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.
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.
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.
Members have access to equipment–stoves, ovens, Hobart mixers, walk-in refrigerators, even a climate-controlled pastry room–that would cost tens of thousands of dollars to purchase on their own; Hot Bread Kitchen serves as an affordable launchpad where startups can build a market before outfitting their own space. “[Other culinary incubators] are not capturing the woman on the street selling tamales,” Crossin says. “There are a ton of illegal food businesses … Why aren’t they legalizing and formalizing [their work] and contributing to the economy? Because it’s too expensive, and it’s linguistically inaccessible.”
Incubator businesses have access to finance advisors, workshops, and help preparing for health inspections, a huge hurdle for any NYC food business. There is also benefit to having other cooks in the kitchen, Crossin says. “Being a food entrepreneur can be really lonely; usually, you’re cooking at home or by yourself, and here you can work side-by-side with someone else who is maybe doing a similar thing. Kickshaw [Cookery] catered a wedding where they ordered our bread and got desserts from other incubator members, which they might not have been connected to otherwise.”
Last Thursday, a French chef was in the pastry room labeling boxes of macarons behind climate-controlled doors, while a woman rolled meatballs a few tables away. Aroma from baking bread wafted through the space; a look into a room-sized oven on the way out revealed Grindstone Rye browning on a rotating rack, destined for sale at Whole Foods, Dean & Deluca, Gourmet Garage, or perhaps for a market or restaurant.
These sales enable the nonprofit business to operate on its own revenue stream, rather than relying on donations. “It’s really unique for a nonprofit to be as sustainable as we are,” Crossin says. “To have such a strong earned revenue stream and a goal of ultimate sustainability. Because we’re doing workforce development and business incubation, that knowledge is imbued in the training of the people we work with. These are not charity cases; they’re people who are effectively funding their own training and business growth.”
And like any good New York Story, Hot Bread Kitchen is about bringing cultures together: “You get to interact with people from all over the world, from all walks of life, education levels, income levels, and commune around food together,” Crossin says: “Everyone speaks the language of bread.”