What do you get when you take a self-professed Southern girl, mix in a little gypsy and add a dash of French influence? Reine Bayoc's SweetArt (2203 South 39th Street, Tower Grove; 314-771-4278 or www.sweetartstl.com), an unconventional bakery in one of St. Louis's oldest neighborhoods. Bayoc adheres to simplicity in her cooking, but her story is anything but simple.
Bayoc was born in Tennessee, and her Southern roots are evident in many aspects of her cooking. The tantalizing red-velvet cupcakes in SweetArt pay a homage to Bayoc's upbringing, where classic southern comfort food provided a foundation for her future career. Although Bayoc says that she was the product of an "eat or die" household, she still holds fond memories of typical southern fare.
"I remember Tennessee summers being the best time in my life," Bayoc says. "Fireflies (we called them lightning bugs) and fried bologna sandwiches with mustard and chocolate sandwich cookies. Playing hide-and-go-seek and running all day."
Bayoc's family didn't stay in Tennessee for long, though; Bayoc describes her parents as "gypsies." Wherever the family moved, Bayoc followed, and by her college years, Bayoc found herself living in St. Louis. She attended St. Louis University and majored in English Literature and French, never for a moment considering a career as a chef.
"I wanted to be an attorney, a writer and then a professor...anything but this."
During Bayoc's time at St. Louis University, she studied abroad in Lyon, France. Bayoc fell in love with the pastries and French delicacies, and says that the French Bakery she visited every day was the only place she felt at home.
"I loved the food in France and the buildings. I ate simple food, but it was always the highlight of my day. It inspired me to make simple food that people look forward to all day long."
The simplicity of French Food didn't immediately inspire Bayoc to pursue a career as a baker, as she came back from France and worked a couple of "life-draining cubicle jobs." After a few years of staring at the cubicle's unforgiving walls and freelancing as a writer, Bayoc married Cbabi Bayoc and had her first child. Having a family is what inspired Bayoc to create SweetArt. Her husband provided the "art" in the form of his paintings and artwork, and Bayoc used her passion for food to provide the "sweet."
"We started the business with prayers and no money, and slowly but surely things happened to get us going. We are still praying quite a lot!"
After a gypsy childhood, experiences abroad and a series of career changes, Bayoc finds peace in life's simplest pleasures. She says that she meditates to keep the "crazy Reine" away, but also finds solace in doing what she loves.
"I wanted food to be a part of my life, but loans and my new baby made me think that it would only happen during my retirement years. But life won't wait for you. So if you're reading this, start doing what you love as soon as possible."