Look in the back of many restaurants, and behind the numerous chefs, line cooks, prep cooks and dishwashers, there’s probably only one or two pastry chefs or bakers per kitchen. You’ve got to be better than good to get a job as a pastry chef — and to get that way, you likely either went to an expensive school or worked for little or no money to hone your skills. Sure, restaurants aren’t the only place baking is happening; there are production bakers, cake-makers at grocery stores, cupcake-scoopers, chocolate-makers and more. But across the board, what’s one thing most of them have in common?
“For a lot of the back-of-house positions, you’re required to have a baking or pastry degree, or some sort of schooling in the field. Or you need to work somewhere where you’re willing to make next to no money to learn,” says Heather Hodge, head chef and manager of culinary operations at Molly Moon’s, and the co-founder of a new training program for budding pastry chefs.
Hodge and Emily Kim, director of social impact and community relations for Molly Moon’s, have consistently found it difficult to find employees with the right amount of kitchen experience for their job openings. So they decided to do something about it.
That something is called The Pastry Project, a free multiweek course giving students with barriers an opportunity to learn about baking and pastry arts. Right now, students meet weekly in the production kitchen at The London Plane in Pioneer Square, but the program is looking for a permanent home.
Hodge and Kim define those with “barriers” as anyone with a barrier to opportunity, employment or education.
“That could span from being formerly incarcerated, being homeless or formerly homeless, being low-income, being a single mom, it could be so many things,” Kim says.
Initial funding came from the Alliance for Pioneer Square and the Pioneer Square Business Improvement Area board’s Inspiration Fund, a grant given to “community members to implement projects and programs making a positive impact in the Pioneer Square neighborhood.”
Ultimately, The Pastry Project was awarded $12,000 to fund their pilot program, which kicked off in November 2019.
The money from the grant went toward buying a commercial freezer, equipment and ingredients, as well as uniforms for the students that include a T-shirt, apron and shoes; plus, binders and notebooks. They’ve also received generous donations of ingredients from local businesses such as Theo Chocolate, India Tree and King Arthur Flour.
“The committee was very intrigued and excited about The Pastry Project. These guys are working their tails off to make this something extraordinary,” says Karen True, Alliance for Pioneer Square’s director of business and community development.
Hodge and Kim worked with nearly a dozen local nonprofits to find potential students. After an intensive interview process, they picked three women to form their first class.
Since the end of November, students have been attending class at The London Plane beginning at 11 a.m. each Saturday. Hodge developed the curriculum based partially on her training at the Culinary Institute of America, but also on skills both she and Kim highlighted as “in demand” after reading dozens of listings for baking and pastry jobs in the area.
“We started the program with one of the most simple methods out there — the creaming method — because it’s so applicable to so many recipes that you would be doing in any job in baking and pastry,” Hodge says.
The simple act of weighing ingredients and creaming butter and sugar together was something the students had never done before, and the curriculum has quickly advanced from weighing ingredients and making chocolate chip cookies to making quick breads, scones, laminated biscuits and cakes, plus cake-decorating, choux pastry and more.
Students are taught “things like ‘how do eggs work?’ and understanding how leaveners work,” Hodge says.
And “how to use timers and work around things,” Kim adds.
The students’ homework each week revolves mostly around kitchen math — how to scale if you’ve got 5 pounds of strawberries but the recipe only calls for 4 — and they can also take home equipment and ingredients to practice skills. They work until 5:30 p.m. with a break for lunch, and there’s also the occasional field trip.
Every fourth week of the 12-week program, students put what they’ve learned into practice with a large production day. The results go into a “Goody Box,” a monthly subscription box available for $35 a month to anyone in the community who wants to support the program with sweets.
“We needed an ability to help fund the program, and we also want students to get excited about the fact that community members are playing a role in supporting the program,” Hodge says.
Plus, with the pressure around time and production deadlines, Goody Box pickup days further help students prepare for real kitchen work once they finish the program.
In addition to partnering with nonprofits to find students, Kim and Hodge have also gotten commitments from area businesses as hiring partners — from Molly Moon’s and Hello Robin Cookies to Intrigue Chocolate Co. and PCC Community Markets — to give students an interview and count the 12-week course as work experience after graduation.
“We’ll help them all apply to at least one job and go through the process with them,” Kim says.
Even though Saturdays can get long, both Kim and Hodge say the entire experience has been nothing but rewarding. Students agree.
“It’s been the best. I’ve loved every minute of it, even the scary bits,” says Arianna Laureano, 28, who found out about The Pastry Project through a newsletter job listing from the Ingersoll Gender Center. She had never worked in a restaurant before, but her love for feeding people and baking convinced her to apply.
“I figured out how to do Swiss buttercream finally, know why my doughs weren’t rising now, I know how to make pie crust — which was the only thing I’ve ever bought. No more premade pie crust!” Laureano says.
Similarly, Hana Yohannes, 21, says she’s always been interested in baking; she just didn’t know how to pursue a career without schooling.
“I’m really hoping I can find a placement, it would be so exciting,” Yohannes says.
Their cohort is set to graduate at the end of the month, and Hodges and Kim don’t want to start the next round of students until they’ve moved into a permanent space. In the meantime, Goody Boxes will continue — with plans to invite the graduated students back for production days with pay — and a series of workshops have been planned for the public to help raise funds and keep the program going.
These public-facing workshops will range from beginner-level things like making a simple layer cake to experienced pastry techniques like making croissants or entremets.
“At the end of the day, The Pastry Project is about education. Free education for people with barriers to opportunity, and education for everyone else who is just stoked about learning about baking and pastry,” Hodge says.
A current workshop list can be found on The Pastry Project’s website; those listed now are being hosted by area bakers who have agreed to donate all proceeds to The Pastry Project. Future workshops taught by Hodge will be released later this spring.