"When you like to do something, you don't even notice if it's hard or not," says Clarisse, a 25-year-old baker at East Harlem's Hot Bread Kitchen. As if to demonstrate this, she pulls a crackling loaf of ciabatta out of a massive commercial oven with her fingertips, not flinching once.
I'm here to watch her demonstrate how to make nan-e barbari, a dramatic Persian flatbread that looks a little like foccacia that's been stretched to the length of a skateboard. ("It looks prettier than focaccia," Clarisse interjects with a raised eyebrow when I make the comparison.) Misted with roomal—a thin paste of flour, water, and sugar—and peppered with sesame and nigella seeds, it bakes to a golden semi-gloss and has a texture not unlike that of a soft pretzel.
Clarisse, who speaks with a graceful French accent and hails from Burkina Faso, lightly dimples the delicate yeasted dough before sprinkling it liberally with the seeds. "I like to use a lot of them so you can feel the taste of the seeds," she laughs. Clarisse then deftly transfers the dough to a baking peel and walks it over to the ovens, where it will soon resemble the drool-inducing bread featured on the cover of the bakery's new cookbook.
Like most of the women in the kitchen here, however, Clarisse is not a typical baker. She is, in fact, a student in Hot Bread Kitchen's baking and professional development program, nearing the end of her nine months of training. Hardly just a neighborhood bakery, Hot Bread Kitchen is a social enterprise that empowers immigrant women, largely supported by its bread sales.
Founded in 2007, the bakery was born in Jessamyn Waldman-Rodriguez's small Brooklyn apartment kitchen, where she made tortillas from nixtamalized corn that she sold at farmer's markets. The enterprise quickly grew from there, hiring its first staff and working out of a rented commercial kitchen space in Queens. In 2010, Hot Bread Kitchen moved into the sole remaining building of La Marqueta, a historic and once-bustling East Harlem market located under the elevated Metro North train tracks, where it is now headquartered.
Now the anchor tenant at La Marqueta—which still houses a handful of small, local vendors, including Mama Grace's Afro Caribbean Food and Velez Groceries—Hot Bread Kitchen has expanded its training program and launched a successful culinary incubator, HBK Incubates, for local food startups.
In the kitchen, however, lies the heart of Hot Bread Kitchen's mission: to give women, many of which come from underserved communities, the skills and know-how they need to succeed in the professional world of baking.
Clarisse discovered Hot Bread Kitchen through a friend who graduated from the program. "He said, 'If you really want to be a baker, this is the right place for you!'" she recalls.
After Clarisse immigrated to the US five years ago, she began working in a commercial bakery that produced baguettes and croissants, though she was only allowed to shape the breads. "Sometimes I'd sneak [over to the ovens] when the boss was not around," she confesses. "Because I really wanted to learn! But there, you cannot learn. They have someone to do the baking and someone to do the shaping—that's it."
That model is the norm at many commercial bakeries, which don't allow for motivated bakers like Clarisse to expand their skills. At Hot Bread Kitchen, she was able to take courses in baking science in addition to learning on the job.
"I already feel like a professional baker! I know everything," Clarisse jokes, adding that she still wants to develop her craft once she graduates. "In some other bakeries, they might have something new to teach you, and I'm always ready to learn."
At Hot Bread Kitchen, each potential trainee goes through an extensive application process, beginning with a group interview offered during a rolling admission. The next step is a demonstration of the applicant's skills, if any, on the bench; even if she has no prior baking experience, the trial run gives an inkling of the applicant's work ethic and her speed. If she impresses, she's invited to join the paid training program, which can last from six to nine months. (Trainees are paid both for their time working in the kitchen as well as their time in the classroom, where they can take courses in English language, math, baking science, and even professional development.) Once they graduate, Hot Bread Kitchen places them in bakeries around the city, but only in management-track positions that pay at least $12.50 per hour.
"They know that the breads they're making are being sold to promote the program," says Allegra Ben-Amotz, the marketing and events manager for Hot Bread Kitchen. "They see their breads at Whole Foods, at the Greenmarkets. They know they are being sold at Gramercy Tavern and other restaurants around the city. There's a real sense of pride and ownership in that."
Ben-Amotz adds that Hot Bread Kitchen has a 100-percent success rate in placing its trainees, of which there have been about 40 graduates since 2011.
Though it might look like an artisan baking business from its retail storefront, Hot Bread Kitchen is actually a nonprofit—the program is 67-percent funded by bread sales, with the rest coming from donations and private partnerships—and it was designed that way from the get-go.
Prior to founding Hot Bread Kitchen, Waldman-Rodriguez was always an avid cook, but she spent a decade doing public policy and social justice work before seriously considering a bakery.
"I never thought about a career that wasn't in social justice," she tells me. "The idea [of Hot Bread Kitchen] was powerful because it was truly the right marriage between what I was passionate about and what I was professionally planning."
Walman-Rodriguez began with the basics: teaching herself to bake well. She took courses and staged for two years in the bakery at Daniel, where she perfected her shaping skills. Back in her home kitchen, she hired her first employee, Elidia Ramos, and started making tortillas to sell.
Soon, however, she felt the desire to expand. "We started reaching out to other community-based organizations. We reached out to Arab American Family Services, which gave us a bunch of recruits early on, [and] the International Rescue Committee, which does refugee resettlement," Waldman-Rodriguez says. "Because we didn't have a reputation yet, we made a concerted effort to reach out to organizations that were serving the immigrants of this country that we felt needed it the most."
Hot Bread Kitchen now receives most of its applicants through word-of-mouth, even if the social enterprise apparatus isn't always apparent to customers on the retail side. "The function of this cafe is as much about community outreach as it is selling bread," Waldman-Rodriguez notes. "We fit right in the middle between social service agency and baking school and regular employer."
Not only does Hot Bread Kitchen turn out highly skilled women with a professional leg-up in the competitive and male-dominated world of baking, it has also created jobs for porters and packers as its operations expand.
Still, the goal for Waldman-Rodriguez is to level the playing field for women—and especially those from underserved communities—in the world of professional baking. "To truly change the face of the industry, we need our women to be in positions where they're the hiring managers," she says.
Through this, she hopes to bring "a more democratic perspective to the artisanal bread market," which is remains frustratingly rigid in its traditions. Waldman-Rodriguez recalls that even during her apprenticeship at Daniel, " I chopped a lot of onions, I rolled a lot of baguettes, I learned a lot about quality bread. But I never took the bread out of the oven!" After her stage, she became the first woman ever hired in the bread bakery there.
For graduates of Hot Bread Kitchen's training program, strength is in numbers. A single woman in a male-dominated bakery might seem like a token, but multiple women can effect a culture change. Not only that, but it can put them on track to eventually start their own culinary businesses, such as those being nurtured by HBK Incubates.
Back in the kitchen, Clarisse confides that she hopes to start her own bakery in the near future. Not only will she make the bialys and nan-e barbaris that she learned to bake at Hot Bread Kitchen, but also the recipes she grew up with. "Definitely my African bread! My black bean bread," she says. "It's really, really delicious."