Ten years ago, while sitting at her desk job at the United Nations in New York City, Jessamyn Waldman Rodriguez had the idea to start an immigrant women’s baking collective. She wanted to create a space where women from all over the world could learn how to bake, find the confidence and skills to get better jobs, and provide for their families. “I love food because I love to eat but I [also] love food because of the jobs it creates and the community it creates, and the bigger power of food,” Waldman Rodriguez says in the video above.
Now, after more than a decade as founder and CEO of Hot Bread Kitchen in East Harlem, New York, she has helped train women from 43 different countries around the world. That training includes a monthlong class where women learn the basics of culinary education, from knife skills, safety and hygiene to skills like how to effectively communicate with bosses and other colleagues. Waldman Rodriguez considers training the heart and soul of HBK, which aims to help women move up the ladder from jobs where they are underpaid and undervalued to new opportunities in the culinary scene.
Her efforts have even caught the attention of dessert icon and MilkBar founder Christina Tosi, who sits on Hot Bread Kitchen’s board of directors. “We can and should be a brain trust of women, of people, of the food community,” Chef Tosi says, also in the video above.
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For Waldman Rodriguez, the proof of progress is in the (bread) pudding. “The most important thing you can do for someone to help them increase their self-esteem and rise out of poverty is to help them earn more,” she explains. “Empowerment for me is really about financial empowerment and getting the resources you need to have the autonomy over your own life.”
For more on how Hot Bread Kitchen started, and where Waldmon Rodriguez plans for it to go, check out the video above and the excerpts below. You can also visit, hotbreadkitchen.org.
Breads of New York: Waldman Rodriguez says she loves New York for its diversity, which is partly why it made sense for her to set up shop in Harlem. “I think the most interesting people in the word just naturally gravitate here and I want to surround myself with cool, interesting people,” she says. “I think food is the highest vestige of culture.”
But New York’s supermarket bread scene simply wasn’t living up to the culture. “Ten years ago, you would go to the grocery store and really you could get white bread, you could get whole wheat bread, you could get pita, [but] there really wasn’t what I felt like a diversity of bread,” she says. “Our bread aisle wasn’t representing the way that we were eating.” Her solution? Train women to bring more diverse breads to market and help them rise out of poverty in the process.
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Baking success: The first step in launching Hot Bread Kitchen for Waldman Rodriguez was learning how to bake bread herself. To do so, she tied on her apron and marched into Daniel, one of the top restaurants in the world, to try to score an apprenticeship. She did, much to Chef Tosi’s surprise and admiration — marching into a two Michelin star-earning restaurant past all the grumbling men who dominate the industry in an effort to achieve her dream was no easy feat. “Baking is a male-dominated profession,” Waldman Rodriguez confirms. “My agenda is to really create a pipeline of talented women to take those jobs, leading kitchens around the country.”
Tosi tidbits: Chef Tosi, known for revolutionizing the world of dessert with her cereal-flavored treats, can’t get enough of Waldman Rodriguez’s work with women from across the globe. “In order to rise you don’t need others to fall,” Chef Tosi says above. “We can and should be a brain trust of women, of people, of the food community.”
The United Nations of Bread: HBK has always been about bread and celebrating the women who make it, Waldman insists, noting that they now make about 100 different bread products, and since women from so many different countries have come through the program, Waldman Rodriguez gave the kitchen a fitting nickname. “We are truly the United Nations of Bread,” she says. “At any given moment on the table in the kitchen, you’ll have someone speaking French next to someone speaking Spanish, to Arabic — there’s this real range of languages. And for me, that mix is one of the most valuable parts of the program.”