United Nations of Bread

Heritage Baking at New York City’s Hot Bread Kitchen

By Nancy Matsumoto


Nancy Mendez holding a corn grinderNancy Mendez was an 11-year-old girl growing up in Puebla, Mexico, when her grandmother taught her how to make corn tortillas. She botched her first try, and her grandmother said, “When you marry, how will you make them for your husband?” Mendez’s response: “I’ll buy them!”

She didn’t, though, and saved her money by mastering the process, waking up at 5:30 a.m. to rinse the soaked corn kernels, grind them into masa, and press and cook them so that her family would have fresh tortillas for breakfast every morning.

Little did Mendez know that 18 years later, she would hold the title of product coordinator for tortillas at Hot Bread Kitchen (HBK) in New York City, working with women from around the world who are preserving their countries’ baking traditions and selling their products to an appreciative audience of New Yorkers.

Her employer, Hot Bread Kitchen, is a not-for-profit bakery that provides low-income, foreign-born women with up to one year of paid training as bread bakers. Sales of the authentic and delicious ethnic breads they produce help offset the cost of their intensive baking program and English as a Second Language classes.

Hot Bread Kitchen founder Jessamyn RodriguezHBK founder and CEO Jessamyn W. Rodriguez says she came up with the idea for the organization during the decade she spent doing immigration advocacy, among other things, for the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations. “I realized that in most parts of the world, women make breads to nourish their families and communities, but men were getting the good jobs,” she explains.

When she launched HBK out of her own kitchen in 2008, Rodriguez’s goal was to change that equation and put professional and managerial baking jobs in women’s hands. So far, HBK has trained 45 women from 17 countries in commercial baking. The kitchen turns out 1,000 units of bread a day, most of which are made with local flours, and many with organic grains. The kitchen’s assortment of 70 breads ranges from the rustic organic heritage corn tortilla line Mendez oversees to pillowy Jewish-Polish bialys to the rich nan-e-qandi Persian sweetbread made with milk and honey. They’re sold at 10 city farmers’ markets and Whole Foods stores and to wholesale customers. (Some products are available regionally, and a “Global Bread Box” is available for overnight shipping from HBK’s website.)

Photography by Albert Elbilia
Video by Janet Lawrence