin. Has that made you feel uncomfortable? Do you have to assert your blackness?
JW: I think it used to make me uncomfortable but it doesn’t anymore because I just know that people don’t understand the nuances of race, and that’s them. I don’t assert anything that’s not in my personality. So I don’t consciously work to assert racial identity.
I identify as mixed. If people ask me what I am, I say I’m black and I’m white. It’s so interesting to see people’s reactions. There’s that instant, a moment on their faces, when they’re thinking, “Did I say anything bad before?”
HG: So have you ever felt like you were in compromising situations where you had to almost, well, announce, “I’m black, and what you’re saying is not the case for all people and people of color.”
JW: Yes, yes. We have to do that.
HG: Especially now, too. I don’t think there’s any way that you can be mixed and not feel a certain sense of ownership and power and even rage when you are black and living in a country with these rigid structures and this administration.
JW: Yes, but also I try to be conscious of the fact that my experience in the world is not that of a woman of color, you know what I mean? Because that’s not how a lot of the world interacts with me.
HG: Well, yes. You are able to go through the world with some level of privilege only because of—
JW: People’s perceptions.
HG: Absolutely. And it is both an interesting and strange tightrope to walk.
JW: It’s hard because you don’t have the same experience. You just don’t have the same experience as someone who’s treated differently because their skin is darker.
HG: But you can be just as hurt when you see a dark-skinned actress, like Viola Davis, being made fun of by racist trolls online. It can cut you quite deeply.
HG: Literally down to the bone, even though you haven’t been criticized in the same way she has for that reason. So I feel a lot of that pain, but I also know that there is inherent privilege in having lighter skin. But that also, again, goes back to those structural systems that made light-skinned black people think, “Maybe I can have a little bit of a better life because my skin is a little bit lighter” and built resentment within the community and the colorism that lives on now.
JW: It gets deep.
HG: It does. So still on this topic of mixedness, do you think your background in any way informs the food that you love to make or eat? Do you think that there are certain cultural nuances to what you make? Or is it more just sort of things that you love.
JW: A lot of it really just comes down to things that I love. Any cultural sensibility in my food feels more regional to me than racial or of my mixed heritage. That influence could be from my grandmother, who was from the South, and from my aunt, who learned from her, and from living in the South now. So it’s more about this southern culture that I’m learning about that influences some of my cooking more than anything else. It’s a process and it’s nuanced. Southern food is so nuanced, even just in Louisiana, where there is notable difference between Cajun food that comes from the swamps and the Creole food that comes more from the city of New Orleans. I barely understand half of it, but there is a lot of nuance and deviation in flavors that I like to explore in people’s kitchens if I can get into them.
HG: How did @drakeoncake come about?
JW: Drake on Cake started as, and remains, a silly passion project of mine. I chose Drake definitely because his name rhymes with cake, but also because his lyrics are actually very poetic and pointed, concise and relevant. For all of the flurry and stardom around him, I think he has some elegant and iconic things to say and why not put them on cake? Drake on Cake is just an Instagram account, an offering to the internet, and a photo project I put together when the mood and the Drake lyric strikes me. I try to style the photograph in a way that speaks to the lyric, and in a way that feels like it has hidden messages and moments within the styling and props. It’s just meant to be simple fun—an ode and offering to the pop culture that I love.
HG: You love to cook with friends. Is that a hallmark of your culinary practice?
JW: I do. I think after cooking and developing recipes mostly by myself for so long and a lot for the internet and FOR cookbooks, in the past few years, especially now living in New Orleans, I really love gathering people and cooking together. I have what we call cookbook club at my house, where everyone gets the same cookbook and cooks different recipes from the cookbook. People come over, people bring ingredients, people bring stuff that they’ve made beforehand. If someone’s working on a recipe that feels a little daunting to them they can come over and we’ll cook it all together. We end up with a table full of food from the same cookbook, and we’ve gotten to make a mess in the kitchen together. There’s something extra rewarding about being in the whole process together, rather than trying to stress and put together a dinner party on your own. Being together and making the mess is half the fun.
HG: I think that communalism speaks to where you live now. I think New Orleans is that kind of town, or even just Louisiana, where you have crawfish boils, crab boils, seafood boils, which involve everyone coming together and contributing to this large, deeply satisfying meal. And speaking of communal learning: you’re training to be a yoga teacher now, right?
JW: I am. I’ve been doing yoga for just about three years. I mean, I’m training to be a yoga teacher but really I just wanted to deepen my practice and learn more about this thing that I know makes me feel so settled. So yeah, I’m just doing that. I think it’s really nice to do something outside of my work, off of a computer, off of a phone. It’s just you and your breath and your body and like, I don’t know, just see what you can do with those things today.
HG: When you say “settled,” is it because there are certain anxieties in doing what you do and yoga helps to diffuse that?
JW: There’s just a multitude, an infinity of anxieties going on in the world. We need help. But, yes, it just makes me…it’s just my thing. You know, like some people like to run, some people like to bike up mountains. Yoga, I’ve found, is my thing. Just connecting to having your feet on the ground and air in your lungs, and just thinking about that in itself.
HG: That taking a moment to breathe element makes me think of the “Let There Be Sunday” columns you post to the blog every week. In those, you engage us, your readers, into the world outside of food: you’re posting long-form writing, and sometimes the stories have to do with gender, sometimes they have to do with politics, sometimes they have to do with race.
JW: It is really important and those are my most popular posts on my blog now. I also get a lot of flack for them—every week, here “they” come. The emails. They’re usually from Hotmail or Yahoo accounts, and they are very angry. Usually it’s a straight married couple who share an email account. It’s like they share a Yahoo account, God bless them, and it’s usually the wife who’s upset with me. But yet it feels really important to keep doing those posts. I can’t not talk about what’s going on. I needed a place where I wasn’t trying to segue from like pregnancy discrimination to strawberry donuts, you know? Can’t make that jump.
I know it helps me to be able to sit down and curate those articles and read through things and pick what resonates with me. Sometimes it’s silly. I mean, sometimes it’s a straight-up cat video. But I want to offer enough thoughtful stuff for people to take or leave. It’s not shoving it down someone’s throat, it’s leaving this as an offering of what I find interesting, or what I’m thinking about this week, or what the fuck are we going to do?
HG: Segueing again—out of your three cookbooks, is there one that you feel most close to and why?
JW: I like all of them, so it’s kind of tough to narrow. My second cookbook is called Homemade Decadence and it’s probably like two or three years old now. I have some distance from it so I picked it up a couple weeks ago and was flipping through looking for some recipe ideas, and I just had this sense of like, gosh, this is a good book. This is a great, useful, beautiful book. Sometimes it takes, I bet you understand this feeling, sometimes it takes many years of distance from a project to come back to it and say, “Wow, I feel really proud of this.” That’s my feeling about Homemade Decadence right now.
HG: Do you feel that you might feel closest to that book, or is it just because you recently flipped through it?
JW: As the person who made it, I think back to living in my first really great apartment alone in Venice and just having the space to work on that book. It was such a gift. Now, looking back on it, I think, “What an amazing moment that was.” My old landlords are still there. They have a little…they have a property that has two bungalows on it. They live in the back one and they rented the front bungalow to me, when they had like 50 applicants, and they put it like, “We choose you because you seem like a normal person.” They were minimalists, and just like really humble people, and so the space was beautifully done but not fancy. I’ll never forget it.
HG: Do you have a recipe that reminds you of when you lived there? Something you made often when you lived in Venice or something you loved to make when you lived in that apartment?
JW: I would make a lot of bread in a pot. I had a really small oven because the whole apartment was small, but I had that small oven and I had a small dutch oven that could fit perfectly, so I was always making things in a dutch oven. I would often make little loaves of bread. My friends and I had a tradition where every New Year’s Day we had a party at my house, and I would take all of my living room furniture, which wasn’t much, and put it out on the front porch. And we set up a giant table through my little living room and 18 of us would get together and have brunch together to celebrate the New Year. People would bring stuff and I would make those little breads.
HG: Do you have something you love to make where you are now in New Orleans?
JW: The Bywater is such a neighborhood. Like, it’s a sweet spot. So what I do here in New Orleans is set out a cocktail tray and every season I change out the cocktail offerings. Because people drop in. People stop by in New Orleans, and you have to have something to drink. I have a full bar of alcohol and offering someone a drink is not like, “Do you want anything to drink, I have gin but no tonic?” You have to have, well, I think it’s nice to have a tray on top of the bar where you place your seasonal drinks, so when people come over, you can say, “Would you like a Sazerac or a cup of water? Would you like a mint julep?” You have the one signature cocktail for every visit.
HG: As far as going out to eat or drink, do you have a favorite spot in New Orleans or Los Angeles?
JW: Now my favorite spots in California are nostalgic, because I don’t know all the cool new places anymore. I love, in L.A., Philippe the Original, that french dip sandwich place. El Coyote is also my favorite. My parents have been going to both Philippe’s and El Coyote before they were even married, so I feel like our roots are in those places. In New Orleans, I love a place called Red’s Chinese that is like this really quirky, salty, Americanized Chinese food that tastes so good. And one of my favorite neighborhood restaurants is a place called Patois.
HG: Is it a Caribbean restaurant?
JW: No, it’s mostly French-American style food, and it’s like the corner house in a very residential neighborhood. The staff is lovely, the food is amazing, and it’s a New Orleans experience without, you know, the touristy Creole food. Like all of that warmth and community and that stuff that gives New Orleans that feeling is there.
HG: What are your favorite flavors and foods in general?
JW: Favorite flavor, oh god. Strawberry ice cream. But my guilty pleasure is trash food.
HG: I just read your post for root beer baked beans, which reminds me that many of your recipes have this almost childlike nostalgia. You get pleasure from something as simple as a peanut butter sandwich (with a pickle twist) or from adding root beer to baked beans. Your recipes seem as if an adult who’s very good at cooking and baking imagines something she would love to eat as a child.
JW: Yes, like peanut butter and jelly petit four. I thought, I can make a petit four, and I’m going to put some peanut butter and jelly in it. I think I always want to find a way for things to feel approachable to people, and to given people something to sink their teeth into. A lot of times that needs to be simplicity and things that are nostalgic. It’s an easy place to connect. So if something like a technique is a little bit more hard or more difficult, then at least the flavors can be playful. Life doesn’t have to always be so serious.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.