Nancy 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.
HBK 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
Many graduates of the training program, including Mendez and Lutfunnessa Islam, her Bangladeshi coworker in charge of lavash and granola production, have risen to managerial roles at Hot Bread Kitchen. Islam has given demonstrations on how to make her native country’s whole-wheat chapatis, which Hot Bread Kitchen hopes to start offering soon. One of its most popular items is Moroccan m’smen, addictively rich, griddle-cooked flatbreads that are traditionally drizzled with honey and eaten for breakfast, or stuffed with caramelized onion, parsley, and spiced ground lamb for a savory snack or meal.
Bouchra Rachibi was one of three Moroccan women in the training program to introduce the recipe to HBK. Rodriguez recalls the snowy night in 2009 when she had the women come to the HBK kitchen and mix 300 pieces of m’smen for its debut at the New Amsterdam Market the next morning. Then she had them mix another 300. “They were totally incredulous,” Rodriguez recalls, unable to believe there would be such demand. The next day, long lines formed for the novel flatbread and they sold out by 1 p.m.
“You can tell somebody how important their culture is, but to have that validation, and to help them find a market for people who love their food, that is a wonderful experience,” says Rodriguez. To top it all off, Rachibi, a talented baker, went on to land a job baking bread at the Manhattan restaurant Daniel, where Rodriguez herself briefly apprenticed.
Overseeing HBK’s baking staff of 25 women (17 of whom are trainees, and 7 promoted supervisors) is a gentle master baker named Ben Hershberger. Growing up in a poor but resourceful Nevada family, he was milling grains and baking breads from the age of 6. At 13, he landed his first paid baking job. Hershberger’s last job was as head baker at Thomas Keller’s Per Se restaurant and Bouchon Bakery in New York City.
The decision to leave the pinnacle of the professional baking world to teach immigrant women the trade, says Hershberger, was driven by “a gut feeling” that this was the right thing to do. In order to enter the training program, applicants must get through a rigorous interview process, then a 2-hour session with Hershberger in the kitchen. “At Per Se, you have to have talent to get there,” he says. “Here, I can look at someone, recognize they have the passion and desire, and help model it into a professional career—that’s huge to me.”
In 2010, HBK moved its bread-baking facilities from a shared space in Long Island City to a funky East Harlem marketplace called La Marqueta, which dates back to 1936. The larger 4,000-square-foot kitchen space enabled Rodriguez to develop her next project, HBK Incubates, which selects promising and ambitious food entrepreneurs and offers them practical help: below-market-rate commercial kitchen space; kitchen training; accounting workshops; and marketing, product packaging, and public relations support. HBK also opened a small retail outlet called Hot Bread Almacen at La Marqueta.
One success story comes out of HBK Incubates LIFE, an offshoot of the incubator that helps low-income entrepreneurs. Fanny Perez graduated from the HBK baker training program in February 2013 and impressed coworkers with the ceviche, roast pork, and other Ecuadorian specialties that she brought in to share. Rodriguez encouraged her to apply for HBK Incubates and discovered that Perez was already running her own catering company, doing huge Ecuadorian weddings out of her home kitchen. Aided by HBK Incubates LIFE, Perez has launched a scaled-up business called Las Delicias de Fanny.
Rodriguez hopes to expand the Hot Bread Kitchen model to other cities, calling it “a very replicable model” for any city with “a diverse population and underemployed women.”
That’s good news for any woman with a baking tradition to preserve—even those who might not have always valued it. Nancy Mendez prizes the role HBK has given her as keeper of one of her country’s most basic culinary traditions. “It’s very important for the kids and for the family,” she says. “It’s how you remember where you lived, where you came from.”
Photography by Albert Elbilia