Bread and Bakers on the Rise at Hot Bread Kitchen
Hot Bread Kitchen development director Molly Crossin is proud of her bakery's tortilla maker. "To me, this machine really illustrates the growth of the program," Crossin says, motioning to a hulking apparatus that can produce tens of thousands of tortillas in a day. The machine makes 200 dozen per hour; "previously, we had to hand press and cook each one," Crossin explains.
Breads for Sale at Hot Bread Kitchen's retail stand at La Marqueta in Harlem
But Hot Bread Kitchen is not your average Harlem tortilleria; tortillas are just one of 70 breads the kitchen produces for 13 markets and several restaurants around the city, including Momofuku, Calliope, and Mile End. At La Marqueta, an airy market nestled below the Metro North tracks near 115th Street, Hot Bread Kitchen is equal parts bakery, job-training program, and culinary incubator.
Hot Bread Kitchen is a registered nonprofit providing paid on-the-job baking training to immigrant women. Each day, 17 trainees produce an array of breads as diverse as their backgrounds: The same ladies pan-frying buttery Moroccan m'smen are rolling focaccia and braiding challah. Founder Jessamyn Rodriguez launched the program in 2008 in an effort to provide job skills for a historically underemployed population. In doing so, she's addressing a long-standing gender gap: Baking is still very much a man's world, but recent Hot Bread Kitchen graduates are now baking in storied spaces like the pastry kitchen at Daniel and running their own startups throughout the five boroughs.
Breads in the oven at Hot Bread Kitchen
Oftentimes, women bring their own heritage to the table: "Many of our recipes are inspired by trainees, including our Moroccan M'smen and Heritage Corn Tortillas," Crossin says, standing near a flour-strewn table where ladies in hairnets cut bread into rolls and loaves. These women are from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Bangladesh, and Ecuador; others hail from Pakistan, Haiti, and Algeria. The air is thick with flour dust and the yeasty scent of bread rising on racks.
The one-year program has no education or language requirements, so many trainees begin without speaking a lick of English. Interviews resemble a cook's stage and happen on the table. Applicants are evaluated on that rare combination of passion, knack, and efficiency that any good cook possesses: "Do you really care about food? Are you going to move quickly in the kitchen? Will you be efficient? Can you take direction?" Crossin asks, explaining: "You can see pretty quickly if somebody's going to make it, or wants to." As in any production kitchen, these are the questions that matter; many of the women have never baked before.
The bakery program began in a culinary incubator in Queens, then moved to Harlem in 2010 when founder Rodriguez answered a City request for proposals to fill excess Marqueta space with a new incubator kitchen that would promote immigrant food business.
Hot Bread Kitchen was ripe for expansion, and it was a natural fit: "We had this job training program--which at the time we were running out of an incubator," Crossin says, "So we were like, 'We know how to work with immigrants, we know how to grow a food business, we can support immigrant food businesses, and we've been incubated ourselves.'"
About half of their space at La Marqueta is devoted the incubator program, a totally separate enterprise from the bread-training program. The incubator provides health-department-approved, raw kitchen space to 34 member-businesses on a sliding fee scale based on income.