It’s a strange paradox: As much as women have fought to prove that they don’t just “belong in the kitchen,” the restaurant world remains dominated by men.
That’s why at Hot Bread Kitchen in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, women have a special opportunity to get a jump-start in the food business.
“In most parts of the world, women bake bread, but somehow in the United States, men are getting all the good baking jobs,” says Jessamyn Waldman Rodriguez, founder of Hot Bread Kitchen.
The bakery with a mission employs both women and men, of foreign-born and low-income backgrounds, but Rodriguez has a special place in her heart for aspiring female chefs trying to make it in a man’s world: She was the first woman to work in the bakery of chef Daniel Boulud’s three-Michelin-star New York City restaurant, Daniel.
“We focus on training women for whom management track positions feel out of reach,” she says. “It might be their first professional opportunity outside of the domestic sphere, or incarceration. We're really looking for women who have the skill and passion and interest to be successful in the industry.”
Everyone at the bakery goes through an intensive, nine-month “Bakers in Training” program, but the skills go beyond mixing and kneading: Lessons include English language and basic managerial classes.
The incredibly varied, authentic menu at Hot Bread Kitchen blows away any other bakeries: Because of the workers’ diverse backgrounds, the menu is always growing to include unique offerings like Armenian lavash crackers and m’smen Moroccan flatbread, in addition to first-rate loaves of ciabatta and sourdough, and heritage corn tortillas.
A native of Bangladesh, Lutfunnessa Islam, the sole provider for her family, has been working at Hot Bread Kitchen for six years. Her contribution: chapati, an unleavened flatbread, or roti, which she grew up making in her homeland.
“Before, my English was not good, but now I'm a little bit good,” she says. “I learn bread shaping, baking, also customer service.”
Since 2008, more than 80 women from 20 countries have trained at the Harlem bakery.
“My goal at Hot Bread Kitchen is to put women on a path to professional success,” Rodriguez says. “To get them into jobs when they graduate where they're earning a good wage.”
The bakery boasts 100-percent job placement rate once training is complete, so it’s fair to say, Rodriguez’s brainchild is making a real impact.
Or as baker Shadaya Jackson puts it: “I would have never thought I'd come this far with bread making. For me to get this job, it was like, ‘Wow.’ It means everything.”