Knead-Based Bread: Hot Bread Kitchen’s Social Justice Mission

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Contrary to Bugs Bunny and popular belief, the magic word is not “open sesame.” It is “m’smen.” Just don’t ask me to pronounce it.

M’smen, a traditional Moroccan flatbread made of layers of wheat flour brushed with clarified butter and sprinkled with semolina, is the newest addition to the line of global baked goods that emerge daily from the ovens at Hot Bread Kitchen’s East Harlem headquarters.

But while Hot Bread Kitchen (or HBK) is a bakery, it is ultimately much more: a dynamic workforce development program for immigrant women, a culinary incubator and the anchor tenant of the historic La Marqueta market in East Harlem. The bakery’s motto, “Preserving Traditions, Rising Expectations,” hints not only at the range of heritage breads in its repertoire—from Armenian lavash to a classic New York rye—but also at its ambitions for its baked goods, its bakers and the community of foreign-born and low-income women and men that it has pledged to serve. The two-part goal, as their mission puts it, is to “make great bread and build better lives for people who are part of the city’s future.” And right now, to hear the Hot Bread bakers talk about it, m’smen is the physical manifestation of that goal. Far from being just an ethereal flatbread, it has become the symbol of a hard-won success.

On its face, Hot Bread Kitchen’s success hardly seems to have been a struggle: In five years time the not-for-profit has already hit every benchmark for artisanal achievement in the city. HBK sells at city Greenmarkets; their lavash crackers, tortillas and granolas are stocked everywhere from Saxelby Cheesemongers to Whole Foods; and their breads grace tables at the likes of Blue Smoke, the cafés at MoMA and Reynard’s at the Wythe Hotel. In July, the bakery opened a freestanding store, the Hot Bread Almacen, in East Harlem’s La Marqueta. But along the way, it has transformed the lives of 29 immigrant women. It is hard to fathom that this multifaceted enterprise began in Jessamyn Waldman Rodriguez’s Brooklyn kitchen five years ago, with two bakers and a tortilla recipe.

Rodriguez, the understated founder and executive director of Hot Bread Kitchen, has little interest in mythologizing HBK’s fast start out of the gate. “It was not an iterative process,” the 30-something former U.N. policy expert says of the bakery’s origins. “I just thought there was a natural fit between helping immigrant women leverage their baking skills and filling the hole that existed in the market for their products.”

A Toronto native, Waldman Rodriguez came to New York to attend graduate school at Columbia’s School for International and Public Affairs. But while studying at SIPA and working at the U.N.’s Secretariat Office on immigration policy, she also interned at Greyston Bakery, a commercial bakery in Yonkers whose motto sums up their philosophy: “We don’t hire people to bake brownies, we bake brownies to hire people.” Greyston has famously built a world-class business on a foundation of social justice: They maintain an open hiring policy (ex-convicts, recovered addicts and unskilled workers are most welcome to apply) and offer training, competitive wages and benefits to everyone they employ. Greyston’s combination of mission and medium worked on Rodriguez’s imagination like leavening on flour: “I thought, I want to start a bakery that does this!”

Still, she resists citing that experience as her epiphany, pointing out that she had come up with the basic idea for her company more than a decade before, when a friend misheard her discussion of a job interview with Women’s World Banking as “Women’s World Baking.” Over the next 10 years, through her time at graduate school, at the U.N. and in educational consulting, that offhand malapropism slowly coalesced into a very real endeavor.

That seed finally sprouted in 2006. Rodriguez was working for a human rights–focused high school in Crown Heights but, determined to take her bakery dream from theory to practice, began pursuing a master baker certificate at the New School in the evenings; on top of those two commitments, she soon persuaded Mark Fiorentino, a New School instructor and the chef boulanger at the renowned Restaurant Daniel, to take her on as an apprentice. When asked why she would trade sleep for this grueling job, Rodriguez replies with a characteristic deflection: How could she learn how to run a bakery without working in one first? She may have grown up baking with her mother (HBK’s complex, subtle granola is based on her “hippie British Columbia” recipe) but braiding challah on the family farm in rural Ontario is not the same as shaping baguettes for a three-star Michelin chef. Under Fiorentino, Rodriguez mastered the fine art of flour and fire.

“Jessamyn is un-intimidatable,” raves Fiorentino, now a member of Hot Bread Kitchen’s board of directors. “She was not at all put off by the hours or the physicality of the work.” He soon hired her as Restaurant Daniel’s first female baker.

But despite the intense Francophile training, HBK was not born of baguettes. Instead, she turned to corn tortillas. The classic handiwork of immigrant women, maddeningly elusive in New York City, seemed like the perfect product for her baking-business ambition: an enterprise whose ultimate objective was empowerment of its immigrant employees.

Rodriguez tapped into the parent network at her Crown Heights school to recruit two Mexican-born, Bushwick-based home bakers to share their heirloom tortilla recipe with her—and to show her how to make it, too. In her Brooklyn kitchen, they taught her to make tortillas from an ancient Aztec process known as “nixtamalization”—when maize is soaked in limewater before it’s ground. It’s a simple step, familiar to generations of Mexican women but altogether unheard of in American tortilla factories, which begin not with corn kernels but with industrial quantities of powdered masa harina. As a result, HBK’s tortillas—made with organic, house-ground corn—have a nuttier flavor and aroma, a more refined texture and more niacin and amino acids than the competition. They quickly became the holy grail for taco-seekers in the city, praised by New York Magazine and Serious Eats for their rich colors (yellow and blue) and superlative flavor—and offered a path out of poverty for those Bushwick bakers.

No one would have faulted HBK for stopping with this single marvel, but for Rodriguez it was just the beginning, and the first of countless times that she would enable New York immigrants to get their cherished recipes onto the Manhattan market. Today, HBK’s roster of breads could easily serve as the family tree of the bakery itself: In addition to the tortillas, and za’atar-studded lavash, there are bialys from Eastern Europe, sweet breakfast breads from Iran and, of course, that fabled m’smen from North Africa. Far-flung delicacies such as these not only preserve the cultural heritage of a baker’s home country, but also honor the new lives and new careers that those bakers are making for themselves in New York City, with HBK’s help.

While HBK’s recipes may be its heirlooms, Rodriguez has been working hard to create a very different kind of inheritance for her apprentice bakers. As a U.N. analyst, she had a window on the needs of immigrants to the United States, particularly women, who are so often deemed to have no “marketable” skills. Now, as an employer of immigrant women, she had more than a window—she had a door.

“Doctors and lawyers are paid to continue their professional education throughout their careers,” Rodriguez noted, something that working-class and immigrant Americans seldom enjoy, but could transform their employability and livelihoods. In a strategy that hearkens back to her internship at Greyston Bakery, Rodriguez offers her staff access not only to training but to the kinds of life skills that could help them advance beyond her bakery into other jobs, or even self-employment. Since the first day of operation, HBK has provided every single trainee with paid instruction in English as a second language. The proof of Rodriguez’s plan for bakery education is in the proofing: In the five years since HBK launched, many Hot Bread employees have gone on to land highly sought jobs at commercial bakeries and city restaurants, and have spread the news throughout their communities. Thanks to referrals, the bakery trainee pool is self-sustaining, Rodriguez says, and her talented workforce is, as she puts it, “as diverse as New York itself.”

As HBK grew, the mission-driven company began selling bread at Greenmarkets. Saxelby Cheese was HBK’s first wholesale client, but far from their last: The list now stands at 40 and counting. Kenny Callaghan, executive chef and partner at Blue Smoke, reveals the secret ingredient in HBK’s popularity among artisans, chefs and restaurateurs. “Working with Hot Bread Kitchen exemplifies what we stand for,” he wrote in an e-mail, “as it gives us the opportunity to source terrific, high-quality bread while also giving back to the local community.”

That combination of quality and community spelled swift success. Within a few years of that first tortilla, HBK outgrew its part-time, rented kitchen at Long Island City’s Artisan Baking Center and set up shop at La Marqueta, the retail market in East Harlem that Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia opened in 1936. Once a vibrant neighborhood hub, with as many as 500 fruit, food and Latin music stands packed into its five-building complex, over the decades La Marqueta dwindled down to a handful of vendors. But HBK’s successful proposal to launch both their headquarters and an incubator kitchen program at La Marqueta won them the 3,000-square-foot space they now occupy, as well as the right to oversee and administer the small empire of prep rooms, ovens and refrigerators that is “HBK Incubates” (see sidebar). And HBK has opened its own spin-off in La Marqueta: its first-ever freestanding retail shop, the Hot Bread Almacen.

The Almacen (“grocery” in Spanish) is an airy storefront tucked just inside the entrance to La Marqueta’s public areas, kitted out with reclaimed wood paneling from Build It Green and furnishings by the Brooklyn designer Asher Israelow. The Almacen has retained the building’s LaGuardia-era cherry-red light fixtures, the better to highlight all their fresh breads, tortillas, lavash and granola, as well as some specialties of the house such as the “Bialy al Barrio,” a classic bodega egg-and-cheese sandwich on one of HBK’s onion and poppy seed–studded bialys. The Almacen will also offer “Blue Plate Specials” (Tuesday is tlacoyas, a fried masa cake) made by the incubator partners, and incubator products such as Hella Bitters and pipSnacks popcorn. Made possible with the support of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone and the City Council, the shop is part of an effort to revitalize East Harlem, and HBK has inspired a proposal for “La Marqueta Mile,” a reinvigorated market corridor that could do for the neighborhood what Chelsea Market and the Highline have done for the Far West Side. In the meantime, HBK has already attracted other star bakers to La Marqueta: Cookbook author Dorie Greenspan and her son, Josh, plan to open a cookie store, Beurre & Sel, before you read this.

The lights were dark at the historic market, says Rodriguez. ‘We can’t wait to see the rejuvenation of La Marqueta.” HBK’s combined enterprises have already created a total of 60 jobs there.

The company recently made headlines with a major recruiting coup when they hired master baker Ben Hershberger from the empire of Thomas Keller, where he was head baker for Per Se and Bouchon Bakery. Hershberger, a rangy Nevadan, has opened bakeries for Ritz-Carlton hotels in Japan, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Colorado, but he is humble about his new post in East Harlem. He gestured toward his colleagues in the mixing room, five women who among them represented five countries and six languages (Urdu, Hindi, Arabic, Haitian Creole, Spanish, English). In their presence, he said, he was more student than master. “I have everything to learn from these bakers,” he told me, describing with sincere reverence the intricacies of the traditional recipes they had brought to HBK. Hershberger, in turn, shares enthusiasm for the instinctive side of breadmaking with his new colleagues: Pointing at the giant sacks of upstate-grown artisan flour stacked on the floor of the mixing room, he spoke at length about how the simple combination of “flour, water, salt and ferment” made for an alchemy that “everyone learns, but only some people truly ‘get.’ ” When asked which of HBK’s breads he was most looking forward to mastering, he didn’t hesitate. “M’smen, definitely,” he said. “It’s amazing.”

He’s in good company with that assessment. Mark Fiorentino recently shared a surprising confession. It turns out the “housemade bread” at Boulud Sud, the latest “ambrosial” (New York Times) constellation in Daniel Boulud’s starry restaurant galaxy, is not quite all housemade. Sure, Fiorentino and his team personally shape the pretzel buns, herb focaccia and country bread with practiced skill. But there is one interloper in the basket at Sud—a delicate, complex little number, made with clarified butter and semolina.

For Rodriguez, the fact that HBK’s now-legendary m’smen is in the Boulud Sud breadbasket is not the ultimate measure of success. Instead, the real triumph lies in another Boulud tribute to the bakery: Mark Fiorentino has now hired the Moroccan-born baker whose work at HBK originally inspired the addition of the flatbread to their lineup of breads in the first place. This kind of job opportunity for HBK alums is exactly what Rodriguez hoped her start-up would create.

Despite this success, HBK is not content to rest on its long-leavened laurels. The bakery’s employees continue to bring their own family recipes to HBK’s repertoire. Lutfunnessa Islam, a mother of two from Bangladesh and a current HBK trainee, is helping
Hershberger develop a whole-wheat chapati (Indian flatbread), based on the traditional chapatis she makes at home for her family. Islam heard about HBK from a neighbor in Elmhurst, who showed her a flyer and encouraged her to apply for a trainee position. Now she oversees all of HBK’s lavash and granola production. It is a daunting assignment, but one, she comments with delight, that affords her the satisfaction of answering the inevitable “who made this?” questions at her Greenmarket shifts with “I made it!”

Marveling at the transformation that Hot Bread Kitchen has undergone since she first arrived as a student, Islam compares it with her own swift education in the universe of breads. “Before I came to Hot Bread I thought the only American bread was Wonder Bread,” she laughs. “Now I love our raisin challah, and our upstate multi-grain loaf,” so called in honor of its Cayuga wheat flour. And then she adds, as if reading my mind: “I also really like the m’smen.” Of course!

I finally met up with m’smen under the FDR Drive. There, at the New Amsterdam Market, I dithered between the plain m’smen (as served at Boulud Sud) and the filled (with a combination of kale, caramelized onions and cheddar cheese), before buying one of each (plus a Nan-E-Quandi, a sweet Persian breakfast bread). The plain m’smen tastes like a real bakery smells: redolent of toasted butter and flour. The filled m’smen is harder to describe: imagine the broiled, cheesy top of the best bowl of French onion soup you’ve ever had, and you are nearly there. Wandering through the Seaport, full of flatbread and searching for adjectives, I recalled Rodriguez telling me that the science of baking transcends cultural and economic differences. HBK trainees, she said, learn to speak “the language of bread,” a “tactile language” that is the lingua franca of the bakery, even a bakery as diverse as hers. It is a concept that is full of bright promise for the future of Hot Bread Kitchen, as well as for its growing fan base: If the language of bread is universal, I realize, looking down at the m’smen in my hands, then I am in possession of a most delicious dictionary.

A Replicable Miracle

Rodriguez’s recipe for social justice scored Hot Bread Kitchen a sweet kitchen of its own—and the chance to help other entrepreneurs. In 2010 the City Council, recognizing small-batch businesses’ spiking demand for commercial kitchen space, chose HBK to be the operator and anchor of a kitchen incubator in La Marqueta, the La Guardia–era public market in East Harlem. Now HBK occupies a gleaming, 3,000-square-foot, steel-and-glass kitchen, which they share with startup partners of their choosing.

Accepted tenants—making everything from biscotti and bitters to popcorn and popsicles—pay below-market rent for use of prep rooms and equipment such as convection ovens and deep fryers. But they also receive invaluable counsel from mentors at HBK, including business and culinary workshops—not to mention daily proximity to an inspiring model of entrepreneurial achievement.

The incubator has already hatched several successes: Donna Bell’s Bakeshop was recently featured on Rachael Ray; La Newyorkina’s paletas draw crowds at New Amsterdam Market; and Taste of Ethiopia provides a “blue plate special” at the Almacen.

Council Speaker Christine Quinn is thrilled with the return on the city’s investment. “It is incredible to see how … the tenants of the incubator program have thrived,” she wrote in an email. “As Hot Bread Kitchen becomes a hub of good jobs and good food, it is also playing a big role in the revitalization of La Marqueta and the surrounding East Harlem neighborhood.”

Photo credit: Rebecca McAlpin

Betsy Bradley

Elizabeth L. Bradley writes about New York City history and culture. She hopes to find Tiffany blue dragees in her Christmas stocking this year.

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