How can six women who speak five different languages turn out eight kinds of bread in one cramped industrial kitchen? It’s a problem the bakers at Hot Bread Kitchen in Queens, New York, deal with almost every day as they tackle the pile of orders for their excellent baked goods, from Armenian-style lavash to Palestinian spinach-and-onion pies. On a recent Monday afternoon, Mbiatgo Erica Guengueng, a tall 23-year-old from Chad, mixes the dough for the blue-corn tortillas and rolls it into balls as her Mexican colleague, the cheerful, fast-moving, 22-year-old Maria Salazar, flattens out the balls and cooks them on the oval-shaped comal griddle, flipping each one twice.
Over the past two years, Hot Bread Kitchen has not only introduced new and authentic ethnic breads to New York City, but it has also helped transform the lives of the women who work there. The term life-changing gets thrown around a little too casually these days, but that was the whole reason 33-year-old Jessamyn Waldman created the bakery in the first place. Waldman, a United Nations immigration-policy expert, wanted to find a way to improve the lives of women who move to the United States. She believed that women immigrants in particular face daunting challenges, from earning a decent wage to finding time to learn English. Since Waldman had a passion for baking, she came up with the idea of opening a nonprofit bakery that would provide culinary training, English-language classes and job-placement assistance. The women would, in turn, teach her—and each other—about the breads of their homelands.
“Bread is such an elemental food, and it’s eaten everywhere,” Waldman explains. “It seemed to me that a bakery was the right way to help women entering the country.”
After leaving the UN, Waldman spent eight years developing the skills she needed to get the bakery up and running. First she studied for a master’s degree in public administration at Columbia University, specializing in immigration policy, then helped run a public school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, that served an immigrant West Indian community. Although she was already a skilled home baker, she decided to get a certificate in professional baking, which led to an internship at Daniel Boulud’s Restaurant Daniel in Manhattan. Finally, she landed a grant from clothing designer Eileen Fisher and launched Hot Bread Kitchen out of a rented space in an industrial kitchen. So far, she has put 11 women through the training program. The trainees—recruited via refugee-resettlement agencies like the International Rescue Committee and other nonprofits, such as CAMBA in Brooklyn—represent nine different countries, from Afghanistan to Mali to Ecuador.
One weekday, a half-dozen bakers moved among various stations. Three women were rolling out dough for challah—a Sephardic version studded with caraway, sesame and anise seeds—as others mixed the almond-peanut granola, Waldman’s mom’s recipe. All the while, the women practiced their English as they chatted about their families or debated how much more mixing the granola needed before it was ready to be packed and delivered to farmers’ markets and specialty-food shops.
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Once or twice a week, Waldman’s first-ever recruit, Elidia Ramos, who emigrated from Mexico, heads to the back of the kitchen to work the corn grinder. The gigantic machine turns fresh kernels into masa flour for tortillas and gorditas, hockey-puck-shaped Mexican buns that are cooked on a comal griddle, deep-fried and topped with salsa verde, cotija cheese, cream and pulled chicken or pork. It was Ramos—who also enlisted her niece, Maria Salazar, in the training program—who taught Waldman how to make the bakery’s sought-after Mexican specialties. “I make the same kind of tortilla here as I did in Mexico,” she says, modestly describing her unusually delicious version—which, unlike most corn tortillas served in the United States, really does taste like corn. To prepare her homestyle recipe the traditional way, Ramos took charge of buying a corn grinder. When she couldn’t find one within striking distance of New York, she used a bicycle-powered contraption to mash the corn. Then, one day, she stumbled across a grinder on a trip home to Puebla. “We paid $700 so we could ship it to Queens,” she says. Waldman remembers the day the delivery truck rolled up: “I thought the grinder would be the size of a Cuisinart. But it turned out to be the size of a Volkswagen.”
Waldman relies on Ramos not just to work the scary-looking machine, which others at the bakery are still learning how to use, but also to provide a sense of continuity for the ever-changing group of bakers. “She’s been here from the very first shift, and I’m hoping one day she’ll be our kitchen manager,” Waldman says. Before joining Hot Bread Kitchen, Ramos—who had followed her husband to New York 14 years ago—held a series of minimum-wage jobs at garment factories but had a hard time making enough to help support her family. A teacher at the Brooklyn school where Ramos sends her kids introduced her to Waldman. “As the bakery has grown,” Ramos says, “I have grown along with it.”
New recruits are always teaching Waldman and the other trainees about their own breads from home. Palestinian-born Maha Ziadeh spent a recent afternoon demonstrating how to make fatayer, the small spinach pies she grew up with: She mixed the olive-oil-tinged dough, shaped it into balls, then rolled it out into rounds. The last step: filling the pies with sautéed spinach and onions flavored with sumac and lemon, and pinching shut the dough, which will turn golden brown in the oven.
Ziadeh left the West Bank city of Ramallah in 1985 to join her brother in New York City. For years, she ran her own Middle Eastern bakery and catering service in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. “Everything I had saved, I put into that bakery. But I never had enough money for equipment. I didn’t even have a commercial oven,” Ziadeh says. “I would cater weddings for 100 people, and I would do it all myself, from A to Z.” Ziadeh was forced to close her business in 2008 and met Waldman earlier this year through a mutual friend. She is hoping to improve her management and accounting skills and eventually launch another baking or catering business.
Waldman is constantly expanding the repertoire of Hot Bread Kitchen. Thanks to Tashi Choelha, a Tibetan woman who arrived in America this past spring, she plans to start production soon on amdopali, Tibetan-style loaves made with barley flour and buttermilk and cooked in a skillet. “I haven’t seen this bread anywhere in the city yet,” Waldman says. And if any more of the recipes Hot Bread Kitchen takes on require a machine the size of a VW, it shouldn’t be a problem: The bakery is getting ready to move into a big, shiny new kitchen in a few months.
Salma Abdelnour, a food-and-travel writer, is the former travel editor at F&W. She is writing a culinary travelogue about Lebanon and just launched a restaurant website, salmaland.com.