COURTESY OF MADE. BY LIA
Lia Weber of Made. By Lia.
Lia Weber's mom likes to tell the story of when she found her daughter in the kitchen one day after school making a homemade lemon meringue pie. She was twelve years old.
"She asked me, 'Did you just make that?'" Weber recalls. "Of course I just used the Jello lemon curd [mix] and didn't make my own crust or anything, but I still made it. Over the years, that's become my signature. It's the dessert I used to make at Hendel's that would always sell out."
Now that Weber is 28 and a veteran pastry chef, boxed lemon curd mix and pre-made pie shells are some of the last things you'd find in her kitchen. After winning TLC's Next Great Baker in 2014
, the north county native has become one of the area's preeminent makers of bespoke cakes and speciality desserts through her business Made.By Lia (@madebylia; www.madebylia.com).
But if TV stardom was a surprise, a career in baking was not. Growing up in a large Italian family, Weber's most cherished childhood memories involve gathering in the kitchen with her mother, grandmother, sisters, nieces and nephews to make Christmas cookies. Realizing how much she loved being in the kitchen, she would take any opportunity to help her mom prep vegetables and prepare salads.
Singularly focused on becoming a chef, even at an early age, Weber knew that she wanted to attend cooking school. As a condition of entering the program, she had to choose between the savory and pastry sides of the business. Though she leaned toward savory as a personal preference, something in her told her to go for pastry.
She pursued that tract at St. Louis Community College - Forest Park's culinary program while simultaneously attending Fontbonne University for business. The plan was to open a bakery of her own, so after graduation and a trip to Italy, she set up a Facebook page called Made. By Lia so her friends and family would have an easier way to order her confections.
While she was building her nascent cake business, Weber worked at Hendel's restaurant as a server, as well as at a bakery called Wedding Wonderland Cakes. While working at the cake shop, the bakery received an email blast that had been sent to businesses like it around the country — an open call to audition for TLC's Next Great Baker.
She and her colleague Al Watson decided to submit an application on a whim. They were stunned when they not only got a callback, but kept moving further and further along in the process.
Before Weber knew it, she and Watson were whisked away to New York City and checked into a hotel for 40 nights. She describes the experience as grueling and surreal, consisting of fifteen to twenty-hour days, six days a week. Her phone was confiscated, she had no access to a computer and was only able to talk to her then-fiance (now-husband) when he called her on the hotel's phone.
Despite the challenging environment, Weber had a gut feeling that she and Watson were destined to succeed.
"Every week would go by and I would think, 'OK, we are still here,'" Weber recalls. "Once the fifth week came and we were halfway there, I just had this good feeling about it. I still cried like a baby when we won."
The win brought overnight recognition, and Weber found herself inundated with requests and orders that she feverishly worked to accommodate out of a kitchen not much bigger than a closet
"I was baking out of this tiny kitchen and had literally no counter space. The only workspace I had was on top of the stove," Weber explains. "I only had a half refrigerator and no freezer. I actually had to walk downstairs, out the door and down the street to borrow space in my neighbor's freezer."
Today, Weber's digs are much larger: She's tabled the idea of owning her own storefront bakery in favor of working out of the AB Mauri headquarters kitchen in Cortex (the brand is a major culinary force, most notably the producer of Fleischmann's yeast). With her business thriving, she is able to accommodate many more orders than she could from that small home kitchen. Still, the proud north county resident has dreams of developing a certain commercial strip in her beloved Old Town Florissant — and don't be surprised if you see her taking up residence in one of the storefronts.
"North county is underestimated and Old Town is a hidden gem," Weber insists. "I love the quaintness of the area and would love to develop St. Francois Street. I have it all mapped out; there'd be a bar, a pizza place — and of course a bakery."
Weber took a break from making cakes to share her thoughts on the St. Louis food and beverage scene, her love of hummus and Little Debbie, and why an extra pair of arms would come in handy.
What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
I actually love to cook just as much (if not maybe even a little more) as I love to bake! I always wanted to be a chef... and at home, I try to be.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
My morning coffee! I think I love the idea of coffee more than drinking it because I honestly only end up drinking less than half a cup. But I have to have those few sips every morning. Or cereal before bed.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
Hmm, probably having more than two arms. That way I could bake, ice a cake, clean my house and hold my daughter at the same time.
What is the most positive thing in food, wine or cocktails that you’ve noticed in St. Louis over the past year?
St. Louis is so underrated for its food and drink scene. My husband and I love to go out and try new cocktails. St. Louis' mixologists are so impressive and unique these days. I am always in awe of how much creativity and thought that they put into each cocktail.
What is something missing in the local food, wine or cocktail scene that you’d like to see?
I would love to have a craft cocktail bar closer to home... preferably on St. Francois street in Old Town Florissant.
Who is your St. Louis food crush?
The team over at Olio has had my heart for years.
Who’s the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis dining scene?
Nathan and Christina Bennett at Hendel's in Old Town Florissant have been crushing it for years and just recently won North County's Business Persons of the Year. There is no other restaurant like it in St. Louis. It is rare to find a place with exceptional food, excellent service, a unique ambience and that makes you feel like you're at home.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
Sprinkles! Becuase they're fun, colorful and love a party.
If you weren’t working in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
Name an ingredient never allowed in your bakery.
Shortening. Butter all the way!
What is your after-work hangout?
My kitchen at home with a glass of wine.
What’s your food or beverage guilty pleasure?
Christmas-tree-shaped Little Debbie zebra cakes...thankfully they only come around once a year.
What would be your last meal on earth?
"King of Kings" hummus and a rye manhattan from Olio.
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