You may be surprised to learn that all the baked goods sold at Protagonist Cafe and Pieces Board Game Bar and Cafe – birthday cakes, gourmet cookies and muffins galore – are 100 percent vegan. But pastry chef Amanda Leone urges customers to not let this fact dissuade them from indulging.
"Even now in 2022, with so many good vegan options, there's this thought that if it's vegan, it's gonna be gross or not taste good, or be like a pile of dry dirt," Leone says. "Don't not try it because you're afraid of the word vegan."
Leone, a vegetarian themselves, landed in pastry arts on a whim while choosing a college major. After bumping around the restaurant industry for a while, they landed at Pieces. After finding out about Leone's expert baking skills, the owners at Pieces promoted them to pastry chef for both Pieces and Protagonist Cafe, their other restaurant venture, and the rest is history.
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Leone's favorite things to make for the two restaurants include a seasonal pumpkin muffin with walnuts and fresh cranberries, a salted chocolate chip cookie ("I probably eat one every day that I work," Leone says) and personalized birthday cakes – especially when customers give them creative freedom.
"I love that, because whatever is striking me that day, I can kind of throw on a cake – my canvas – and get it out there to the world," Leone says.
Here, Leone tells us about the falafel sandwich they ordered two days in a row, making Christmas cookies with their family and how to use canned beans and tomatoes in your kitchen.
What’s the best thing you’ve ordered at a local bar or restaurant recently? I used to love going to The Vine [Mediterranean Cafe]. I hadn't gone in a long time, just with the pandemic and chaos of the world, but I got their falafel sandwich recently. It was so good that I went back the next day and got another one because I was like, "I need to have this two days in a row." It's so good.
What’s the best style of pizza? I love a New York-style slice; a floppy piece that you have to fold in half to eat reigns supreme. And I am going to be controversial and say that pineapple 1,000 percent goes on pizza. Especially when you pair it with black olives, because then you get a little sweet, salty – kind of like that chocolate chip cookie.
What’s your favorite food memory? When I was a kid, around Christmas my mom would make sugar cookie dough and cut out a bunch of Christmas-type shapes. Then she would bring out this sheet of undecorated Christmas cookies and let me and my brother just do whatever we wanted to them. She'd have little premixed cans of frosting off the shelf at the supermarket. She'd tint one red and one green, and we'd have those little silver balls that you're not supposed to eat, but we did, and Christmas-colored sugar. And we would take a little butter knife and spread frosting on and sprinkle a little sprinkles on. It was a fun thing we did every year.
What ingredients do you think everyone should keep at home and why? I always have a few different kinds of canned beans, and a few cans of some kind of tomato products: tomato sauce, crushed tomatoes, diced tomatoes. I wouldn't necessarily use those two things together, but I feel like they're good staples to have. If you're making a salad and you need to juice it up a little and you want to make extra protein, just drain a can of beans, season them up, roast them in the oven for a minute until they're a little crispy and then throw them on the top of your salad. Or tomato: You can do a million things with that. Throw it in a soup to bulk it up, or make a pasta sauce or turn into a Bloody Mary. I mean, the possibilities are endless.
What’s your most controversial food opinion? Cottage cheese is disgusting. It should not exist. It's so awful. I had this book from when I was a little kid. It's like a Dr. Seuss, "All About Me" book. It had blank things for you to fill in with your parents, and part of it was your favorite food, and here's the food I would really like to never have again. Even little five-year-old me hated cottage cheese.
Protagonist Cafe, 1700 S. 9th St., Soulard, St. Louis, Missouri, 314-833-3085, protagonistcafe.com
Pieces Board Game Bar and Cafe, 1535 S. 8th St., Soulard, St. Louis, Missouri, 314-230-5184, stlpieces.com