Luminary is no ordinary bakery. Operating out of a cafe in Limehouse, East London, there are large wooden tables that act as communal desks, shelves of worn paperbacks, sunken leather sofas, and a small kitchen tucked away out back.
And, when I visit, cookie dough everywhere.
On Mondays, the cafe is closed to the public, which is lucky, given that a well-known ice cream brand has just hired the Luminary bakers to bake ten thousand (ten thousand!) cookies for a pop-up event that week. Hence the manic energy in the room—and the enormous silver bowls of mixture on almost every surface.
Using a grant from the Evening Standard Dispossessed Fund, Alice Boyle founded Luminary in 2014. A social enterprise that uses baking as "a tool to take women on a journey to employability and entrepreneurship," the bakery aims to break cycles of abuse, prostitution, criminal activity, and poverty.
"I knew there was a big red light area, with a lot of homeless and rough sleeping women around Brick Lane," says Boyle, who was working for Kahaila, a charity and cafe on Brick Lane when she decided to set up Luminary. "So many women—particularly the women who were working in prostitution—were saying, 'We don't want do this, but what else can we do?'
And so it was decided that Luminary would train them how to bake.
"It's not the same as qualifying from a patisserie school or something," Boyle notes, but it's a good start and equips the women for any kind of hospitality job—food hygiene qualification and all.
"We originally thought they'd be working in the cafe but actually, it's so busy and really quite stressful, so it probably wouldn't be a great first job experience," she says. "We thought maybe we could do something a bit further back in the production line, and make the cakes that we then sell in the cafe."
Rachel Stonehouse, who trains the bakers from scratch, emphasises that working behind the scenes at Luminary is quite different from working in any old commercial kitchen.
"If you were going to be an apprentice in another kitchen, a lot of the time you'd get given the basic jobs and the washing up, and when you've mastered, that you move up," she explains. "We want to give them a rounded experience, because they are only with us for six months. We want them to be involved in the product development, the special occasion cakes. We want to give them the full thing."
The full thing involves an emotional experience, as well as a practical one. Boyle recalls one woman's tearful response to "bread week." She worked hard on her loaf, put it in the oven, and left the kitchen to take part in a life skills session.
"The life skills session ran over, so she didn't get to take it out the oven herself. We brought it out to her and it looked like a loaf you'd buy in the shop. She was like, 'I didn't make that! You just bought that!' Then she burst into tears," Boyle remembers. "There's really something to be said for really being able to see your own effort and to create something beautiful."
Of course, mistakes are made along the way.
"Just today, there's a tray of brownies that can't be sold because they were cut wrong," says Stonehouse (in fact, I think I'm eating them—the thin, squidgy rectangles in front of me taste delicious despite their uneven sizes). "But there's a whole learning process around that as well. A lot of them want it to be perfect and there's that learning experience—that it's not always going to be perfect."
Chantelle, one of the Luminary apprentices, wanders over to say hi.
"We've had three sets [of graduates] now, and I was in the second set," she tells me. "I'm in a women's hostel right now, and they'd come back and be like, 'Look what I've baked.' I was encouraged."
Chantelle also sings the praises of making mistakes.
"Whether or not we get it right, there's always love there," she says. "If you mess up a baking order, or if you've got it wrong, somebody is there to step in and make sure it's alright."
Stonehouse explains that though Luminary is a commercial kitchen, the atmosphere "can't be as high pressure." To create the family atmosphere the women crave, she tells me that they put "fun music" on. According to Chantelle, kitchen dance parties are a regular occurrence. And the song of the moment?
"We had Rihanna's 'Work,' obviously. Gotta get working," says Chantelle. "Then there was the other one, 'Cake By the Ocean.' We were like, 'Hell yeah!'"
I've not forgotten the chocolate chip cookies, my eyes landing on the aluminium trays lined with glistening, uniform balls of dough. In fact, cookies were the first thing Chantelle baked as an apprentice.
"You've got to know how to do a choc chip cookie the Luminary way," she says. "We can't tell you exactly, but it's all in the bite. And when you snap open a Luminary cookie, you know whether it's done or not."
Luminary business manager Ellie Cooke nods in agreement: "We have a special way of making them chewy and slightly crispy on the outside at the edge of the cookie, but soft and gooey on the inside."
When I press the pair of them on the how, Chantelle tells me with a wink that it's "highly classified information."
I wonder if the fact that Luminary is an all-female space was part of what drew Chantelle to the bakery.
"I believe that women getting together is quite a special thing, and loads of good things can be cultivated out of that," she says. "I don't know why it's different for men or if it's different for men. It's sisterhood. You never have a day when I don't feel like coming in. You have withdrawal symptoms when you're not there."
She smiles. "Well, speaking personally."
Boyle agrees that creating a community of women is key.
"I don't know if many other places offer courses just for women. There needs to be opportunities for women to feel completely safe if they have experienced domestic violence or sexual exploitation," she says. "They've often got a guard up around men, and it's really important that they do feel comfortable."
Luminary has managed to create an environment that is just that.
"What's been cultivated here is really, really special," Chantelle says. "I left an employer to come here, because I was volunteering [at Luminary] first of all. I was like, 'No, I don't want to be with them, the ambience is not there, the level of care is not there.' They could be paying me £100 a week more and I'd still rather be here."
All photos by Liz Seabrook.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in July 2016.